Friday, July 4, 2014

Independence Day (1996)

Independence Day (1996)
first seen in South Hadley, MA
summer 1996

South Hadley, Massachusetts is an itty-bitty town with a population of 17,514, first settled in 1725. Now, I got that from the town's webpage and from Wikipedia. I wish I could tell you stuff about the town that you wouldn't find online, but I can't, because when I went to South Hadley, I wasn't terribly interested in the rest of the place at the time. All I saw of it was a strip mall that looked like it was in the middle of nowhere... but that mall was important because it had a multiplex.

This was during the summer I spent as a counselor at a sleepaway camp in an even tinier Massachusetts town called Cummington. Actually, I spent two summers there; this was the second. It was high in the Berkshire mountain territory along Route 9 - a pleasant place, though in the summer it can get awful cold at night if you're not careful. 

That summer I was counselor to two groups of boys: 8-10-year-olds in July and 11-12-year-olds in August. In July our group slept in a large barn on the main courtyard of the camp grounds. In August we were in a bunk atop a small hill just above the courtyard, and yes, trudging up and down it every day was exactly as much fun as it sounds. This was the summer where I met Claire, the 13-year-old Trekkie of whom I've talked about before. It was also the summer I briefly lost my voice for a few days after yelling at my boys so much!

Staff would get one day off a week, and that usually meant going into town - to get as far away from the kids as possible, naturally. Town in this case meant Northampton, a small college burg with just enough culture to keep one interested for a day. South Hadley lay just outside of Northampton, also along Route 9, but we hardly ever went there - until the summer of 1996, when a bunch of us were pumped up to see a big-budget sci-fi movie about an alien invasion in which the White House gets blown up in spectacular fashion.

We had to see Independence Day in South Hadley because that's where the multiplex was. (If memory serves, Northampton had an art house theater, but no multiplex.) The strip mall was just your average strip mall. I don't remember much about it or the theater, for that matter. I'm fairly sure I had only been in South Hadley one other time before this. All it meant was a slightly longer drive as far as we were concerned.

I don't fully recall our collective reaction to ID4. I think we were split on it - some of us liked it, some of us weren't impressed. I liked it, but the more I thought about it afterwards, the less it appealed to me. I suspect, in fact, that this may have been the first time, or at least one of the first times, where I felt suckered by a big Hollywood action movie: pulled in by the trailer, only to find that the rest of the movie is a turkey. It happens to all of us; there's no shame in it, but this might've been the moment in which it first began to bug me.

That said, ID4 isn't completely irredeemable. If nothing else, it's the movie that catapulted Will Smith into the superstar stratosphere after the success of Bad Boys. I was never a big fan of his TV show, but I certainly remember his early days as the rapper Fresh Prince. In fact, in my mind, "Parents Just Don't Understand" is associated with another, earlier summer, when I was a counselor-in-training. At any rate, I remember knowing all the words to it.

I remember responding positively to Smith's youth and charisma as the hero in ID4. I wouldn't have recognized him in the context of being a black guy who saves the day for once instead of getting killed at the end of Act 2; I wasn't that knowledgeable about movies yet. Still, seeing him specifically be the hero did feel uplifting in a way I couldn't have articulated back then.

His career since then has taken him in some unexpected directions, but he had always struck me as being little different from his Fresh Prince days... until recently. His dabbling in Scientology, the way he's cultivated his children's careers, and some of his latter movie choices, have been... odd, to say the least. There was an article I read (forgot where) which showed how carefully calculated and crafted his entire career has been, and the suggestion was that there was something Machiavellian about it all. Not sure I like the way that sounds.

ID4 is shameless in the way it indulges in action movie cliches: the square-jawed president who makes the inspiring speech, the wacko supporting character who makes a contribution in the end - admit it, you cheered too when Vivica Fox's dog jumped to safety and avoided the explosion! Even at the time I saw it, I rolled my eyes, but it was so blatant and so obvious that you had to laugh, too, at the brazenness of director Roland Emmerich to include something like that.

Could ID4 could be read as parody? At the time, it was marketed as straight, but even then there were moments, like that dog scene, that I simply couldn't take seriously (Lone Star from Spaceballs as the president?). And if it can be read as camp, is that such a bad thing, when compared to the relentlessly grim action movies we get these days? At least the humor in ID4 is intentional. I know I'd rather watch it again than something like Man of Steel or the War of the Worlds remake.

Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean I'm eager for a sequel.


  1. It's one of those bits and pieces movies for me. I haven't seen it all the way through from beginning to end, just snatches here and there while my husband and daughter are watching it. It's the dog bit - I sit. It's Margaret Colin or James Rebhorn or Bent Spiner - I sit. I tell the family to call me when we're close to Will punching the alien. That's about it. One of these days - maybe.

  2. Take your time. I have feelings of a sort for it only because of the circumstances in which I saw it. If not for that, it would be just another movie.


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