reviewed by Tom-Tom
Summer, 1996. All the world was talking about a certain film which was to become for Will Smith, (whom everyone had known as a successful singer and lead for the hit show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) his first blockbuster debut. There was an ensemble cast with Bill Pullman whom I had only known from Space Balls and Jeff Goldblum who got his blockbuster push in Jurassic Park. There’s Robert Loggia, Randy Quaid, Brent Spiner, etc. I was stoked to see and, as visits to the theater were an all too rare experience, I was thrilled but not for too long. As this is the 4th of July weekend, I’ve decided to take another look at the first in a long line of 90’s disaster films which began to get everyone worked up into a fervor leading up to the Millennium.
The film begins with ripples on the moon right at the spot of the moon landing. The footsteps of the astronauts are still visible, somehow 30 years after. We get broad strokes of narratives introducing Pullman as the President, a loving husband and father, Goldblum as David Levinson, a loving son and divorcee who works for something like SETI. The appearance of the UFOs is slow and measured, with people watching TV, looking up, fleeing. I have to admit, it’s quite impressive to see the shadows creep over various locations all over the world. David knows what’s going on and attempts to tell the President, for whom, conveniently his ex wife works as Press Secretary. The dialogue along the way is pretty bad from the husky voiced boss of David, to the domestic squabbles between Will Smith’s character Captain Steven Hiller and his girlfriend (although Smith delivers his lines in his trademark smooth way which makes any line work), everything having to do with Randy Quaid’s character, etc. The appearance of non-stripping strippers try to push the PG-13 rating. There is a countdown leading up to the scene advertised on almost TV commercial spot, cereal box, toy store, TV critics show in the country. It’s a very powerful scene and more so because of new it was at the time, Domestic and International landmarks going boom in a series of raging fireballs. Of course, people we like (and their not so little dogs too) just manage to outrun the explosions. It’s a rare and brave first act in any film to half destroy the world.
The counter-attack gives us the chance to qualify Captain Hiller as a hero. Harry Connick Jr. is equally charming as his wingman Captain Jimmy Wilder. The ensuing firefight reveals the giant UFO to be not just super huge but protected by a force field. The inter-pilot chatter is reminiscent of the Attack Run on the Death Star. There’s talk about Area 51 and sure, let’s let civilians and their fathers and 6 year olds to see top secret aliens. There’s an eventful alien autopsy and some terrible cookie cutter dialogue between David and his ex-wife. What the film does correctly is express the gravity of the decision to or to not use nuclear weapons on the alien ships despite all previous attempts at firepower being futile. The family scenes between the President and his wife and daughter are quite touching. Pullman handles it well.
The intro to the absolutely tongue in cheek, lazy writing filled third act takes massive patience or insanity to imagine. Thankfully, it is preceded by a pretty darn nice speech from Pullman, who delivers the admittedly cheesy lines with absolute concentration and vigor.
The final battle is action packed but fairly predictable borrowing once again from Star Wars:A New Hope. As a kid, I forgave the implausibility of the intergalactic hacking skills of American made laptops.
Perhaps it is with the hindsight of the hundreds of films I’ve seen since, perhaps it is with the common sense of growing older, but I felt underwhelmed by this film. As the thickness of plot and spectacle I brought to it as a kid was mostly from my own imagination, filling in plot gaps or terrible dialogue with myself., enveloped in the glory of going to the movies. Somewhat less indulgent in my 30’s, I can’t really recommend this film save for cheesy background to a 4th of July barbecue.