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.

Patrick’s Top Ten Movies Just To Watch For Special Effects

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Let’s get one thing straight: You always should watch films for their story, for a strong narrative that offers some message or at least entertains. Unfortunately, not all films have a good story. Some movies just go for visual appeal, placing CGI, explosions, stunt scenes, or cool creature designs over plot; but occasionally it works. Anyways, if you’re going to watch a film just for the effects, these are the ones to watch.

10. Transformers (2007)


The plot is certainly sketchy. But hey, I do love me some fifty-foot robots waging all out war.

9. Robocop (1987)


It’s like ‘Lethal Weapon’ meets the ‘Terminator’. It doesn’t take itself seriously at all, but Robocop just looks so darn awesome as he fights criminals with an array of machine guns and explosives.

8. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)


I think the word that sums this film up is “boring”. But at least the ships look really good and there’s a cool quasi-psychedelic cloud scene.

7. The Lost World (1997)


The original philosophy and social-commentary that Michael Crichton put into the novel isn’t captured particularly well in its big screen adaptation. The dinosaurs look mighty fine though.

6. Valley of Gwangi (1969)


This film starts out as a crappy western that then decides to rip-off ‘King Kong’ and become a crappy western with stop-motions dinosaurs. But like ‘The Lost World’ it still looks pretty cool, albeit in a very nostalgic way.

5. Independence Day (1996)


Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin specialize in making big budget B-movies, and this was certainly their most riveting. The dialogue and plot are corny and trite as they come, but ‘lots of jet-plane-on-alien-ship dogfights and fun looking aliens make this worthwhile.

4. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)


The moving message of the original ‘First Blood’ gets lost in the explosions and machine-gun fire of the sequel, but you tell me that explosive arrowheads and helicopter fights aren’t still fun to watch.

3. Destroy All Monsters (1968)


I didn’t say the effects had to be good, only that they were the reason to see the movie. The film reeks of cheesy, cheesy camp value, which some love and others shun. But no one can deny the wonderful spectacle of guys in rubber suits beating the crap out of each other, especially when it features the “Who’s Who” of giant monsters (Godzilla, Rodan, King Ghidorah, and many, many more).

2. The Trip (1967)


Lots of strange visuals and music fill this cult-film about a man who takes LSD for the first time. I can only imagine that under the right “influence”, it must be quite an experience.

1. Tron (1982)


Okay, I admit this one actually had a pretty good story, but the real reason you saw this was the ground breaking CGI that brought this arcade/futuristic world to life. Nothing like it was seen before, and in the nearly thirty years since it’s release, its visuals still have a certain charm. If there ever was a movie to see just for special effects, its ‘Tron’.