Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Dangerous Brilliance of American Science Fiction Films

The summer blockbuster movie is as American as those deep-fried, bacon-wrapped cheese curds found at a Fourth of July county fair. Complete with city-collapsing kabooms and high-flying CGI fireworks, these blockbusters appeal to our basest desires: sex, violence, and patriotism.

But for American audiences of the 1950s, science fiction seemed perfectly tailored to channel the jingoistic sentiments needed to fight those godless, vodka-drinking Soviets. After all, flying above the sky somewhere, Sputnik and its celestial companions could be staging an invasion! These uniquely American anxieties, manifested in sci-fi films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, represent the American mythical agenda. Those little green men might as well have been pink.
And yet, nearing the end of the twentieth century—just as the world was getting used to the absence of the Cold War—Independence Day appears on the list of summer blockbusters in 1996, rejuvenating and celebrating the paranoid Fifties motifs. With its world-champion saber-rattling and conveniently diverse cast of characters, Independence Day takes the American science fiction myth and modernizes it, escaping any real potential for thoughtful discourse of deeper concepts.  In lieu of the real American issues of the time, we’re spoon-fed a propaganda-laden myth that tells us that all our problems are solved as long we’re fighting the enemy.

Independence Day is intentionally a pastiche of the 50s science fiction films, celebrating the same values and pulling at the same nationalistic heartstrings. Images of flying saucers, the destruction of national landmarks, and the beautiful blend of urban and pastoral heroes, all combine for a modernized refrain of the American science fiction mythology.  Like the films of the 50s, Independence Day utilizes the image of the idyllic American paradise, but updates it to fit contemporary society. No longer is America solely a country of suburbs, farms, and white people; aliens are threatening a superficially diverse America. In his not-so-praiseful review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote:
Representing the human race here are not only David the techhead and the president, but also assorted blacks, Jews, Arabs, Brits, exotic dancers, homosexuals, cute kids, generals, drunken crop dusters, tight-lipped defense secretaries and ‘The McLaughlin Group.’ There is not a single character in the movie who doesn't wear an invisible label.
What a beautiful coalition of diversity. Coupled with this assortment of characters, the urban sites, which serve as the major points of destruction, paint a different picture of idyllic America as urban and diverse. Our main warrior hero is Captain Steven Hiller, an African-American jet pilot with a flair for catch phrases. His counterpart is a Jewish techie, David Levinson, whose progressive environmentalism exists to please the liberals in the theater. The President is a swaggering, young warrior himself, who is not afraid to lead his soldiers into battle or deliver a riveting speech at the crucial time—effectively satisfying the hawks in the movie crowd.

To top it off, our fighting force in the climactic battle is veritable militia of pilots, echoing the mythical farmer-soldiers of the American Revolution. Even our pastoral hero, the “drunk crop-duster” Russell Casse, who eventually saves the day, is an aging Vietnam veteran—a feeble attempt to reconcile America’s relationship with its most neglected and maligned soldiers. His own children bear him no resemblance, and instead, they take on an ambiguously Native American aesthetic.

There’s a character for everyone in Independence Day.

In his acerbic review, Pat Dowell articulately and pointedly places Independence Day in political context. After drawing the major parallels to popular Fifties science fiction films, he writes:
Celebrating the fictional past is the main activity and effect of Independence Day when it conjures up Fifties esthetics. It thereby reestablishes as blockbuster material the obsolete style of moviemaking that was standard operating procedure in a Hollywood era marked by the suppression of dissent, active industry censorship, and the relegation of politics to often-hysterical subtexts. Independence Day also calls the audience back to a past that is fictional in the sense that it depicts an imaginary American society that never existed, but that conservatives exhort the public to recreate: that America of vital military action embraced by blissful nuclear families.
This “neighborhood homily,” as he later calls it, is vital to characterizing and vilifying the enemy—the “barbarians at the gates,” as Dowell calls it. Whether the enemy is communist or extraterrestrial (or both), they have to be uniformly evil in order for the full extent of American retaliation to be justified. Conversely, however diverse our collection of heroes may be, they must all hold the same values. David and his immigrant father Julius, overcome apostasy as the end of days drew nigh; even though they are Jewish in faith, contemporary American values are less picky about religion so long as religion is involved. Captain Hiller’s love interest, Jasmine, is a conscientious single-mother and stripper who forms a brief relationship with the First Lady—a national role expected to exemplify female American values.  From top to bottom, the cast of characters embodies the values and characteristics necessary for science fiction to exist as American mythology.

Dowell touches on the issue of racial tolerance about as briefly as the movie does. He writes:
On the other hand, superficial racial tolerance gets a sentimental endorsement in the script's attempt to reconcile African-American and Jew through the camaraderie of Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum, and Goldblum's almost vaudevillian dad, played by Judd Hirsch.

Here, Dowell only scratches the surface. The reason Independence Day fails at debunking racial and ethnic stereotypes is because it readily assumes that they do not exist and they never have. The film’s characters are almost completely devoid of any racial prejudice at all, with no explanation as to why this is the case.
The film goes out of its way to portray typically conflicted groups reconciled and working together to fight the invaders.  A British-led airbase in the Middle East is the first ally shown to receive the message about America’s bold plan to defeat the invaders. The cinematographers ostensibly show Iraqi pilots and Israeli pilots sharing space on a crowded tarmac, with flags from both countries raised high. Evidently, these two nations have overcome thousands of years of religious, political, and cultural strife in such a short time to fight the invading aliens.

All thanks to American leadership.

There is no bickering, no heated disagreement about how to defend against the alien invasion, and no religious or political fanaticism driving the agendas of either nation’s armies. Instead we get undisputed cooperation under the leadership of the gratuitously British officers, who are doing their best to keep calm and carry on. All of the world’s armies seem to unflinchingly comply with America’s risky and audacious plan—no dissent, just obedience. In fact, the world expects American leadership. Upon hearing about an American offensive, one British officer exasperatedly exclaims, “About bloody time. What do they plan to do?”

The character of Captain Stephen Hiller, played by Will Smith, seems to embody the tension of racial identity. At times, he speaks with the same colloquial slang that made him popular on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; at other times he speaks with the formality of an American soldier. Despite having moved in with a single mom who is occupied as a stripper, he lives with them in a suburban home with a domesticated family life.

One of Smith’s opening scenes portrays an obedient tribute to the iconic, Americana lifestyle: he walks outside in his pajamas, through his well-groomed lawn, trips on his child’s toys and swears, then picks up the newspaper and begins to read it, all while Jasmine chases after him asking if he wants coffee. Even after they both see the massive flying saucer hovering over downtown Los Angeles, Hiller begins to pack his bags, embrace his civic duty, and drive his old-fashioned American muscle car to the Air Force base.

Obviously, there is absolutely nothing wrong with an African-American couple taking on these iconic and historically white roles; but there is no explanation within the scope of the story, or in historical precedents and contexts, for why and how Captain Hiller is drawn up with the same motifs as the white American husbands of the 1950s science fiction films. This is an intentional juxtaposition that defies the genre Independence Day is trying to recreate.

Now, my analysis of why Captain Hiller’s juxtaposition into the white, suburban husband role may seem problematic. After all, what is wrong with that image? Why can’t Captain Hiller, an African-American, occupy that role? The answer is because it’s shallow and artificial. It feels like cheap, cinematic affirmative action, where the character is created purely for appeasement.

Independence Day premiered four years after the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles, and only nine months after the divisive O.J. Simpson trial verdict. Racial conflict occupied the forefront of American consciousness, and yet, it is so gapingly absent from the film. This is the fundamental problem with the American Myth: It ignores the problems rather then fixes them. The alien invaders are the writers’ scapegoats to portray a unified American cast of characters—with the rest of the globe faithfully following behind. Independence Day could have engaged in thoughtful character interaction that directly addressed the racial tensions of the time. Instead, it aimed only to entertain, rather than engage, showing its audience that the only way to solve America’s problems is to create an enemy.

As the political thermostat begins to climb this election season, candidates will start to define our enemies in hopes to rally their bases behind fear. They hope to tell voters, “We’re not the problem. They are the problem.” Who are “they”?  That’s the (potentially dangerous) brilliance of the American sci-fi myth. Those alien invaders can be anyone: Mexican immigrants, right-wing media, terrorists, behemoth corporations, radically liberal professors, the one-percent, etc. This is what’s dangerous about Independence Day and the American myth it represents: it forgoes introspection and the need to fix ourselves.

By Derek Schnake

Works Cited
Dowell, Pat. "Independence Day." Cineaste 22.3 (1996): 39. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 May 2012.
Ebert, Roger. "Independence Day." Rev. of Independence Day. Chicago Sun Times[Chicago] 2 July 1996. Print.
"Independence Day." IMDb. Web. 08 May 2012. <>.
Independence Day. Dir. Roland Emmerich. Perf. Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsch, Vivica A. Fox. 1996.