REVIEW: Independence Day (1996)

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Directed by Roland Emmerich
Written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich
Starring Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, Randy Quaid, Margaret Colin, Vivica A. Fox

A bonefide 90s blockbuster, a certified pop culture phenomenon, and a patriotic mainstay of 4th of July movie marathons nationwide. Can you get anymore entertaining than Independence Day?

On July 2nd, communications systems worldwide are sent into chaos by a strange atmospheric interference, revealed to be gigantic spacecraft, piloted by a mysterious alien species. After attempts to communicate with the aliens go nowhere, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), an ex-scientist turned cable technician, discovers that the aliens are going to attack major points around the globe in less than a day. On July 3rd, the aliens all but obliterate New York, Los Angeles and Washington, as well as Paris, London, Houston and Moscow. The survivors set out in convoys towards Area 51, a strange government testing ground where the military has a captured alien spacecraft of their own. The survivors, led by the President of the United States (Bill Pullman), devise a plan to fight back against the enslaving aliens, and July 4th becomes the day humanity will fight for its freedom from extermination.

With ID4, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin established themselves as the big budget dream team of the 1990s. Taking in over $300 million in the box office and becoming as equally big a hit on video, ID4 is still fondly remembered by most moviegoers today. Sure, some critics still turn their noses to it, but by now, one has to admire the staying power this one has.

And this is directly attributed to Emmerich and Devlin, whose script balances any of the cheesier aspects of the alien invasion genre with disaster film tropes and surprisingly sharp drama. Devlin is on record as stating that, “you can have the greatest special effects shot in existence, but if you don’t care for the characters, it won’t matter at all.” Luckily he was able to live by his words in this instance, because his characters are all as top-rate as possible in a film like this.

In his first post-Fresh Prince role, Will Smith swoops in as one of the three main protagonists, holding his own against Golblum and Pullman. Though Goldblum’s character David is my favorite of the bunch, Smith’s macho air captain Steven Hiller is riot to watch and laugh at. And that sense of fun only gets better once they both pair up for their final mission, cramped together in an alien ship, matching wit for gut-busting wit.

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Pullman’s character, President Whitmore, is a different beast: written to be a largely ineffective leader who is bullied around by his more ambitious Secretary of Defense (James Rebhorn), Pullman conveys enough of a heart to be genuinely likable and sympathetic, even if as an Executive he makes the worst decisions ever.

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Rounding out the ensemble cast are a collection of some of the finest character actors and topical stars of the time, including solid performances from Loggia and Colin. Randy Quaid, however, is the main scene stealer, followed by a pleasant surprise in Brent Spiner, who relishes getting out of his Data persona to play a hilariously-eccentric Area 51 scientist.

But the main draw, really, behind ID4 was the impressive array of visual and special effects on display. ID4 was made at an interesting time in the industry, in which Jurassic Park had just displayed what was possible with photo-realistic CGI. ID4 happily took advantage of the technology, present in the swarms of alien attackers and F/A-18s buzzing in and out of the frame. Emmerich, however, thankfully preserves a heavy in-camera miniature element, and this decision pays dividends. Many of the buildings and cities erupting in spectacular explosions are scale models and pyrotechnics, and they still are as breathtaking as they were back in the day. The White House’s destruction even became an indelible cultural image, thanks to the saturation of the moment in the film’s marketing. The visual effects earned an Academy Award in 1997.

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ID4 is available in the home video market with two versions, the 145-minute theatrical version and the 155-minute Special Edition. The theatrical cut is already a well-put-together, narratively solid piece, so any added material in the Special Edition, even when fleshing out Quaid’s role, feels somewhat redundant. It doesn’t help that the sound mix in these scenes seems to be incomplete, and the excellent pacing of the first act is the most shattered by additions. I recommend the theatrical cut heartily.

All in all, ID4 is still a blast to watch. The humor is on-point without overbearing the natural drama, the special effects are still convincing, and the musical score by David Arnold has aged very well. I honestly can’t find any fatal faults with the picture. If you’re looking for a good War of the Worlds-style throwback that isn’t a stretch for non-viewers of sci-fi in general, Independence Day is your ticket.

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REVIEW: RoboCop 3

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Directed by Fred Dekker
Written by Frank Miller and Fred Dekker, Based on Characers Created by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner
Starring Robert John Burke, Nancy Allen, John Castle, Rip Torn, Robert Do’Qui, CCH Pounder, Stanley Anderson, Daniel von Bargen, Remy Ryan, Stephen Root, Jill Hennessy, Mako

Rushed into production by a cashed-starved Orion Pictures, RoboCop 3 is mostly remembered as the weakest of the trilogy, the one with no teeth or balls. Is that a fair analogy to make? Like RoboCop 2, I don’t know if I’m exactly qualified to say since both films were favorites of my childhood, and thus carry a nostalgic air about them in my head. In short, a part of me still enjoys them.

Though OCP’s CEO known as “The Old Man” is gone, his “Delta City” project has finally begun, pursued by the new Omni Consumper Products controlled by Japanese megacorp Kanemitsu. Using its own paramilitary force known as the Rehabs, OCP attempts to clear the Cadillac Heights district to make way for construction, but a band of rebels stands in their way. Robocop (Robert John Burke) and his partner, Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), are now faced with a difficult decision: uphold the law and evict thise people from the only homes they’ve ever known, or resist and become outlaws.

As said, RoboCop 3 entered into production not long after the release of RoboCop 2, with Frank Miller returning to write the screenplay, still believing he could make an impression in Hollywood. Unfortunately, his draft would be raided and rewritten just like before, this time by director Fred Dekker. This isn’t to say that the film was completely butchered by Dekker, as Miller’s draft was mostly discarded ideas from the previous film; it wasn’t exactly helped by Dekker either.

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Probably the biggest problem, first and foremost, is the fact that the film is rated PG-13. The heavy violence and gore that RoboCop is most known for has been toned down to make the film suitable for a wider audience, and that is a big problem, especially considering how much it still is not suited for children. I’m not a censorship parent nor am I particularly religious, but in all seriousness, would you let your young child see a film featuring rebels attacking the police and several bloody shootouts? If your answer is no, you must have been among the parents who stayed away from the film in the summer of ’93.

It isn’t just the lack of violence, it’s the juvenile nature with which the film’s conflict is handled. McDaggett is a Saturday Morning Cartoon villain who can’t stop his lips from uttering the word “chum.” Rip Torn’s CEO character is, well, Rip Torn: yelling and wildly gesticulating his dialogue. The Otomo android twirls his sword around uselessly, as if he knows this is supposed to be a family flick and he can’t just gut RoboCop already. The Rehabs and the Splatter-Punks also suck any nuance straight out of the story, going for the G.I. Joe effect. And while I’m not exactly hating on the film for these reasons, as I’ll get to, they do distance it greatly from the RoboCop legacy, and takes away so much of the focus from RoboCop himself that he seems like a non-entity to his own film.

Two big pros save the film from being unwatchable, however, and that is the characters and the musical score. After his absence in RoboCop 2, Basil Poledouris returns to score this film, bringing the original themes back to a well-deserved welcome. It’s remarkable to discover just how much good music can make a film watchable. It doesn’t hurt to have such a quintessentially-Frank Miller story framing the movie either. Despite the kid-friendly rating, Miller’s fingerprints permeate this film as much as its predecessor. Everything from the heavy Japanese influence to the young tech whiz to such characters as the rebels Bertha, Zack, and Moreno are unmistakably his.

Photo including John Castle (Paul McDaggett) issued from "RoboCop 3" ( 1280 x 690 )

The actors also dive into the roles as best they can, and actually do a good job with the material. Any scenes with Pounder as Bertha, or any of the rebels for that matter, are a treat, Torn and Castle ham it up as they do best, and Jill Hennessy is a believable Dr. Lazarus. For the short screentime Nancy Allen has, she delivers some of the best Lewis moments of the trilogy here, and the same goes for Robert Do’Qui as Sergeant Reed. Only two drag the film down, and sadly they are two of the biggest characters; Remy Ryan as Nikko, the obligatory ’80s whiz kid who can hack with the best of them, who does little more than annoy, and Robert John Burke as RoboCop himself. Standing taller than Peter Weller, he doesn’t fit well into the suit, his motions are nowhere near as convincing, and the voice he uses is too high and mechanical for what was established before. It’s a shame Peter Weller couldn’t be here to finish the role that made him famous, but then we never would have gotten Naked Lunch.

The strangest thing about all of this is, having rewatched these films to review them, that I actually kind of liked the film. Every problem I’ve just listed still pulls it down far below the bar set by the original, but I genuinely enjoyed myself watching the third one. Even more so than the second film, which was usually my go-to growing up. I think what it comes down to is this: Dekker’s film knew to just have fun with the whole concept. It doesn’t delve at all into Murphy or his tortured existence, nor does it wrap up the OCP/Delta City arc with any believability, but it sure is one fun popcorn movie, and I’d buy that for a dollar.

REVIEW: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

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Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, Story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, Based on Characters Created by George Lucas
Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Forest Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen

Star Wars: The Force Awakens may have been the record-setter in anticipation and box office gross, but Rogue One was the wild card of the new Star Wars cinematic universe by Disney and Lucasfilm. Just about everybody was curious about this film and the direction it would take the franchise. And while it didn’t match The Force Awakens‘ take or crowds, it just may have outdone its predecessor in sheer quality.

The long-sputtering Rebel Alliance faces certain doom when one of their spies, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), learns of a secret weapon nearing completion, one powerful enough to destroy an entire planet. Desperately seeking any way to destroy it, Cassian and the Rebels enlist the help of young criminal Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in the hopes that she will be able to contact her father, the weapon’s designer, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Jyn, Cassian, and a motley bunch of outlaws set out into the oppressed galaxy, relying only on each other and the faint hope of salvation to succeed in their suicide mission to restore freedom.

When I reviewed Godzilla a few weeks back, I couldn’t stop gushing over the style and craft of director Gareth Edwards. The man’s breakthrough career in Hollywood is the stuff of geek myth, going from a critically-acclaimed indie hit to helming a proper Americanization of Japan’s greatest monster, to now being a part of the revival of the holy grail of American cinema, Star Wars. And even more so than J.J. Abrams, Edwards deserved his spot. Rogue One is a very hands-on, gritty kind of a movie, taking us away from the exceptional Skywalker clan and into the galaxy at large in a way that hasn’t been seen since The Empire Strikes Back. Whole worlds are stocked full of props, decoration, and extras that enrich each setting a thousand fold, implying vast histories spanning millennia with just a few seconds of celluloid. Edwards’ sense of scale is also well-used in Star Wars, where he employs similar angles and shots used by Abrams in new and creative ways, and always, always showing us the grand sights from the little guy’s point of view. Star Destroyers by now are pretty much typical Star Wars fare….but you’ve never seen one like this:

Being the first of the so-called Anthology films, Rogue One is based on a story treatment by VFX artist John Knoll. Knoll’s treatment was simple enough: take the mission briefly touched upon in the first film’s opening crawl, and expand that into a prequel picture. Gary Whitta, Chris Weitz, and Tony Gilroy have fleshed this simple idea out beautifully, crafting a film much more complex and morally ambiguous than anything seen in the main saga. The Empire is still evil and the Rebels are still just, but the banality of the Imperial threat and the shakiness of the Rebel cause are on prominent display.

This gives the actors more to work with than in, say, George Lucas’ prequels. He had these ideas, but his execution was poor compared to this film. Diego Luna and Forest Whitaker use these newfound shades of grey to the greatest effect, with Whitaker wheezing through hazy dialogue as if decades of insurgency has stripped his mind as much as his body, and Luna gnashing his metaphorical teeth at the pain of knowing that he’s just another assassin, a monster not meant to live in the paradise the Rebellion wishes to restore. Navigating the moral chaos is Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso, an even stronger female hero than Daisy Ridley’s Rey. She’s badass, headstrong, and hopelessly broken; yet she conveys incredible emotion, especially in her brief moments with Whittakker and Mikkelsen, the Oppenheimer-esque creator of the dreaded Death Star. And I would be remiss not to mention the fantastic contributions of Tudyk, Jiang, Yen, Ahmed, and Mendelsohn. Quite frankly, there is not a weak actor or character anywhere in the bunch. Rogue One‘s cast will forever be remembered as one of the very best.

One blemish, however, threatens to taint the legacy in my eyes: the “digital faces.” Most everyone and their grandmother has praised the CGI recreations of Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher as their characters Governor Tarkin and Princess Leia, but I cannot see how. While they look much better and more expressive than previous attempts at the effect, it still has not reached a convincing level, with muscle fluctuations appearing flat and eyes still not passing the uncanny valley. This is by no means a conclusion of failure on the part of the effects technicians, but more of a argument against their use altogether. The end result is often times too distracting to my eyes, and in Tarkin’s case (he is seen much more often) I feel it was completely unnecessary, as Guy Henry, his stand-in, looked and sounded close enough to Cushing to practically double for him under light prosthetics. It’s simply an opinion that at least Tarkin could have been handled better.

But for the one thing it gets wrong, Rogue One does everything else right. The cast is perfect, the story is nuanced, and the craft is exemplary. Michael Giacchino translates John William’s themes into a new and exciting context; Alan Tudyk uses on-set motion capture to great comedic effect as K-2SO; the last act is a tour-de-force war epic that approaches actual war films in its emotion and intensity. Even the final fan-favorite scene, in which Darth Vader himself boards the Rebel flagship to demonstrate why he is the Lord of the Sith, is expertly shot, and narratively relevant: it serves as a snapshot of the film’s entire thesis, the struggle of outmanned, outgunned, but determined rebels against a superior force that far exceeds anything they can accomplish, triumphing against this impossible obstacle through hope alone. It’s a wonderful thing to portray in today’s world, and the backbone of the entire Star Wars saga.