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: Cast Away (2000)

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Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by William Broyles Jr.
Starring Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Nick Searcy

No man is an island, as Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is about to discover. Isolation and aloneness are the greatest adversaries of any human being, to be conquered only by the sheer will to survive.

After FedEx systems engineer Chuck Noland is ripped out of his hasty life by the clock in a plane crash, he finds himself alone on the shores of a tropical island. First, frustration gets to him and then he realizes how little his chances are to ever get back to civilization. Four years later, Chuck has learned very well how to survive on his own: mending his dental health, catching fish with a spear, predicting the weather with a self-made calendar. A photograph of his girlfriend Kelly has kept his hopes alive all these years.

Cast Away was a film I watched a decent number of times growing up. It was a typical family night film in my household, and after my interest in filmmaking took hold, it became a familiar home lesson in my DVD player. It’s a wonderful example of what happens when a singular vision turns into an exceptional screenplay, helmed by an already competent director who matures over the course of production, and heartened by an actor who knows just which strings to pull and when.

While there are a few other characters, the most important supporters being Helen Hunt as Chuck’s girlfriend Kelly and Nick Searcy as his friend and coworker Stan, Tom Hanks essentially carries the film by himself, even after he makes it back to civilization. It’s the Holy Grail of acting, and he not only sells his goods completely, but he manages to work in his natural comedic talent without leveling the picture’s emotional core. Every laugh he generates is grounded within the reality that it is a temporary delight, that survival is still the main objective. Plus, let’s be honest: how many other actors can you imagine talking to a volleyball and being able to take them seriously afterward?

Speaking of Wilson, our favorite orb of leather is the most obvious aspect of a deft script by William Broyles, Jr. Hanks managed to inject so much emotion into every scene with his inanimate co-star that one forgets that it was Broyles who had the foresight to create him in the first place. And why? Simply to provide a realistic outlet for dialogue in a one-character situation. Other tidbits of foreshadowing and world-building are so subtle and smart that the audience may not even recognize them upon first viewing–which makes for an excellent excuse to force seconds.

Robert Zemeckis by 2000 had already proven his worth with the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Forrest Gump. His penchant for sweeping dollies and innovative shots that blur the line between camerawork and visual effects are well on display here, but in other areas he pulls himself back, allowing the view itself to tell a story. He provides enough beauty shot material to allow editor Arthur Schmidt to drag out the average shot length, placing a firm Kubrick-ian stamp on the production. Alan Silvestri then takes over the reigns with an incredibly minimalist score, essentially the same theme in three subtle variations that only appear in the final act. It is very recognizable, by the way; I still catch it rolling around in my head at times.

At its heart, Cast Away is a film about choices. Chuck is making important and life-changing decisions left and right in the opening act, he just doesn’t know it until the one that takes him away from Kelly on Christmas deposits him on his own island of pure loneliness. From then on, he knows how impactful every choice is, from deciding which packages to use and which to save, to literally whether to live or die. And when finally back home, having survived hell only to lose it all and go back to square one, he stands at a literal crossroads. Where to go from here?

Hopefully you make the right choice and give Cast Away a watch if you haven’t already.

REVIEW: The Martian (2015)

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Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Drew Goddard, Based on the novel by Andy Weir
Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover

Anybody remember video rental stores? Blockbuster? Hollywood Video? Family Video? Those were the days. Anywho, one of the subgenres of science fiction and horror movies I used to rent en masse growing up were what I call the “space survival” stories. These films were usually either low-budget or foreign, always revolving around a group of astronauts (or one) stranded either in space or on some distant, inhospitable planet, with the odds heavily stacked against them. Not to say that Hollywood has never used the genre before (Marooned and Apollo 13 come to mind), not many were able to reach a level of technical and original flair displayed in 2013’s Gravity. The Martian is a bit more formulaic than Gravity, but is not to be dismissed at all. In fact, I’d say it should be even a bit more embraced.

During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive. Millions of miles away, NASA and a team of international scientists work tirelessly to bring “the Martian” home, while his crewmates concurrently plot a daring, if not impossible, rescue mission. As these stories of incredible bravery unfold, the world comes together to root for Watney’s safe return.

The first aspect of The Martian‘s excellent production one tends to notice is the cast. It’s big, a true ensemble. If I’d been blogging in 2015, I would have added a special note in my Top Ten that The Martian would have the Best Ensemble Cast; not only are the finest actors in the film, they are all perfectly cast to their roles. Nobody is out of place, from Damon’s endlessly sympathetic and funny Watney all the way down to a wonderful “breakout” performance from Donald Glover as a young physicist at NASA. (I put breakout in quotations because he really earned a name in Community, but was unknown to most non-viewers of that series until this film and the Amazing Spider-Man controversy.)

The next aspect to notice is the hyper-realistic consistency to the look of the film, a fact no doubt attributable to director Ridley Scott, one of my favorite filmmakers. Ridley, famous for Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator to name a few, is the master at squeezing every bit of minute detail into the frame without sacrificing his incredible compositions. This greatly elevates a film like The Martian, being grounded more so in real-world space tech than the Alien series, by allowing the NASA environments to stand out just as much as the beautiful Martian landscape. Seriously, there is not an ugly shot anywhere in this film. I looked. It’s a shame we are all reduced to having to watch it at home, as with all of Ridley’s work, it must be fully-appreciated in a big cinema.

Third is the screenplay. Based on an excellently-researched and written novel by first-timer Andy Weir, Drew Goddard’s script balances the science-heavy action with deft social commentary on government space travel and bureaucracy, while still managing to keep Watney’s distinctly-American sense of humor intact. Not an easy feat. I actually predict that in twenty to thirty years, a lot of prominent up-and-coming scientists will be citing this film as their inspiration to go into the field, and it’s no wonder. Watney runs into problem after problem attempting to survive over a year past his habitation module’s designed lifespan, while NASA endures plenty of setbacks and terrifying malfunctions of their own. These aren’t simple problems either; while a broken door at your house may result in a couple-hundred dollars spent at a hardware store and a day of work, a broken door on Mars is literal death, for Watney and the potato crops he is attempting to cultivate to ensure his survival. Every little thing on an alien planet is trying to kill you, just like Earth, only a thousand-fold. Watney rises to the challenge over and over again, and the efforts of those back home are just as inspiring. Not only that, but the way in which they tackles these challenges is as authentically scientific as cinema will allow. You can tell Weir is a scientist at heart: he actually think out his plot, and still believes in humanity.

Cinematography, as noted earlier, is excellent and beautifully executed by Ridley’s current partner Dariusz Wolski. Editing is tight and consistent. One noteworthy technical merit, beyond the already excellent rest of them, is the music by Harry Gregson-Williams. The score imparts a style reminiscent of Mark Isham, very earthy and atmospheric, but every now and then he seems to channel Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien score, providing truly gorgeous melodic cues that never seem out of place. A real treat that might be worth picking up on CD or iTunes. And despite my hatred of disco music, the frequent use of it in the soundtrack never gets overbearing. I don’t know how they did it, but they did. Bravo.

The Martian is available in two versions: a 2 hour, 21 minute theatrical cut and an extended version with ten minutes of additional footage. Pacing is in no way affected by the additions, as they are well spread out across the feature. It had been a while since I had seen The Martian in theaters, so I didn’t recognize all the new scenes at first, so it is entirely up to you which version you want to seek out. Nothing is really lost watching the theatrical cut, so if that helps, so be it.

The Martian definitely feels like the overachieving big brother of the ‘survival in space’ films I watched in my youth; everything is simply better. Acting, direction, writing, camerawork, visual effects, music, and on and on…it all works. Gravity may be a more ambitious film, but you simply can’t beat Ridley Scott, especially when he decides to do sci-fi that doesn’t leave you trembling in a corner or wondering if human beings are worth the space they occupy. The Martian fully answers that question: yes we do.