Sci-Fi Drugs

The other night, I had one of those moments. It was a moment where I found myself thinking about a cool concept and realized that it would make a damn fine post. It’s also one that interests me quite a bit and has even influenced my own writing. So as quickly as I could, I hopped on my laptop (even though it was 2am) and began making a list of all the sci-fi drugs I knew!

To me, the reasons for including drugs as part of a sci-fi franchise are obvious. For one, drugs and drug cultures are very much a part of our society, so it’s only natural that a sci-fi author should have something to say about it. As Gibson said, all sci-fi is really about the time in which it is written, ergo fictionalized drugs in future settings are really a reflection on the attitudes of today.

On the other hand, creating fictitious drugs and inventing subcultures that use them are a good way to give a story some realistic background. Wherever and whenever a story takes place, you have to assume that they will have narcotic substances there, and what form they take and how they go about dealing with them tells you much about that culture.

Either way, it’s a subject that has fascinated me for quite some time. So here are some highlights from the wold of sci-fi drugs!

Here we have a designer drug that was created by none other than sci-fi great Philip K. Dick. As fans may know, this guy was somewhat of an expert on drugs, having taken part in the Californian drug counter-culture during the 60s and 70s. As a result, he had a lot to say about drug use, their impact, and drug policy.

In this particular case, the drug comes to us from the story of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Taking place in the 21st century, where global warming has sent millions of people off Earth to the hostile environments of the Solar System, people have turned to a combination of the drug Can-D and what are known as “layouts.”

Layouts are physical props intended to simulate a sort of alternate reality where life is easier than either the grim existence of the off-world colonies or life on Earth. By taking the drug in conjunction with the layouts, people are able to experience a sort of shared hallucinogenic state. This in turn has given rise to pseudo-religious cults that have grown up around the use of layouts and the drug, consisting of people who dream of better worlds than the one they are forced to endure.

To complete the semi-dystopian setting of his Bridge Trilogy, Gibson was sure to add a designer drug that was all the rage amongst Californians in the near future. The drug was named Dancer, a powerful and addictive hallucinogen that apparently came in the form of a red dust. People would take it orally, rub it on their gums, smoke it or snort it.

In short, Dancer was like a red cocaine, except that it caused hallucinations rather than manic behavior. People who consumed it would typically become euphoric and mellow, causing them to get all rhythmic and break into dance (hence the name). However, it was was also known to make people violent from time to time, which made it more akin to the the effects of PCP.

Inspired by California’s drug culture and the emergence of designer drugs in the early 90s, Dancer was clearly meant to serve as an allegory for multiple drugs, or as a prediction of what the next big craze could be.

Fans of Babylon 5 ought to remember this one. Basically, the drug was a hot item on the black market because it had the ability to give users temporary telepathic powers. It was violently addictive, and known for giving a very powerful and unique high. However, in the course of trying to stop the Dust trade to B5, Psi Cop Bester acknowledged that the drug was originally created by the Psi Corps as a way of creating telepaths.

When they realized it didn’t work, the drug was abandoned, but made its way to the black market because of its obvious appeal. As a longtime fan of B5, I can honestly say it was elements like this that made me like the show. Not only was the concept and the name cool, the fact that it began as a government-sanctioned drug was also believable and clearly inspired by the history of many real-world drugs.

Inspired by Philip K Dick’s short story, Minority Report was a quasi-dystopian future where the use of precognitives promised to eliminate all violent crime from society. But of course, there’s a dark side to all this, and it just happens to be linked to the underworld drug known as Neuroin, a powerful and addictive psychoactive substance.

Though it is never explained in any real detail, the name suggests that it is of the opiate family and possibly combined with a neural stimulant. In addition to being the drug of choice of the protagonist, it is also the very thing that created the precognitives in the first place. All three psychics were once children who suffered brain damage in utero as a result of their mothers’ neuroin use. Though damaged neurologically, a side effect was the development of precognitive powers, which the state began to use in order to engineer the process known as “PreCrime.”

Based on the film adaptation, the principal means of taking neuroin appears to be through a specialized inhaler. This would allude to the fact that neuroin was taken in vaporized form. In the end, this drug served as both a commentary on the dangers of escapism as well as a plot device. While neuroin was the reason for the precognitives existence, it was also how the main character chose to numb himself over the loss of his son.

The designer drug from Robocop 2, and one man’s attempt at achieving his dream of becoming a Jesus-like figure! Designed by Cain, Nuke was an extremely pleasurable and addictive substance that began making the rounds in Old Detroit by the second movie. Coupled with a Police strike and financial ruin, Nuke seemed to be the thing that would finally break Detroit and allow the greedy bastards at OCP to finally take over.

There are several kinds of Nuke, but by far the most popular variety comes in the form of the red sludge. This is known as Red Ramrod, and was followed shortly thereafter by White Noise, Blue Velvet, and Black Thunder. The color scheme alluded to Cain’s “patriotic” sentiments, as he was known to say that his drug was making “Made in America” mean something again.

Nuke comes only in liquid form and is taken by means of small needles that inject the drug directly into the bloodstream. Because of its highly pleasurable nature and chemical properties, only a few doses are needed before a person becomes hooked and will experience intense withdrawal if they don’t get a regular dose. A commentary on the emergence of designer drugs, it was also served as a means for making some tough observations on drug use and its effect on society.

Snow Crash:
This drug is, admittedly a little off the beaten path. Featured in the Neal Stephenson novel of the same name, Snow Crash was essentially an allegory for a system crash, but in neurological form. Taking the form of both an inhalant and a digital virus, the “drug” had the effect of rendering users docile, passive and babbling an idioglossia similar to speaking in tongues.

But of course, there was more to it than all that. Basically, Snow Crash was designed by an information tycoon named L. Bob Rife who wanted control over people’s minds and daily habits. Using a Sumerian tablet, he basically encoded the ancient “Enki virus” – a virus that altered humanity’s neurology and spawned modern languages. So really, he was looking to reverse the Babel myth, making humanity neurologically simpler and thus programmable.

In addition to being a commentary on the drug culture, Snow Crash was also an observation about the proliferation of computer viruses in the early 90s and an allegory on the similarities between ancient myth and modern technology. It was also pretty cool and weird!

When it comes to designer drugs, Soma pretty much takes the cake. Derived from Aldous Huxley’s classic tale of dystopia and social engineering, Brave New World, Soma was the kind of drug that came with the label “good for what ails ya” and meant it literally. Designed to cure any and all emotional problems, the pill was mass produced and a key feature of the World State’s apparatus of social control.

Use of Soma is prescribed at a very young age to citizens of the World State, as soon as children are old enough to begin sleep conditioning. Slogans such as “a gram is better than a damn” are programmed into their minds so that they respond to emotional stress by simply popping a pill. This is often referred to as “taking a vacation”.

To illustrate the effects of the drug, Huxley relied on his own experience using mescalin and other drugs. Apparently, subjects using Soma would enter a dream-like state where everything became pleasant and agreeable, all their worries and unpleasant emotions melting away. This dream-like state could be discerned by observing a person’s eyes, which would become noticeably glazed.

In addition, though the state freely distributed the drug and there were no shortages, Soma was still designed to be non-addictive and with no harmful side effects. This, added to its effectiveness, made it the ultimate designer drug and a very effective means of social control. A commentary on the pharmaceutical industry of his day and on the drug culture of the 1920s and 30s, Soma remains the most popular example of a fictional sci-fi drug!

Then again, the spice melange is pretty damn popular too. However, as the only drug on this list that is not designed or synthesized, and is by definition an “awareness narcotic,” Spice is really in a category of its own. Taken from the Dune series, Spice was the most precious resource in the universe in more ways than one.

For starters, Spice could only be found on one planet, the desert world known as Arrakis. Mining Spice was also a highly hazardous duty, due to the inhospitable climate of Arrakis and the presence of Sandworms. And given its many benefits, which included prolonged life and expanded awareness, it’s little wonder why it was so damned expensive!

A clear allegory for oil, all life and commerce in the Imperium of Dune revolved around Spice in one way or another. The Guild Navigators used it to achieve their limited prescience and guide ships through foldspace. The Bene Gesserit used it to enhance their mental and physical acuity and make contact with their “Other Memory”. And every house used it to improve their health and longevity. In short, without Spice, all trade and commerce in the universe would end and countless people would die.

And of course, there never would have been a Paul Mua’dib or a Leto II, and humanity would have died as a result! That’s quite a drug them people got there!

Substance D:
Once again, we have a fictitious drug that comes to us straight from the mind of Philip K Dick. Featured in his 1977 book A Scanner Darkly about the drug subculture of California, Substance D was a powerful psychoactive drug that also went by the name “Slow Death.” The name proved apt, as the drug was not only violently addictive, but resulted in brain damage due to overuse.

According to the story, Substance-D was synthesized from the fictitious blue flower Mors ontologica, which is Latin for “death of being”. In the course of the story, the protagonist – an undercover narcotics agent – becomes addicted to the drug, suffers brain damage and is sent to one of the new recovery centers (“New Path”) to get clean.

In time, he is given the task of working on one of their many farms and learns that these places serve as grow ops for the flower. Hence, we see that “New Path” is the source of Substance-D, and is therefore benefiting from both the drug and the harmful effect it has on society. A commentary on strong-arm governments and the pharmaceutical industry perhaps?

Final Thoughts:
When it comes to fictionalized narcotics, a few basic features become evident. For one, fictional drugs can take one of two forms, being either of the organic or synthetic (i.e. designer) variety. Second, their use as part of a story’s background is meant to call attention to our current drug wars, warts and all. But above all, they seem to serve as a form of social commentary by pointing to the ongoing nature of temptation, escapism and repression. On the one hand, human beings will always be looking for escapes and ways to ease the burden of existence. On the other, we are always likely to feel the need to control the flow of narcotic substances and legislate what people can and can’t put in their bodies.

Finally, I found that just about all the authors here were taking a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, approach. Essentially, they were content to sit back and make observations on the whole issue of drug use and moral legislation, rather than making pronouncements. This would seem the preferable option considering that you can’t really offer a clear resolution without sounding either enabling or preachy. Some say that drug use destroys society, other say that people have the right to put whatever they want in their bodes. And then there are those who say that human weakness is a constant, and that criminalizing such a thing turns a flaw into a war. Complicated!

On a brighter note, all this talk puts me in mind of my own fictional creations. Years back, when I was coming up with the concept for my Legacies story, I spent a fair bit of time pondering what kind of drugs people would be using in the relatively distant future. I think I might just dedicate a page or a post to just that topic. In truth, I’d like to know what people think about my inventions. Look for it, it shall be coming soon!

Snow Crash!

Snow Crash!

You know how everyone has a set of favorite authors, people that they feel inspired them more than anyone else? Some people are lucky and have just one. Others, the “well-read” type, can name about ten, twenty or more! Me? I guess I’m lucky in that that list comes down to about five names. For me, that list includes George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Frank Herbert, William Gibson, and Neal Stephenson.

Like many people I know, I enjoy Stephenson’s books because they are entertaining and interesting, but also because he inspires thought. Upon writing this, I’ve read Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, and just started Anathema. And I can honestly say that each one is a timely creation, combining a cutting-edge knowledge of technology and computer science with a profound sense of history, politics, anthropology, and philosophy.

So, I thought it high time that I actually review one of his books, and what better place to start than with his first big hit, Snow Crash! Although it was his third book to date, released in 1992 and preceded by The Big U and Zodiac, it was arguably this book that established his reputation and put him on the radar of every fan of the post-cyberpunk genre.

Snow Crash:
The story takes place in Los Angeles during the early 21st century. The United States has effectively disintegrated, the vast majority of society now living in privatized areas known as “franchulates” (which are clearly meant to satirize gated communities) and the federal government maintaining islands of influence in between it all. Enter into this world Hiro Protagonist, a comically named freelance hacker/swordfighter, who lives in a storage closet and spends much of his free time in the virtual environment known as the Metaverse.

After an abortive delivery working for Uncle Enzo’s Pizza, he meets a young woman named Y.T. (short for Yours Truly) who works for a the “Kourier” delivery company. In this day, couriers get around by riding high-tech skateboards and “pooning” (i.e. harpooning) their way through traffic. After making Hiro’s delivery for him, she becomes a personal friend of Uncle Enzo himself, a friendship which proves lucrative as the story goes on. Since she also saved his butt, Hiro and her decide to become partners in the “intelligence business”, meaning they now work together to obtain and sell information through the CIC (Central Intelligence Company, the leftovers of the CIA).

Things begin to get interesting when Hiro becomes aware of a new pseudo-narcotic that is making the rounds in the Metaverse. It’s called Snow Crash, the use of which causes anyone’s system to crash and emit total static (hence the name). In the real world, a hard version of the drug is making the rounds which alters the minds of users and causes them to utter some kind of “glossolalia” – i.e. speaking in tongues – and become disconnected from reality. Upon investigating, Hiro and Y.T. learn that the drugs are being distributed by a chain of Pentecostal churches known as “Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates”, which is owned by software magnate L. Bob Rife.

Rife is currently at sea and in possession of the USS Enterprise, which has become part of a massive flotilla of ships that makes periodic crossings from Asia-Pacific to North America. Apparently, everyone on board is infected with this virus as well, the people speaking in strange, monosyllabic tongues whenever they are interviewed. After being encouraged to look into this by his Catholic and linguist ex-girlfriend, Juanita Marquez, Hiro begins to uncover that Rife is at the center of Snow Crash and what his plan is. Essentially, it relates back to the mythology of ancient Sumer when the myth of Babel took place (language becoming confounded and splintered).

According to Stephenson, Sumerian is to modern languages what binary is to programming languages. It affects the user at a far more basic level than acquired/programming language. Unlike modern language, Sumerian was rooted in the brain stem and its culture was ruled and controlled via “me”, the human equivalent of software which contains the rules and procedures for various cultural activity (harvesting grains, baking bread, making beer, etc.). The keepers of these important documents were priests referred to as “en”; some of them, like the god/semi-historical-figure Enki, could write new me, making them the equivalent of programmers or hackers.

In any case, the connection between past and present is demonstrated when Hiro learns how the ancient goddess Ashera created a dangerous biolinguistic virus that infected all peoples. This virus was stopped by Enki, another god, who used his skills as a “neurolinguistic hacker” to create an inoculating “nam-shub”, an anti-virus, that would protect humanity by destroying its ability to use and respond to the Sumerian tongue.

It was this creation, a modern take on the Babel myth, that created modern language as we know it today. However, Asherah’s meta-virus did not disappear entirely, as the “Cult of Asherah” continued to spread it by means of cult prostitutes who spread it through sex and the breast-feeding of orphaned infants. This is turn was countered by the ancient Hebrew priests, men who quashed the cult of Ashera and introduced sanitized, reproducible information with their written testaments.

Furthermore, Hiro learns that Rife has been sponsoring archaeological expeditions to the Sumerian city of Eridu, and has found enough information on the Sumerian tongue to reconstruct it and use it to work his will on humanity. He has also found the nam-shub of Enki, which he is protecting at all costs since it can counter the virus. After making their way to the Raft with the help of the Mafia, Hiro and Y.T. set about trying to find the Enki tablet so Hiro can upload its nam-shub to the Metaverse.

However, their efforts are frustrated somewhat by the presence of Raven, a massive Aleut freelancer who is in possession of his own thermonuclear weapon (which he acquired from a Russian sub and intends to use on America). He is helping Rife because of a score he wants to settle, being the child of people who endured exposure to two nuclear bombs (Hiroshima and nuclear testing in the Aleutians).

In the end, Hiro engages Raven in a virtual battle in the Metaverse while Y.T., Uncle Enzo and his men are forced to take down Bob Rife. Hiro manages to successfully upload the “nam-shub” of Enki, the world is saved, and Rife is brought down. There is also a brief side story of a budding romantic relationship between Y.T. and Raven, but that doesn’t work out in the end. She’s a young girl, he’s a homicidal, giant maniac… what can you do? Also, Hiro gets back together with Juanita and just about everyone lives happily ever after.

In a previous post, I believe I compared Gibson’s Virtual Light, the first book in the Bridge Trilogy, to this story, and for good reason. Both stories took place in an America where the country had become Balkanized, marked by privatization, major corporations and weird religious sects. The themes of hyperinflation, hard-living, overcrowding and urban sprawl were also consistent. And finally, the main characters – one a freelance agent and the other a delivery girl – were virtually identical.

However, when it comes right down to it, Stephenson’s take on the whole thing was better. His mix of satirical wit and social commentary was far more effective at critiquing the process whereby America is becoming increasingly privatized and polarized in terms of wealth and power. His fictional money, “Ed Meeses” and “Gippers” – the trillion and very rare quadrillion dollar note – were a nice very touch; and his use of “franchulates” in the story, a clear reference to gated communities, was nothing short of brilliant. His concept for the Metaverse, a virtual environment contained in cyberpace, and the spread of computer viruses also predicted several developments that would be taking place with the World Wide Web up to a decade later.

On top of all that, Stephenson managed to weave a great deal of history, philosophy and a fascinating take on neuro-linguistics into the story. Essentially, he demonstrated how human language and programming language are similar, when viewed in the right light – language is to the human brain what software is to the hardware. In addition, the story was replete with clever tidbits of history – WWII, the Vietnam War, nuclear testing, Biblical myths – and some rather hilarious twists and plot devices. “Reason”, a miniature Gatling gun used by the Mafia as a heavy-duty persuader, takes the cake for me (“I’m sure they’ll listen to Reason”)

However, it was also the mythological elements of this story which kind of brought it down in a way. While the allegorical similarities between programming language and spoken language was fascinating – as was the exploration of its biological and psychological aspects – one could not help but feel that the line between literal and figurative was being overstepped. In short, the idea was brilliant when considered from a metaphorical perspective – i.e. that the Babel myth might accord to some primordial event whereby language and human psychology became more complex.

However, the story is clearly presented in literal terms, the reader being told point blank that there really was an Tower of Babel-type event just a few thousand years ago that confounded our language, that made us what we are today and beforehand we were all slaves to social programming. Kind of seems a bit odd, but that’s Stephenson’s thing, using satire that is at once brilliant and at the same time a bit hokey. One can never tell where one ends and the other begins.

The only other weakness, and this is something Stephenson is a bit notorious for, is the ending. Stephenson himself laments that this is something he’s become known for, largely because he feels that its a jinx that’s haunted his subsequent work. Basically, he writes odd endings, ones that feel cut off and sudden. In Snow Crash, that is certainly the case. After a long chase scene, which ends when Rife’s helicopter is brought down by a dozen Kourier harpoons, Y.T. simply says goodbye to Raven (flips him the bird) and then calls her mom to tell her she’s coming home.

An additional chapter where Hiro gets to meet up with his friends in the Metaverse and reunites with Juanita would have been a good addition. Much was made of how his friends, hackers like him, were being specifically targeted by Snow Crash since they were the biggest threat to Rife’s plans. Given all that, it would have been nice to show how they all came through the crisis, not to mention a final romantic scene between Hiro and his ex. Similarly, it would have been nice to see Y.T. actually make it home, her give her usual reassurances to her worried mother (who works for the feds), and for her to see her romantically challenged boyfriend, maybe realize he was okay after all the time she spent with Raven. Just saying…

But overall, Snow Crash was an awesome read and a real tour de force for me. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk, or is just intrigued by history, hacking, computer science, and gritty science fiction. It’s got it all, and some pretty cool departures for the philosophically inclined along the way!

Independence Day!

Welcome back! For my second review, as promised, I will be covering the enduring (ahem) “classic” of Independence Day. Though it has been repeatedly panned by critics, is an undoubted cheese-fest and full of plot holes and Deus Ex Machina plot twists, I have to admit that I actually liked this movie when it first came out. Years later, it remains a sort of guilty pleasure for me, something I routinely poke fun at, but will still sit and watch. If nothing else, its rah rah tempo, stupid one-liners and over the top action are good for a laugh, and maybe a little excitement. Just be advised, taking this movie seriously is not advisable… But, since I gotta review it, I’m going to have to do just that. Wish me luck!

Not that long ago, while discussing this movie over dinner, some friends mentioned that they thought this was a Michael Bay movie. They were wrong, of course. In truth, Roland Emmerich directed it, but the mistake was understandable. Much like Bay, Emmerich has a reputation for making movies that are all form and special effects, always lacking in depth, plot and character development. To illustrate, here are some of the movies he made after Independence Day: Godzilla (1998), The Patriot (2000), The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2009). In addition, he’s also been known to rip off other movies from time to time. Consider the Patriot, which was basically Braveheart meets the American Revolution, or Independence Day’s constant borrowing from other sci-fi movies: Star Wars, Close Encounters, War of the Worlds… the list goes on. And in many respects, his later directorial ventures were obvious attempts to recreate the cash cow that Independence Day turned out to be. Still, one can’t deny that things kind of came together for him with this movie. But putting its commercial success aside, let’s get down to dissecting this bad boy!

The movie opens with a shot of the Apollo landing site, where a shadow slowly covers Old Glory. The shot then pans to Earth where alien ships begin to slowly move into the frame. With this one shot, the audience is exposed to two of Emmerich’s characteristic moves: using landmarks every chance he gets, and ripping off other franchises. Star Wars fans will immediately know what I’m talking about, remember how all the originals began with ships moving into frame from behind the camera? Yeah, well the same thing is happening here. Cut to Earth where dozens of characters, most of whom we’ll never see again, are busy talking about the objects moving into Earth orbit. Will Smith (a marine fighter pilot) the president (a former fighter pilot, played by Bill Pullman), and the crazy alcoholic played by Randy Quaid (another former fighter pilot!), and all his other characters are hurriedly introduced, showing how this event is being perceived by the different people all over the country. Here is yet another characteristic Emmerich move, putting way too many people into a movie, most of whom do nothing except say a line to move the plot along, then either die or are never heard from again.

Moving on, the tension begins to build as everyone begins to ask the obvious: what are they doing here? Naturally, we are shown multiple shots of people all over the world reacting, all of them stupid and cheesy. Some people are thrilled, some think they’ve brought Elvis back, and of course Quaid launches into a drunken rant about how they abducted him way back when (which is apparently why he’s a drunk in the first place). Then, in the movie’s first totally implausible twist, a cable repair man played by Jeff Goldblum discovers that the aliens are using Earth’s satellites to broadcast a countdown signal to all their ships, which are at that moment poised over Earth’s major cities (fans of the V series will recognize this is another case of Emmerich ripping off a respected sci-fi franchise!) Anyhoo, Goldblum discovers this, and brings it to the president, who he just happens to have an in with because he ex-wife works for him. He has to, you see, because somehow the government has missed all this. Yes, that’s right, the US government, in possession of the best scientific minds and cryptologists thanks to NASA, the NSA, the CIA, etc, failed to notice something a cable repair man picked up on. Emmerich himself seemed to recognize the implausibility of this and wrote in an explanation of sorts. Apparently the signal was “subtle”. Yeah, good to know the guy who installs HBO on your home entertainment system is smarter than the guys who send rockets into space and hunt terrorists for a living!

Incidentally, I should take this opportunity to mention all the expository dialogue which takes place within the first thirty minutes. As if it wasn’t clear already, we are made blatantly aware of the fact that Goldblum and his ex-wife still love each other, Will Smith is planning on marrying Vivica A Fox, that he wants to go into space (hint hint!) and that the president is a former soldier who can’t tell a lie! You know, when you have to actually tell the audience what they are supposed to be feeling, it kind of comes off as lazy. But that’s in keeping with Emmerich’s style I guess, pictures instead of words and a few quick and cheesy lines instead of slow, gradual character development. Always taking the short route, eh Emmerich?

In any case, Goldblum warns them, they take him seriously, and the countdown is on! The aliens are clearly going to attack… and then they do! Boom, blam, kapow! The aliens blow up all the landmarks they’ve chosen to hover over and that we are so familiar with. The Chrysler building, the White House, and… I dunno, downtown LA? Yeah, that shot was kind of devoid of landmarks, but I’m guessing blowing up the Hollywood sign just seemed too over the top for this movie. But showing the Statue of Liberty wrecked and toppled over into New York Harbor in the very next shot did not, apparently. What follows is a desperate fight scene where Will Smith’s fighter squadron attacks the LA ship, and in a scene totally ripped off from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, the entire squadron has to do the whole “pull up, all craft pull up!” thing. Why? The ship has shields, wouldn’t you know? And they are about to fly right into them! Naturally, Smith survives, even if his whole squadron, including his wisecracking friend (played by Henry Connick Jr) gets killed. He even manages to take an alien prisoner, knocking him out between one-liners. “I wrecked your plane!” Whack! “Welcome to Earth!” “Now that’s what I call a close encounter!” One would think he would be a bit sad that all his friends and comrades just got their asses shot to hell, but whatever man, its Will Smith! People expect a certain amount of cool catch-phrases from the man and he has to deliver. It’s in his contract…

Back to Airforce One, where the president, Goldblum, his ex-wife, stereotype dad, and about a half dozen other cardboard stand-ins are talking, we learn that some people knew about these aliens already and kept quiet about it. Even as a teenager when I first saw this, I began thinking to myself “Oh God no, they wouldn’t!” But then, they did! Turns out, and in keeping with Emmerich’s tendency to take the quick and easy road, Area 51 really does exist, and that it really does house the bodies of those aliens who crash-landed at Roswell in 1947, along with their spacecraft. So naturally, that is where they go. Which also happens to be (holy coincidence!) where Will Smith is heading to at that very moment. Why he would be doing that is something not worth considering, that’d just complicate things at this point. I mean, its not like LA and Area 51 are that far apart, right? Actually, there’s about 400 km (or 250 miles) between them. And, as all Marines know, if you get into a dogfight with an alien and happen to take it prisoner, no matter where you are, you should start dragging its carcass to the secret airbase in the middle of the Nevada Desert. Just makes sense! Okay, and in another act of total contrivance, it just so happens that Randy Quaid and a caravan of Winnebagos are heading that way too. So basically, all of the main characters are converging on this one place! How convenient! As if that wasn’t enough, as soon as they all get there, Will Smith steals a helicopter, flies back to LA (what happened to all those alien space craft that were shooting their planes down?) and just happens to find Vivica A Fox and the First Lady, who just happened to find each other after the city got flattened. Just how small is LA anyway?

Then, more expository stuff happens. The prez talks to the weird scientist in charge (played by Brent Spiner, aka. Data from Star Trek TNG) about the aliens and their gear. They then do an alien autopsy on the one Smith captured, which goes horribly wrong when it wakes up and has no restraints to contend with (c’mon people!). And the prez talks to it and finds out they want Earth’s resources because “they’re like locusts”. This is just one of many shallow environmental statements made by this movie, but I digress. This prompts them to try and nuke one of the ships, but wouldn’t you know it, those darn shields are impervious to thermonuclear weapons too! So Goldblum, after yet another expository speech where Judd talks to him about keeping the faith, comes up with an idea. He decides he’s going to infect the alien ship with a computer virus! Not only that, he’s going to fly into the alien mothership, Trojan Horse style, along with Will Smith who just happens to know how to fly the recovered alien spacecraft now (for no other reason than because he saw one in action) and upload the virus there and then set off a nuke to disorient them. Where do I start to explain all the things that are totally weak and crappy about this climax?

Well, for starters, it’s yet another rip-off, this time of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, where the alien invaders were brought down by actual viruses. But more importantly, there’s the sheer implausibility of the whole idea! For example, are we really to believe that a cable repair man, regardless of how much time he spent at MIT, could design a computer virus that would be capable of disabling alien technology? And are we really to believe that Will Smith can fly an alien spacecraft simply because he saw “how it maneuvers”? And let’s not forget, the ship is 50 years old at this point, you gotta figure the aliens have transponders or some such thing on their ships. How else would they keep track of them? You’d have to think that they’d see it coming and notice it was reported missing 50 years ago and get a little suspicious. But to ask these questions at this point in the movie would be pointless. Hopefully everyone has realized its just easier not to take it seriously. In any case, everything hinges on their ability to get onto the mothership and upload this virus (wait, how did they even know they could get onto it? Never mind!) and on the ability of the US to coordinate a worldwide counter-attack while the shields are down. Again, Emmerich manages to acknowledge the absurdity of all this by having one of his characters (in this case, the jagoff Secretary of Defense) expresses all kinds of doubts. Emmerich promptly shuts those down by having the prez fire the man, mainly because he’s a jagoff! But then again, even Goldblum has his doubts, but Emmerich dismisses them too: “You really think you can fly that thing?” he asks. “You really think you can do all that bullshit you just said?” Nuff said!

In any case, in spite of some predictable road bumps designed to keep the tension up, the plan works. The prez decides to lead the attack… Why? Because he’s a pilot, remember? Not to mention a cardboard cut-out hero. Naturally, he gives a speech that is blatantly American, though it attempts to be international in tone. Yeah, America’s saving the world, so from now on July 4th will be a global holiday. Yay, American culture conquers the world by saving it! Woo… Oh, and Quaid will be flying too, mainly because all the characters have to be swept up in the same plot tsunami again. Everything seems like it might fail when, whattayaknow, Quaid flies his plane into the alien ship’s gun. He gets some personal and comical revenge by killing the bastards that abducted him, and the ship blows up. Now forgetting how stupidly implausible this is (the way to bring down the alien ship is basically the equivalent of plugging the barrel of the gun with your finger???), its also horribly over the top. Of course its the guy who has a family and has been a deadbeat dad up until this point that’s going to redeem himself in a final act of self-sacrifice! But the funniest thing is, how quickly everyone forgets about him. “You should be proud of your father,” says one of the military men. “I am,” says the eldest son, and that’s it. No grief, no anger, no denial. He’s gone, I’m cool!

To make matters even more implausible, Smith and Goldblum somehow manage to survive, despite the fact that they blew up the alien mother ship with a nuke that sent them hurling towards Earth from the resulting shock wave. And then, in the desert, the balance of the main characters watch flaming debris fall through the atmosphere and Will Smith says to his new son: “I promised you some fireworks, boy!” Yeah, nothing like genocide and falling debris, some so big it could take out an entire city, to put you in the festive spirit! I mean c’mon, I know they were trying to exterminate you, but you don’t wipe out an entire race and not feel just the slightest degree of regret or remorse in the process! But again, I’m making the mistake of taking this movie seriously. The big, over the top ending is entertaining, if nothing else, and the big fireworks display only drives the blatant Americanism home. So what the hell! Cue over the top music, and roll credits…

As I’ve said already in this review, this movie is a guilty pleasure for me. It’s fun, rewatchable, and always good for a laugh. In fact, you might say it was a success for exactly those reasons, and maybe that’s what Emmerich himself was going for. Even if the plot is thin as paper, the characters cardboard cut-outs and the dialogue so cheesy it makes you want to laugh out loud, no one can deny that it was some pretty harmless fun. But if his subsequent movies are taken into account, you begin to see a certain pattern in Emmerich’s movies that are genuinely bothersome. For instance, his constant use and destruction of famous landmarks and his far too many characters – most of whom are, at best, one-dimensional, at worst, total stereotypes.

There’s also the massive plot holes, contrivances, and over the top action sequences. But worst of all, it just seems like all of these are shallow attempts at evoking emotion and the goal is just to get to the next action sequence. Every movie he’s made since has these exact same elements, and it just seems lazy. Everything always feels rushed, minimal time being dedicated to establishing tension, developing characters, or creating back story before something blows up and people start to die. The destroying of landmarks, killing off hundreds of minor characters at once, relying on one-liners and cheesy dialogue to make people care, it just seems like he’s just taking the easy route.

In addition, all his movies have the same central theme to them: the lone hero, the outcast or underestimated soul, who somehow knows more than all the experts and manages to see the threat coming, but is ignored. Ultimately, he saves the day, and course, there’s always the bit about the girl he loved, lost, and will win back once he saves the day. While this is a rather weak basis for a main character, they are typically the only one in his scripts that ever rise above the status of total caricature.

So, go ahead Emmerich. Count your millions and keep making crap fests. You’re hurting no one, so I can bear you no ill will. And besides, you made me laugh and kept me entertained with this first crap fest, so I guess I owe you something. Independence Day: harmless fun, but check your brain at the door.

Entertainment Value: 8/10!
Plot: 2/10
Direction: 3/10
Total: 6/10