If you had to choose death from above, would you pick the green lasers, or the blue beams of destruction? It’s “Alien versus Alien” today, technology against technology, human victory against germ warfare, as the horrific events of Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise’s “War of The Worlds” come up against the Roland Emmerich and Will Smith juggernaut of “Independence Day.” Both alien attackers are silent and oblivious to the pitiful cries of humanity as they systematically annihilate us. If only they’d lived in the same cosmic neighborhood, maybe we’d have been spared their plans for global extermination. But they both got off a clean shot at us and now it’s pay-back time: into the SmackRing they go!
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The Challenger from Mars
Starring a wounded Tom Cruise (who had, at the time this film was released, only recently jumped upon Oprah’s couch and made an utter knob of himself…) as the “everyman” Ray, who thinks only of himself, “War Of The Worlds” was a remake of the 50’s sci-fi classic, complete with lumbering tripod machines causing untold devastation on our planet. Alien’s come to Earth and proceed to rise up from beneath the ground, obliterating everything and everyone with their deadly blue rays of destruction. Ray and his kids must make a harrowing journey from his home in New Jersey to Ray’s ex-wife’s home to escape the marauding invaders, however, this proves exceptionally difficult as humanity breaks down around them when the aliens pursue humans into the far flung corners of the planet. Spielberg took the premise of the original cult classic, amped it up to 11 and unleashed it upon a fear-ridden, anxiety-prone human world, tapping into the palpable tension around the globe in this current political and social climate. Proving to be a commercial juggernaut, “War Of The Worlds” rewrote the book on just how terrifying an full on attack from the stars could be.
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The Defending Champion from Roswell
Midway through the 90’s, director/producer duo Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin unleashed upon the planet Earth their vision of global Armageddon, in the form of “Independence Day,” a massive, big-budget spectacle of special effects, alien visitation and chest-beating heroism that hadn’t been seen since the Irwin Allen disaster films of the 60’s and 70’s. “Independence Day” polarized audiences hoping to see the some of Earth’s most famous landmarks obliterated by enormously powerful blue/green beams of energy, including the White House, and the Empire State Building. Aliens descend in their continent-sized spacecraft in a blaze of smoke and flame, their intent unknown to us until they open their gigantic laser cannons and proceed with the devastation. Take Bill Pullman as the US President, Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith, a terrific Robert Loggia, Vivicia A Fox, and Randy Quaid, put them all into various positions of being alternately helpless and helpful, and you have one of the biggest blockbuster effects films of the 90’s. Packed to the rafters with blustering effects, a few good scares, and some edge-of-your-seat thrills, “Independence Day” delivered big budget action on a world-wide scale.
Sure, when aliens come to earth to destroy everything, no doubt they’ll be shooting green lasers. In one of cinema’s more contemptible generic cliches, thanks to George Lucas’s “Star Wars” films, apparently the aliens like to color coordinate their attack as well as their forces. Will Smith’s frantic, comedic comment during a dogfight between one Alien ship and his own F16 fighter jet, where he decries that “Oh you did not shoot that green sh*t at me” is particularly pleasing, as it indicates that the filmmakers of “Independence Day” were giving a subtle wink to the audience. They realized that alien attack was such an outrageous proposition, on the scale they were attempting, that the entire concept was completely ridiculous. The design of the “Independence Day” aliens, from their ships to the creatures themselves, are a veritable combination of almost every conceivable permutation of the Roswell Aliens the public has ever witnessed. Their long, slender bodies, their implacably black, unreadable eyes. Their intentions, unlike that expounded by the Roswell experience in which apparently the creatures are benevolent and kind, are to simply exterminate all life on our planet. They will not negotiate, they won’t compromise, they simply want us gone. And, apparently, they have shields and technology that our modern weapons simply won’t penetrate, making their defeat unlikely. Of course, there’s always the catch. In a riff on “War of the Worlds” itself, “Independence Day” managed to come up with the idea of giving the aliens a “cold”, or in modern parlance, a “computer virus” that would disable their technology and allow us to eradicate them. “War of the Worlds” had, according to HG Wells original story, come up with the idea that alien creatures, once exposed to our atmosphere, would become infected with the microscopic germs and bugs we all have immunity to, and consequently perish. Story-wise, both films are actually fairly similar: Aliens arrive, destroy a whole bunch of stuff, some people get together to try and find a way of defeating them, and the aliens ultimately underestimate the power of either human endurance or natural selection.
Both alien cultures exist with a technology far beyond our own. “Independence Day”’s aliens arrive from outside our solar system with an enormous spacecraft, thousands of miles wide and with capabilities to destroy everything. “War of the Worlds” aliens’ arrive in bolts of lightning. Yeah, sounds silly, and, really, it is. However, the arrival and the outcome are two different things in “War of the Worlds.” In “Independence Day”, however, the aliens don’t make the mistake of burying their crafts under the soil: they fly in from above and smack the crud out of us almost immediately.
“Independence Day” sees the best of humanity displayed, as everybody from the US president (Bill Pullman) to a low ranking TV station techie (Jeff Goldblum) become embroiled in finding a way to defeat what appear to be undefeatable aliens: the creatures survive even the most powerful nuclear weapons humanity has developed.
We never see what mankind’s ultimate weapons can do against the “War of the Worlds” aliens, although given that the most we see is an entire platoon of soldiers, plus a few aircraft, pitting themselves hopelessly against the advancing alien technology, however, I think it’s safe to assume that we aren’t successful. In both films, the aliens take control with lightning speed and surprising ease, sending us into a rabble of homeless, fragile and wounded escapees. While “War of the Worlds” paints humanity in a more realistic and subdued way, the fact of the matter is I think, in these circumstances, we’re more likely to degenerate into animals as portrayed in “War of the Worlds” than the down-but-not-out superheroes of “Independence Day”. In “Independence Day” we get Will Smith, his tinker toy fighter jet no match for an alien craft, outmaneuvering it by only the barest of margins, whilst his wingman (a cheerfully winning Harry Connick Jr.!) is carved up almost immediately. In “War of the Worlds”, we get Ray and his family barely surviving a jetliner crashing into the house they’re hiding in. And we get Ray throwing a grenade at the technologically superior alien in order to make the creature pick him up and reunite him with his recently abducted daughter. “War of the Worlds” paints us in a bad light, honestly. I use the Royal “we” to indicate humanity as a whole here, for clarification. We are not above killing each other to survive, and this point is made abundantly clear in Spielberg’s film.
You see, while the chest beating and speechifying of “Independence Day” is inherently more entertaining than, say, poking yourself in the eye with a sharp stick, often, this kind of thing isn’t entirely representative of humanity as a whole. It’s an idealized ethic, a way of saying: no matter what happens, the United States will save the day each time. After all, it worked so well in almost every other disaster film ever made. Bill Pullman’s portrayal of the US President is so far cliched and heroic that’s it’s simply hilarious: his magnificent speech to rally the troops on the eve of July 4th (The Day We Fight Back, the trailer screamed…) is perhaps the key to where the film lies in it’s escapist, impossibly noble idealism. In the face of utter annihilation, “Independence Day” says, humanity would come together to defeat the aliens. While this is a great thought, it’s perhaps not realistic. I tend to have a more cynical view of human nature, and I seriously doubt a redneck like Russel Casse (an inane Randy Quaid), drunk and belligerent towards his family, would be let anywhere near a major piece of air-force hardware without a thorough blood-alcohol test, no matter the fact that the shattered US forces needed all the help they could get.
The camaraderie of humanity in it’s darkest hour is hollow at best, especially when the chips look to be really down, the army and everybody else hug and cheer, cry and holler at the moon and tug at the viewer’s heartstrings. It’s unashamedly corny, a baffling mix of hedonistic destruction and voyeuristic elation, with obviously impossible logical flaws skipped over with dazzling effects and widescreen-canvas storytelling.
“Independence Day” represents an idealized humanity, a sense of heroism and patriotism (even with the slightly arrogant US-bias Emmerich unleashed upon the world) that cannot help but be infectious. It has it’s place, and in terms of escapist entertainment, “Independence Day” ticks almost every possible box to succeed.
“War of the Worlds”, however, is the polar opposite in terms of cultural entertainment. It’s a realist adventure, a dipping of the cultural toe into the pool to determine humanity’s temperature: are we hot for blood, or are we cold and cringing? As a species, humanity always seems to find a way of surviving the oppressive and intolerable, the disasters and cataclysms that have shaken our planet over the millennia giving us an almost genetic predisposition to survive at any cost. Therefore, with the onslaught of alien attack in “War of the Worlds”, the population of Earth becomes primeval to a degree, almost reverting to caveman-like desperation to survive, find a hole and simply exist until the danger is past. this survival instinct, and what it makes us do, is, to me, one of the pivotal themes of Spielberg’s film. When Ray finds his family under attack, he does what any sane, reasonable person might do. He gets in a car and floors it as far and as fast as possible away from the epicenter.
However, when it’s realized that humanity is on the run, Ray and his family have to fight not only the aliens, but fellow man to simply stay alive. Told with a minimal of bravado, Spielberg is content to simply let the characters dictate the narrative, scripting kept to a more realistic and natural tone and style. There are plenty of jaw-dropping effects, however, unlike “Independence Day”’s near-pornographic look-at-me money shots, “War of the Worlds” uses these moments to keep the story going, to keep the audience learning more and more about what’s happening, rather than just being on screen for the sake of it. Spielberg has a sharper grasp of how to play an audience than Emmerich, who is content to simply ladle on the cheese and give the audience a join-the-dots thrill ride. Spielberg is more cerebral, opening up a viewers imagination with intelligence, empathy and a sense of horror at what’s transpiring. You see, Spielberg isn’t as reliant on the spectacular to get us involved; he can deliver it, if required, but his methods are more subtle than most.
“War of the Worlds” manages to tell the story from the perspective of a father, Ray (Cruise), a man bereft of responsibility and paternal love for his kids, who must fight against his own nature of fleeing to ensure the safety of his own blood while under attack. It’s a fascinating story, more than the Alien attacks and the “Saving Private Ryan”-style film-making on display. It’s the emotional core of the story that grips us, moves us, and makes us care more about Ray and his outcome than we ever would about Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum while they smoked cigars inside the Alien Mothership in “Independence Day”. Ray’s daughter, portrayed by child-star Dakota Fanning, (who is magnificent, if perhaps a little overwrought, yet showing a range of emotion and believability far beyond her tender age) becomes his sole purpose for surviving, his fatherly instinct gradually taking hold as he struggles to stay one step ahead of his recalcitrant son and panic-stricken daughter’s emotional state.
“Independence Day”, while it presents the death of a major character (Bill Pullman’s First Lady, played by Mary McDonnell) in a way that’s sure to have your heart breaking (especially when that moment is followed up by the President’s young daughter being supportive of her father in his most anguished state), cannot wallow in despair or defeat for too long before giving us more scenery-chewing Jeff Goldblum or Will Smith in action. “Independence Day” lacks the subtlety of “War of the Worlds”, lacks it’s sense of realism and thusly, negates any sense of truth in the characters it’s inherently engaged in story-wise. Almost every character in “Independence Day” is cardboard, a generalization of a generic creation, a movie-lite version of better, more well developed character in other films in the sci-fi genre. Robert Loggia, gruff and angry eyes in place, takes the Dedicated Army General Who Makes The Tough Decisions character to new heights here, his gravelly voice perfect to bark orders at soldier and civilian alike. But he’s wafer thin as a character, and we know just as much about him at the beginning of “Independence Day” as we do at the end. The same can be said of almost every character in the film! Which, by the way, is a general indication that the film isn’t strong on character development. “Independence Day”, for all it’s high-powered effects, relies too heavily on the ensemble of talent; rather than tell a single well defined story, it opt’s to tell a weakly developed story between a large variety of characters. This dilutes any power “Independence Day” generates, narratively speaking, and instead causes it to rely solely on those amazing special effects. And while those effects are pretty darn amazing, in terms of repeated viewing, the film will loose steam after a while.
For my money, as far as a stimulating, intellectual dissertation on the end of the world apocalypse, and how we’d deal with it as a species, I think “War Of The Worlds” is a far superior film. While the defending champion might claim more star-power and bigger, wider special effects, “War Of The Worlds” tells a great story really, really well, and in this instance, there’s no Randy Quaid in sight, for which we can all be thankful. “War Of The Worlds” wins this Smackdown convincingly. Now, go home you pesky, annoying aliens, before we blow you back to whatever planet you came from.