In the aftermath of planetary annihilation, what do you think humanity would do against aggressive extra-terrestrial beings with powers and technology far beyond that of our own? Sit around thinking about how we’re going to survive without iTunes? Start planning our meals around which member of our group is prepared to be eaten? Finally get to see Paris? If you believe epochal sci-fi writer H.G. Wells, we’ll all run around like headless chickens. If you subscribe to the current Hollywood aggression mentality, we’ll get in the leftover F111 fighters, take to the skies, and blow those suckers back to Mars. In this Smackdown, we’re going to let modern juggernaut Independence Day have a decent crack at the stalwart of the 1950s, The War of The Worlds.
Modern blockbusters involving malevolent alien attack don’t come more popcorn-oriented than Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day. Built on the hype of the U.S. holiday and advertised as “the day we fight back”, ID4 remains perhaps the most famous of modern popular events films, if not the most fondly remembered. A fabulous ensemble cast, led by Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith, and Bill Pullman, take on the might of an enormous invading army of alien beings with technology far superior to our own. Explosive, ridiculous, entertaining in the highest degree, ID4 is the perfect example of a successful summer blockbuster.
The Defending Champion
Based on the original H.G. Wells novel, reset to California in the ’50s, George Pal’s production of War Of The Worlds was, for it’s time, the height of sci-fi thrills. Big budget effects, apocalyptic end-of-the-world storyline, the original War of The Worlds was one of Hollywood’s original blockbuster event films.
Comparing these two films is like pitting a Model T Ford up against a McLaren 911. War Of The Worlds, unfortunately, isn’t able to match it with Roland Emmerich’s ballsy, gung-ho explosion-fest, not for sheer thrills and spills. Yes, you might say, but the original The War of the Worlds was made some half century ago. It has no hope of winning in a pitched battle against solid CGI and digital technology. True, but then again, it’s not always the effects that make a film. George Lucas learned this the hard way in his lamented Prequel Trilogy. As in most films, the story is key. Remove the special effects from both films, and you are left with a bare-bones affair on both counts. Independence Day, the film I am more familiar with because, generationally, I have an affinity with these characters moreso than poor Clayton Forrester in The War of the Worlds, is by far the weaker of the narratives. While Independence Day is a manufactured director’s dream, The War Of The Worlds is based on a very, very good book, written back in 1894. The crux of The War Of The Worlds is that it’s essentially a character driven piece surrounded by effects, while the more bombastic Independence Day is an effects piece with a few character moments thrown in. The fact that Independence Day steals the plot twist from The War Of The Worlds anyway doesn’t help its cause. Originality and subtlety obviously aren’t Roland Emmerich’s strong suit.
Ideally, the story of The War of The Worlds is better suited to analogy and fable, a “we aren’t as great as we think we are” cautionary tale that strikes at the heart of our society. We think we’re infallible, indestructible, a species entirely in charge of it’s own destiny. But how quickly that can change. We learn a lesson in The War Of The Worlds. We don’t in Independence Day. In Independence Day, all we learn is that a Macintosh and a slack-jawed Will Smith are all we need to save civilization from absolute extinction. There are no overriding moral lessons for us in Independence Day, the film doesn’t allow it. It wants us to enjoy seeing stuff explode and humanity fight back; that great feeling of euphoria when Will Smith lays the smackdown on an emerging alien creature after shooting down its ship never wanes, no matter how many times I see it. That’s what Independence Day gives you: thrills, without the emotional depth. The War Of The Worlds, a little like the original The Day The Earth Stood Still, which was released only two years earlier to much acclaim, attempted to warn us of our own vulnerability. Our stature in the cosmos isn’t as large as we like to think it is. Both those classic films ask the questions: are we alone, and if we aren’t, can we stop more advanced species from destroying us? Independence Day asks us how many nukes we’ll need to make it look cool.
Both films were, for their times, the height of technological innovation. Back in the ’50s, special effects technology was nowhere near what it is today, a craft in its infancy that awed and amazed cinema-goers regardless. By today’s computer enhanced standards, 1953’s War Of the Worlds looks positively ancient, and I guess that’s where it might fail for younger viewers. The somewhat clunky effects, the stiff, stagey acting, all relegate this film to a back-room classic with limited appeal. Independence Day, even though its storyline leaves a lot to be desired in terms of emotional weight and dramatic impact, is simply more fun. Both are vastly different films, for vastly different times.This all needs to be taken into account before a result can be known.
When Bryce asked me to put these two films together in the SmackRing, I’ll admit to a little apprehension. For all intents and purposes, I’d have thought on any other day that Independence Day would obliterate The War of The Worlds for spectacle, entertainment and chutzpah. After re-watching The War Of The Worlds again, and then giving Independence Day another shot on the DVD player, I came to the conclusion that, while outwardly it may seem like an unfair fight, if you boil it down to a story you can sink your teeth into, The War Of The Worlds comes out on top. Special effects aside, the story of The War of The Worlds is inordinately more human, more emotional, and ultimately more captivating. That, and the image of a drunken Randy Quaid martyring himself for the sake of us all is just too bitter a pill to swallow. In this Smack, I award the win to The War Of The Worlds.