Perfect Pacing — Independence Day

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review: ‘Independence Day’ is a good movie.  There, I said it.  I have watched and read review after review on the Internet trying to tell me otherwise — that this film is too ridiculous, too over-the-top to be ever be truly good; that, at best, the film falls in the so-bad-it’s-good category.  But I’m not buying it.  I have seen this film countless times over the past sixteen years since it premiered in 1996, and my resolve remains unshaken. It is many things, but a poor film it is not.

That isn’t to say I don’t understand people’s common criticisms about this alien invasion flick, namely that it has key plot holes, token stereotypes, overly silly moments, and a corny theme of American patriotism.  All true, all true.  There’s no question that infecting an advanced alien spaceship with a ’90s computer virus, as they do in the film, is a little absurd.  There’s no question that the film’s inclusion of characters such as a stereotypically Jewish man who says stereotypically Jewish things is a little ethnically insensitive.  There’s no question that the U.S. president jumping into the cockpit of a jet and fighting the aliens head on is a little silly.  And there’s no question that the film’s indulgence and build up to the titular holiday — and the president’s speech that accompanies it — is a little blunt about the whole “America Rules” idea.

But here’s the thing.  Wasn’t it fun?  I know that’s a very basic question to ask, but didn’t you, whoever is out there reading this, have at least a little fun watching it?  Weren’t you entertained during the jet-on-spacecraft dogfights?  Didn’t the president’s speech, silly as it was, move you just a little?  I know it’s ridiculous and implausible (an argument can be made for “stupid” as well, provided one is cynical enough,) but can’t that argument be levied against nearly all science fiction?  By attacking ‘Independence Day’ as absurd, escapist trash, have we not mistaken the messenger for the message?

Those are questions that you, individually must answer, but I will attempt to sway you with one idea: pacing.

Pacing is the rhythm of film.  It is less about what happens in the story and more about when it happens.  It’s about how long we wait and whether or not that waiting means anything.  Good pacing builds to an effective climax, it allows time for characters to stop and breath if necessary, it lets the story go to different places if necessary; but it is always building to something important.  The road to catharsis must be well-paced.

In the context of an action film like ‘Independence Day’ pacing is about knowing when to pull the punches, and that often means not jumping into the action right away.  It is about letting time pass; not to waste it, but rather to build suspense and add gravity to the action.  Again, the key is the action has to really mean something.  By contrast, when action movies are crammed full of as many guns, explosions and chases as the filmmakers can manage, the beat is is buried under noise, and the audience is denied the plot’s theoretical impact.  Thankfully, ‘Independence Day’ is in fact a darn near-perfect example of pacing, and so, even with all of its silliness, the film still seems meaningful.

Allow me to demonstrate: the film opens with an enormous mothership flying toward earth and releasing smaller ships, which enter our atmosphere.  They position themselves over cities and then what happens?  Do they immediately try to destroy them?  No.  They do nothing, at first.  That’s brilliant — people stop, they take notice, they wonder what the hell is going on.  Some are optimistic and try to communicate with them, some flee, others continue to scratch their heads until one man figures out that these extraterrestrials are organized on a countdown, but to what exactly he doesn’t know.  Then, as the countdown completes, the ships finally unleash hell upon the world.  And it means something.  That’s the key: it really means something now because we got to know people first, to identify with their unique mix of fear, paranoia, delusion and simple curiosity.  We, too, wondered what would happen at the end of the countdown.  And it’s great that the filmmakers made us wait that long, it was great that they knew when to build anticipation, and this sort of thing continues on until the end when we have a truly satisfying final battle.  Why?  Because the movie was smart enough to make things matter, and the only way you do that is by letting the film rest appropriately, allowing for the times between action scenes to have real weight and importance.  Most of the film, by the way, isn’t action.  For a film that stretches over two hours in length, I don’t there is much more than a half hour of pure action in the film, which again plays to its strengths.  Again, it’s the moments between all the fighting and explosions that are true heart of this picture, and I, at least, found myself believing in it.

So there, I have attempted, best I can, to convince you all that ‘Independence Day’ is a good film.  Undoubtedly some of you will cling to your former beliefs, but I hope that at least a few might consider giving this one another view, perhaps appropriately on the Fourth of July.  If nothing else the score is pretty awesome.  I think we can all agree on that.

Classic Review: Bullitt

Stars:  **** out of 4

Summary:  A film so laid-back and slice-of-life it borders on surreal, while also boasting great action and suspense.

Review: Ah, the ’60s. The golden age of James Bond and the incubation chamber of the modern cop/spy/vigilante thriller movie. In 1968, we got ‘Bullitt’, in which Steve McQueen plays the titular character, an overly dedicated cop suspiciously similar, in some respects, to the future ‘Dirty Harry’. He plays his scenes with minimal to zero dialog but still exudes cool and draws sympathy from the audience. We never get to find out where Lt. Frank Bullitt came from, what he hopes for, what is the extent of his relationship with his girlfriend, what’s he really feeling about the whole mystery he’s pulled into. He’s an everyman.

Right from the opening titles, I was hooked.  The editing was especially strong and just watching names I won’t remember assume their positions on screen for a few moments was entertaining. The action moves at a steady and patient pace.  The cinematography keeps us interested even if there is nothing overtly important going on.  Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy, unforgettable score lets us feel the pulse of the film’s setting in San Francisco, lets us know the world we see on screen is alive and well.

Lt. Bullitt as the proto-Dirty Harry naturally comes into conflict with his superiors and with the politicians.  He stretches the rules and defies the tendency of the PD to kiss ass for support.  He doesn’t care about politics.  He cares about justice.  He never gives us a speech spelling himself out.  His best defense of his position, his grand apology, is when a politician played by Robert Vaughn insists that everyone must eventually compromise, and he simply says, “Bullshit.”  It’s the single best use of the word I’ve seen in a film.  His great weakness, however, is in the performance of his duty.  He’s surrounded by so much death, working in homocide, that he’s become distant and callous.  His ridiculously gorgeous and intelligent girlfriend calls him out on this.  He insists that he must keep going.  What Bullitt teaches us is that justice and truth are worth fighting for, but even the most noble can be scarred by the horrors of crime and deceit.

The chase sequences are incredible.  This was back in the day, man, when people actually drove cars in stunt scenes and let the audience see what the hell was going on.  The big car chase is sublime.  The various foot chases are similarly engaging.

This is a must see for fans of the ‘Bourne’ movies, ‘Dirty Harry’ movies, frak it, any action film fan needs to see this film.  This is a piece of art, ladies and gentlemen, this is a piece of perfect.