“Now That’s What I Call A Close Encounter” (#93)

In the mid-90s, multiplexes were invaded by an influx of movies centered on mankind’s first contact with extraterrestrials. And unlike the cute and friendly aliens we got to know in the 80s, like E.T. and ALF, the space invaders of the 90s mostly just wanted to annihilate us, starting with our favorite tourist destinations. Part One of our Alien Invasion Blockbuster Extravaganza looks at two of the deadliest interstellar assaults to ever breach the silver screen, both celebrating their 25th anniversaries this year. First up, we celebrate the 4th of July in the most American way possible — with mass casualties, tons of military hardware, a bombastic presidential speech, and a stripper! Roland Emmerich’s record-smashing Independence Day (1996) raised the bar for special effects-loaded summer entertainment, redefining the blockbuster with its cataclysmic destruction of U.S. landmarks (a popcorn movie hallmark ever since). Next, we attempt to shield ourselves from Tim Burton’s outrageous sci-fi send-up Mars Attacks! (1996), with a cast so star-studded that it stars Jack Nicholson twice! The wacky comedy had just as much death and destruction as Independence Day, but came in for a crash landing when it opened in theaters, and has been largely forgotten since. Which of these uncomfortably close encounters holds up better now that we’re viewing them from a distance? Do we prefer President Pullman to President Nicholson? A dog that outruns an explosion, or a Chihuahua with Sarah Jessica Parker’s body? Will Smith’s fresh quips, or ack-ack-ack-ack? Get answers to these and other probing questions in a podcast that’s truly out of this world!

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Extraterrestrial entertainment has always enjoyed spurts of popularity in pop culture, from H.G. Wells’ The War Of The Worlds to Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of that story that panicked a handful of Americans who heard it into thinking it was real. The 50s saw a particularly fertile period of evil alien-centric B-movies, including The Thing From Another World, which we discussed recently as the inspiration for John Carpenter’s 1982 horror masterpiece The Thing. Late 70s and 80s sci-fi also had its fair share of killer aliens, most notably in Ridley Scott’s truly horrifying Alien. But kids who grew up in the 80s were more inundated with cute, friendly aliens like E.T. and all the many lesser knock-offs that cluttered video store shelves at the time. From Starman to Cocoon, Mork And Mindy to ALF, Mac And Me to Short Circuit, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind to Batteries Not Included, my childhood was all about the “misunderstood aliens,” stories in which humans tended to be the bad guys. But in the mid-90s, something changed. Something that took us back to the instincts that drove mankind to create The War Of The Worlds and the apocalyptic sci-fi of the 50s. Beginning in 1993, The X-Files used UFOs as a way to reinvigorate 70s paranoia in the government. And coming out of the Cold War and the looming threat of nuclear annihilation, Hollywood needed a new villain to use the way it had previously used catch-all baddies like the Nazis and the Soviets in previous eras. The threat of world war was no longer as fresh and relevant as it had been in previous decades. Now, we needed to be facing global annihilation. Our “world war” needed to be, as H.G. Wells phrased it, a war with another world. The “cute and cuddly space being” formula we got so used to in the 80s was certainly turned on its head with 1996’s Independence Day, which slickly (if rather bluntly) imagined that aliens wouldn’t be hiding out in cornfields or lurking furtively aboard man-made spacecraft. They’d show up in big ass spaceships and blow up our most iconic landmarks with laser beams. This conceit, and the marketing campaign that sold it as the spectacle of the summer, was ingenious. It would be easy to argue that Independence Day had a greater effect on the way studio tentpole films are made and sold today than any other film of the 90s. How many comic book superhero movies also have alien spacecraft showing up in major cities, threatening to end the world as we know it? How many recent blockbusters look and sound exactly like this? Independence Day helped cement the 4th of July as Hollywood’s hottest release date, especially over the next few years. Roland Emmerich tried the 4th of July again in 2000’s The Patriot. Will Smith dominated the weekend several more times, with Men In Black, The Wild Wild West, and Hancock. Michael Bay has owned the weekend several times, with Armageddon and a couple Transformers films. Steven Spielberg released his take on The War Of The Worlds over Independence Day weekend in 2005, a film that essentially did what Emmerich’s film did, with the sobering shadow of 9/11 in our minds this time around. The 4th of July weekend was already a blockbuster playground long before Emmerich brought his toys to the sandbox, but naming his movie after the release date was a special kind of synergy. And it sure worked. His film has become synonymous with America’s favorite holiday. Bill Pullman’s presidential speech is better remembered than anything most of our actual presidents ever said. The film is as American as apple pie, for better or for worse. I had a sudden urge to watch Independence Day last spring, shortly after COVID hit. I was hungry for a film that depicted people reacting to a worldwide catastrophe, and the scene of the ships showing up over major U.S. cities, with people gawking up at the sky in shock and awe, mimicked what I was feeling and seeing around me. It was eerie, in those early days, to see grocery store shelves barren, roads empty, restaurants and stores and hotels shuttered and dark. What resonates with me most now, though, is how fucking dumb people act in the face of a crisis. Independence Day only captures a fraction of what we faced in real life over the last seventeen months — a lot of its dumbness is unintentional — but the scene of hippie stripper Tiffany holding a big, welcoming sign up toward a laser beam that’s about to fry her along with millions of other truly resonates in 2021. It’s hard to criticize characters in a movie for acting like idiots in the face of doomsday now that we’ve seen firsthand how many Americans actually would. Independence Day isn’t often referred to as a war film, but it certainly indulges in plenty of those tropes, too. The men go off and do the fighting, the women pine for them on the sidelines. You could replace the aliens in Independence Day with Nazis or Soviets and play the same story out. It just wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. Doing a disaster epic and a war film with aliens in the villain role is what made Independence Day so special at the time. (Plus, of course, some terrifically imagined special effects.) There’s nothing particularly novel about Independence Day. It clearly takes its structural inspiration from bloated 70s disaster epics, The Towering Inferno and Earthquake, which I also watched during my COVID downtime. Like those films, Independence Day film is slower-moving than you might remember, with plenty of screen time devoted to character drama, during which nobody’s in immediate danger. (The aliens are curiously slow in this film, waiting long stretches of time between attacks. What are they waiting for?) Emmerich also borrows liberally from Star WarsThe War Of The Worlds, the Alien films, Spielberg, Patton, and plenty more. It’s the packaging of this film that resonates today, much moreso than the film itself. We remember the marketing. Virtually any American could pitch it in one line. (And virtually any studio executive would buy it on the spot.) I still enjoy Independence Day as a piece of popcorn entertainment. It’s far from the best example of it, but if aliens beamed me up to their spacecraft and asked me to sample a typical Hollywood summer blockbuster, I wouldn’t be able to think of a better case study than good ol’ ID4. (I certainly wouldn’t choose Mars Attacks!, an awkward, tone deaf misfire that is packaged like a fun, star-studded send-up of sci-fi B-movies, but doesn’t ever seem to figure out what it’s trying to do. We also discussed that in this podcast, but I don’t feel any need to expand on my thoughts on that film here.)

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