(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2017) Hoo boy, Independence Day. I first saw it on opening day back on July 4, 1996, and the whole thing remains vivid in my mind, from the time (at my uncle’s farm, lying down in the muddy straw, doing mechanical repairs on a baling machine) that I decided that I was going to see the film that evening to my naively infuriated reaction to the film’s scientific absurdities and self-satisfied stupidity. (I used to have a nicely hysterical 1996-vintage review of the Independence Day novelization on this site, but I did the world a favour since then by taking it down when I purged some of my more juvenile content.) For years, Independence Day (or, eek, ID4) was my go-to reference for “dumb Hollywood SF movies” in my smarter-than-thou rants. I may not have matured much since then, but I’d like to think that I’m slightly less deliberately abrasive—I was bizarrely looking forward to re-watching the movie, and not just as an exercise in checklist-marking before watching the sequel. Upon re-watch, you can’t exactly mark me down as a fan of the film, but I think I’m better able to see its strength and place in history. Perhaps the best thing it did was update a classic SF trope for a new generation of special effects. The alien-invasion story has been done many times before or since, but Independence Day takes a refreshingly blunt approach to it, with a large cast of characters reacting in their own way, still-spectacular destruction sequences and plucky humans mounting a satisfying revenge upon the invaders. Independence Day still doesn’t make a shred of sense (I spent much of the first half-hour muttering, “no, that’s not how it would happen. That’s not how any of this would happen.”) but I will reluctantly admit that it’s clever. Clever in how it moves its pieces, clever in how it acknowledges that the audience is in on the joke (there are at least three moments in which the film cuts to something, except to reveal that it’s not what we’d expect) and clever in how it maximizes every single opportunity it has for spectacle or overwrought drama. I still think the presidential speech sucks. I still think that the dog should have died. The special effects are dodgy, but there are a lot of them. I still think that as a Science Fiction film, it’s a blunt instrument at a time where we could use more scalpels à la Arrival. But Bill Paxton, Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith deliver persona-defining performances, the film moves at a decent pace once the throat-clearing ends, and writer/directors Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin understood what audiences wanted from a summer blockbuster. In some significant ways, it seems obvious that Independence Day revitalized movie SF for a few vital years, playing with new special effects technology and proving the box-office potential of the genre for a few good years. I’ll even go as far as identify the quasi-nostalgic hunger for an Independence Day-style movie experience as a driver for the 2010–2014 resurgence of alien-invasion movies, the best of whom were good SF movies in their own right. Over a sufficiently long time, I think that most critical opinions reverts to the mean (either a tempering of praise, or a softening of condemnation), and Independence Day illustrates this better than most other movies I can think of at the moment. While I may have been willing to burn the movie poster in a one-star rant back in 1996, by 2017 I’m okay with a measured middle-of-the-road three-star critical essay.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) A big-budget dramatic romance set in Africa, featuring two megastars and a credible historical recreation without the tiniest bit of genre elements? No, they don’t make them like this anymore. Out of Africa is more than thirty years old and it often feels even older, what with its languid pacing, lush location shooting, and its young-looking Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Director Sydney Pollack clearly understand the film he’s trying to make, and the African locations are impressive in their own right. Streep is terrific in an Oscar-winning performance, Redford tempers his natural charm with a not-entirely admirable character and the complex story is a cut above the formulaic notion of “romance” that has dominated the genre over the past decades. (It helps that it adapted from a book.) While I’m not sure it’s possible to be enthusiastic about Out of Africa nowadays, it’s not that hard to understand why it swept the Academy Awards that year: This is big-budget respectable filmmaking in the classical mould. A modern version would be about 20 minutes shorter, but then again a modern version would be rewritten (for better or worse) by Nicholas Spark, make extensive use of CGI, probably feature a biplane/car chase and co-star Vanessa Hudgens and Channing Tatum (again, for better or worse). Perhaps it’s best if they don’t make them like this anymore.