'Independence Day' Revives Cold-War Heroism

Underneath boisterous action is unsettling political subtext

'Independence Day" is named after the Fourth of July, and political pundits are suggesting its popularity may be a barometer of the current American mood. Are audiences telling us something when they cheer the coming attractions just as an alien spaceship zaps the White House to smithereens?

Could be. "Independence Day" has a political subtext as large as a major asteroid, and its views are heavily nostalgic for cold-war certainties and macho heroics. The reason the White House gets blown up, along with the Statue of Liberty and other symbols of the American way, is that the president dithers too long before taking decisive action. To regain his credibility, he has to dig out his old fighter-pilot gear and join in the climactic battle - finally won with a fleet of nuclear missiles, another standby of cold-war adventure stories.

Many moviegoers will cheerfully ignore such overtones, of course, preferring to sit back and let the picture's pyrotechnics wash over them. Since it was directed by Roland Emmerich, whose "Stargate" was a monster hit two years ago, science-fiction fans can expect enough boisterous action and awesome effects to carry them through the crazy-quilt plot. The story follows various heroes - a clever scientist, a loyal soldier, a goofy crop-dusting pilot - doing their bit to whup the outer-space invaders whose spaceships have formed a sinister circle around Earth.

If you do see "Independence Day" as a mirror of contemporary attitudes, though, its message is unsettling. Back in the '50s and '60s, when nuclear fears and cold-war hostilities ran rampant, science-fiction movies teemed with monsters, mutants, and other horrors spawned by atomic technologies. Optimistic fantasies like "2001: A Space Odyssey" were the exception.

But things changed in the late '70s and early '80s, when "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" charmed audiences with a new view of aliens as warm, helpful, and eager to lead us toward a more fulfilling future.

Seen in this context, "Independence Day" is a great leap backward to '50s-type paranoia. Supporters will argue that it's just for fun, but fun can be revealing. Is it mere coincidence that Hollywood's current idea of a good time is cooking up a vicious and conspicuous enemy - literally an "evil empire," to use an '80s catch phrase - and then whipping up our emotions with enough military hardware, us-against-them rhetoric, and explosive nuclear destruction to win a dozen wars? Surely this is food for thought.

Seen simply as entertainment, "Independence Day" is surprisingly unoriginal, although this may be a bonus for science-fiction buffs who enjoy spotting material plundered from other films. The opening invokes "2001," the monsters are "Aliens" clones, the outer-space fights are "Star Wars" derivatives, and a key part of the climax steals from "Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." And the idea that saves Earth from destruction is just a high-tech variation on "The War of the Worlds," dreamed up by H.G. Wells clear back at the turn of the century.

The acting isn't exactly fresh, either, but at least it has a charge of good-natured energy. Bill Pullman is a president you can root for, even when he's half asleep at the helm. Jeff Goldblum brings his usual thoughtfulness to the bright-eyed scientist. Will Smith is loose and likable as the feisty soldier.

The women on board have less to do - this is a guy picture all the way - but Mary McDonnell, Vivica Fox, and Margaret Colin make the best of their wives-and-girlfriends roles. Randy Quaid, Judd Hirsch, gravel-voiced Harvey Fierstein, and wild-haired Brent Spiner round out the supporting cast. They can't make "Independence Day" more constructive than its screenplay allows, but they're fun to watch while you munch your popcorn and wonder if the '50s are creeping up on us again.

*'Independence Day' has a PG-13 rating. It contains a lot of violence, some of it quite harrowing.

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