It’s finally happened! After years of work, Castrum Press has delivered and released my first published novel, The Cronian Incident, in audiobook format! The story is narrated by Steve K. Rausch, a voice actor whose good work I can personally attest to! After listening to him a few times, I’ve come to hear a certain Keith David quality to it (another gifted voice actor/regular actor).
Good news, folks! First off, I apologize for the tardiness of this post. I meant to write about this days ago, but unfortunately for me, blogging about writing seems to take a backseat to actually writing. But I digress…
Heather Archuletta, a member of NASA’s Flight Simulation Research program, a STEM education advocate, creator of Pillow Astronaut (Pillownaut) and sci-fi geek (among other things) recently gave me the best review of my life! As she says in a Tweet posted on Dec. 8th, The Cronian Incident was the best sci-fi book she read this year.
Gifts! ADULT SCIENCE FICTION BOOK: Best I read and reviewed this year was “The Cronian Incident” by Matt Williams
@StoryByWill. Awesome hard sci-fi on multiple planets, with plot twists, available at Amazon.
Needless to say, I am very humbled and honored. I was also feeling pretty smug when I got this news to be perfectly honest! It certainly made me feel more motivation to get the sequel done too, which has just surpassed 70,000 words. For those looking to follow up on The Cronian Incident, the second installment – The Jovian Manifesto – it will be available in the New Year!
Okay, I think its about time I stopped posting every time I get a good review. That’s got to be bad manners or something! But at the moment, I just can’t help myself. The Cronian Incident has been out for one month (as of October 5th), and I’m very happy that the first reviews have been universally good. The latest comes from by friend over at Goodreads, Scout.
“I haven’t read science fiction for years, so I had a pretty fresh approach to reading The Cronian Incident. First of all, I’d never thought about the fact that science fiction writers, especially in a first book in a series, can’t just tell a story; they have to, at the same time, create the world in which the characters move. I’d say that Matthew Williams did an excellent job with this. I now have a good understanding of how the world works in this series. I’d describe the novel as a futuristic sci-fi detective novel with some elements of the Wild West thrown in. Ward, the main character, begins as a convict, formerly an Interpol agent. I won’t go into detail on the plot, but I found it interesting, and this was a fast read once I figured out the basics of the world in which it’s set. I’ll leave it to the reader to discover how Williams worked possible future advancements into the novel. Suffice it to say that I was intrigued.”
Thanks Scout! And to the internet gods, may I implore you to please let reviews like these keep coming!
Brilliant Storytelling, Outstanding Military Adventure writing and, Most Importantly….Remarkable Characters that make it all matter. I’m anxiously awaiting the next book.
Hello and welcome to the first literary review I have had the honor of doing for a fellow author! On the docket for today, a sci-fi, near future dystopian work known as Rabbletown: Life in these United Christian States of Holy America, by Randy Attwood. Awhile back, this author and his work came to my attention by way of my writers group. Like many of us, Randy has been writing for many years, had an idea and manuscript that was just awaiting completion, and which he recently finished and made available as an ebook and paperback (see links below for info on where to find it).
Author Bio: Randy is a retired journalist, but also worked as the director of university relations for Kentucky University medical center and as the media relations officer for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. He retired in 2010 and now dedicates himself to his writing. He has several titles to date, and Rabbletown is (far as I can tell) the flagship of his fleet.
Plot Synopsis: The story takes place in a dystopian future, circa 2084, where the US has become a fundamentalist state (as the name clearly implies). The how and why of this are explained in the preamble, where ongoing tension between the US and Middle East eventually turn nuclear and result in the full scale devastation of both. Whereas the United States bombs Iran and environs into oblivion using its ICBM’s, the various nation-states and terrorist organizations strike back using backpack nukes and dirty bombs until most US major cities are ruined.
What emerges is, predictably, a renewed Dark Ages where civil authorities are replaced by religious ones, the Evangelical movement becomes the dominant political force in America, and Jews, Muslims and Catholics are either suppressed or eradicated. The president of the US is known as the Pastor President, and all offices (governor, mayor, etc) are also required to take on the title of pastor before their rank. Each president is named in honor of famous Evangelists; the current president is Jerry Falwell V, his VP is Pat Robertson.
In addition to demonstrating their lineage from these current media figures, this is also a clear and delicious stab at the Christian Right and its political machinations! Other names of note include Cheney – a former member of the regime who is languishing in jail after an attempted coup – thus ensuring that the political right are also included in this indictment. What’s more, the civil authorities are known as Inquisitors, who are naturally the enforcers of religious law, extract confessions through torture and regularly stone those who sin.
Foreign policy is similarly medieval in this day and age. Whereas the US has become a Christian Republic, there is talk of the “Caliphate”, presumably a united Arab world, where Christian and Muslim soldiers fight for control of Jerusalem once again. It is hinted in the story that this “Crusade” is not real, merely a political tool that the Pastor Presidents use from time to time to drum up support. Still, the purpose of having it is clear. Whereas politics in the US are now dominated by religion, so to is their view of the world.
In any case, what follows is a story of how one town – Rabbletown, Kansas (a borough of Topeka) – is working to create the country’s greatest Cathedral in preparation for a visit from the Pastor President. The main characters, the Mason Bob Crowley, his wife Cheryl, Pastor Governor Jerry Johnson IV, Healer Elmer, Father Superior Robert, Friar Francis and Pastor Teacher Harold, give us a inside view of life in this future Kansas town, presenting it from various angles and providing exposition of how society works. Their particular POV’s are also important when a seminal development takes place, the appearance of a boy who has a knack for quoting Bible verses and seems somehow… “touched” by the Lord. This boy is none other than Bobby Crowley, the son of Mason Bob.
(Spoiler Alert!): The story begins to truly come together after a series of holy events takes place involving Bobby and a routine stoning. Everyone, from the President to the boy’s father, becomes swept up in a frenzy after news of it spreads, the authorities condemning it as the work of Satan while others proclaim the boy to be Christ reborn. Repression and division follow, with the so-called holy authorities becoming very much the enemy of those who appear chosen and righteous. Needless to say, the allegory is clear. In time, the division between the authorities and believers reaches (ahem!) Biblical proportions, in a scene that very much resembles that of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus.
Weaknesses: It is this last part which fell short for me. Given the background and nature of the story, one would get the impression that religion is being cast in a negative light, or at least that it is being mocked for its current excesses and abuses. However, the story also seems to be making the point that religion will be the source of salvation. While this would seem like a keen observation about the duality of faith – the line between salvation and condemnation being so fine – it also makes for an unbelievable ending. Whereas the question of Bobby’s holiness would have seemed best if left vague and metaphorical, there is no doubt about it in the story. Bobby is literally divine, his nature and purpose a force of righteous redemption.
There are some other weaknesses, such as the relevant facts being presented in a matter-of-fact way that leaves the reader feeling spoon fed. The dialogue also comes off as expository and forced at times, something you wouldn’t expect to hear from real people no matter how politically conscious they are. And the intro gives us a full dose of the background which leaves the reader feeling less inclined to read and discover for themselves what’s already happened, what has led the characters to their current situation. And the ending, well its a little predictable given all the Biblical allusions. However, these are hardly fatal and don’t really take away from the overall plot. Really, its just the ending that felt like it misfired.
Strengths: Overall, the story has all the elements of good satire: corruption, decay, selfishness and power mongering; with small, shining lights of redemption amidst it all. The bit about people’s daily lives and how they turn to their PPC’s (Personal Pastor Counselor) is also quite ingenious, predicting the emergence of an internet-based personal religious counseling. The mock history, particularly the part about the Catholic Accommodation was also a stroke a fine art (I shan’t describe, read it yourself!).
And above all, the mockery of the Evangelical movement and its political ambitions feels quite apt. For what can be said about people who seem to think that its a good idea to combine religion and politics, and have little to no qualms about condemning their “liberal” adversaries and all the “undesirables” of society? If they got their wish, would it really resemble anything other than Taliban-style medievalism?
Hence, I recommend Rabbtletown for those people looking for a dystopian read with a religious twist. It’s clever, fun, and a short read which will inspire thought. And, given some tweaking and a little expansion, it could even be a bestseller someday! Hey, you gotta have faith (ba pa ra pum pum!).
Here’s a cult classic you don’t hear about often. But that’s the way of cult classics, isn’t it? You never hear about them until you stray into the fan community and they insist that you have to see it. You finally do and then maybe, just maybe, you yourself become an accolade. Once that happens, you might eventually become aware of the community of fans that’s out there – most likely they have an internet fansite going – they spread the word and make sure the movie is listed as a “sleeper hit” or a “hidden gem”.
Yeah, that’s about how I came to see the movie Strange Days. I can remember when it came out back in 95, how little fanfare and attention it got and how briefly it was in theaters. In fact, I didn’t even hear about it again until recently when it turned up on somebody’s top ten lists of the best sci-fi movies. Upon further investigation, I found that this movie made it onto a lot of people’s lists, even a few professional ones. And since I committed to covering sci-fi cult-classics awhile back, I thought I’d check this one out. And, I am pleased to say, I was pretty impressed.
In spite of being well-received by critics, this movie did quite poorly at the box office. Surprising, considering the all-star cast and the fact that James Cameron co-wrote and produced the thing. And when I stay all-star, I mean all-star! Ray Fiennes, Angela Basset, Juliet Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Michael Winscott all had main roles in this movie (this last guy you may remember as the creepy villain from The Crow, and every other movie he’s ever done for that matter!)
However, as is often the case, the movie went on to attract a cult following who enjoyed the movies cyberpunk elements, its millennial theme and dark, paranoid feel. And with few exceptions, the acting and delivery was quite good. Ray Fiennes excels at being the sleazy but redeemable huckster, Basset as his concerned and beleaguered friend, and Winscott as the creepy, paranoid control-freak. Juliet Lewis came off as a little labored, but then again, her dialogue was kind of the cheesy, looks good on paper stuff. Still, she manages to pull off the abused, damaged damsel quite convincingly (draw whatever inference you will from that ;)).
In addition, the movie did a good job of capturing that pervasive sense of millennial madness that was beginning to manifest around the early-mid nineties. While things like the Y2K virus quickly became a cliche, especially after they proved baseless, the years leading up to the millennium were not without their share of fears, concerns and a general sense of imminence. Many people, both religious and secular, predicted doom, thinking the world would end. Others predicted a sort of social cataclysm, that mobs and rioters would take to the streets and begin looting, especially if all the grids went down. But most, I think, were just worried that the madness and hysteria would be self-fulfilling, that some riots and crackdowns might happen before everyone realized that the world wasn’t ending.
Also, the technological aspects of this movie were quite interesting. Mainly, they centers on a form of virtual entertainment known as the SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device), a device which can record and playback events directly from the wearers cerebral cortex. This predicted the internet phenomena in many ways, the concept of “viral videos” and snuff films being the main plot device in the story. And one of the major events in the movie, the murder of an outspoken hip-hop artist and the controversy surrounding it, predicted the death of Tupac Shakur, which took place around a year later.
The movie opens on the last days of December, 1999. Violent crime and gang warfare are getting out of control, and in the midst of all this, a major recording artist and activist named Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) is killed. Meanwhile, a woman is being chased by two policemen, played by Vicent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner, who clearly want to kill her. Seems she saw something and was wearing a SQUID at the time, and when she gets away, the policemen retrieve the device and realize she got it all on tape (disc, whatever!).
Meanwhile, we meet Lenny Nero (Ray Fiennes), a former LAPD officer who has since turned to the world of contraband and sleaze, selling SQUID tapes to anyone looking for a break from reality or themselves. However, Nero has a rule that he never sells “blackjacks” (i.e. snuff films), because he considers himself a purveyor of experiences, not a peddler of smut! His friends, Lornette ‘Mace’ Mason (Angela Basset) and Max Peltier (Tom Sizemore) are also former LAPD officers who have since retired. Mason now does private security while Justin is a private eye. They don’t approve of what Nero does, but stick by him because of their friendship, and in Mason’s case, feelings of unrequited love.
Things begin to unfold when the woman who was being chased, named Iris (Brigette Bako), finds Nero at a bar. She claims someone is trying to kill her and has to flee, but that she recorded the entire thing on a disc and dropped it in his car. However, his car is soon towed and he’s unable to figure out what she was talking about. Shortly thereafter, a “blackjack” is dropped off at his house that shows someone killing her. Nero is freaked, especially since when he last saw her, Iris also told him that their mutual friend and Nero’s former lover, Faith Justin (Juliette Lewis), is in danger as well. This presents Nero with an opportunity to see her, only to be told by her and her manager that he’s not wanted. In between telling him that they are through, Justin is sure to relate that she’s also afraid because her manager, Philo Gant (Michael Winscott), is becoming increasingly paranoid and controlling. Spurned, Nero shows Mason and Peltier the blackjack and they are similarly shocked.
Shortly thereafter, Nero and Mason go to pick up his car so they can see what Iris dropped off and run into the same two officers who were chasing Iris earlier. They narrowly escape them and then view the tape, where it shows these same officers murdering Jeriko in cold blood. Shortly thereafter, Nero finds his supplier, Tick (Richard Edson), dead from an overdose of the SQUID. It looks like an accident, but Peltier suspects foul play since what appears to be an isolated case of murder might have something to do with a larger conspiracy he’s been hearing about. According to Peltier, there is a militant movement coming from City Hall and the LAPD who are determined to bring the city under control, even if it involves death squads! Because Jeriko was a major activist who was bringing the gangs of LA together to reign in the LAPD and the cities politicians, these squads would have been targeting him.
They then go to pick up Faith who is at a New Years party being hosted Philo. She reveals to them that she knows what going on, that Philo has become a total “wirehead” (i.e. SQUID-addict), who’s in the habit of having his artists followed because of his increasing paranoia. Iris was his mole and was tailing Jeriko, and was therefore with him when he was murdered. When she showed the tape to Philo, he feared for his business, beat her up, burnt the tape and told her killer where to find her. However, she made a copy in advance which she then put in Nero’s car. They now understand why Faith was afraid and trying to keep Nero away. Clearly, she feared for her life as well and didn’t want him getting involved. They all agree they should release the tape, but both Peltier and Nero worry about the impact it will have – i.e. a full-scale war between the gangs and the LAPD.
However, their rescue attempt is thwarted as Philo and his thugs intervene. Faith is then taken to his suite where she expects to die. After arguing and regrouping, Nero and Mason decide to attempt to rescue her again. Meanwhile, the streets are filled with people celebrating, rioting, and signs boasting “2K”. In the midst of the rowdy chaos, Mason and Nero manage to sneak into Philo’s party, Nero attempts to rescue Faith while Mason confronts the police commissioner and slips him the disk. Mason gets into Philo’s suite but finds him dead, and that Peltier, his friend, is the one who killed him. Seems he and Faith have been having an affair, and that HE was the one who murdered Iris and sent the tapes to Nero. He also confesses that the whole conspiracy theory was just his way of keeping Nero away from the authorities. In the end, it was all just a “traffic stop gone wrong”.
While this might seem like a letdown, I actually preferred it to the alternative. Rather than there being some big conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, the real motivating factor in all this was just random violence. And it is for this reason that Peltier did what he did. In a world as messed up as theirs, he believes what matters most is getting what you can before you’re murdered senselessly. In any case, Faith comes in and distracts him long enough for Nero to get the upper hand and they fight. Nero gets a knife in his back (symbolic since his friend betrayed him) but manages to toss Peltier from the balcony in the end.
Down below, Mason has been forced to flee the party when the two crooked officers spot her and begin chasing her through a crowd. She subdues them, but then is set upon by several riot cops. She is cornered and beaten, and it looks like its all over until a number of people in the crowd decide to help her out. A big fight, symbolic of the war they were anticipating, begins, but is broken up when the commissioner arrives and reveals he’s seen what’s on the disc. The two officers are arrested, one eats his gun while the other – D’Onofrio, in true psychotic form – tries to shoot Basset and is gunned down!
The movie ends with the New Year being rung in. Yes, in spite of the shooting, several deaths and a near riot, the countdown happens as planned and people cheer. Ah whatever, it’s New Year’s right? No sense letting a few fatalities ruin the biggest party of the millennium. Everyone is merry, people kiss (even some riot troops and civilians), and of course, Nero and Mason hook up! Seems he’s finally taken the hint and broken it off with Faith who, let’s face it, is more trouble than she’s worth. War is averted, the New Year arrives without the apocalypse, and there’s resolution all around!
Overall, I can see why this movie was a cult hit and why it didn’t do so well in theaters. For one, it wasn’t the usual big-budget splashy action flick Cameron is famous for, and it didn’t have a faithful marketing effort behind it. And that’s to be expected from a noire, cyberpunk thriller such as this, studios just don’t seem to know how to peddle and pigeon hole it. However, given its obvious depth and signs of quality, I think it was inevitable that audiences would take notice of it, adding it to their lists of favorites alongside movies like Blade Runner and Akira.
For one, the movie managed to capture, years in advance, the feeling of paranoia that surrounded the actual millennium. Ultimately, these fears proved to be baseless (just like in the movie!), which was one of the things I found subtly brilliant here. Long before the myth of Y2K began to circulate, it was easy to see how people would treat the millennium with a certain degree of paranoia. The religiously minded would fear that the apocalypse was at hand, the paranoid would expect riots, and others believed the world’s infrastructure to all go down! But of course, the clock struck twelve… and nothing happened. And, the plot where a hip-hop artist/activist is murdered in many ways predicted the feelings of loss and suspicion that followed Tupac’s death. Many of his die-hard fans continue to say he was assassinated, some even that he’s still alive!
In addition, the concept of VR technology and human experience was explored in depth and I found this very effective as well. On the one hand, the SQUID technology is just like a drug, something people do to escape their daily lives. On the other, there’s a lot of time dedicated to showing how something like this would have a negative impact on people’s memories and experiences by depriving them of authenticity. On several occasions, Nero is criticized for not being able to let go of the past, mainly because he keeps reliving it with his SQUID. The character of Mason says at one point that memories are meant to fade. Ergo, reliving his old experiences is depriving him of the ability to move on.
But what was best was the twist at the end. Ultimately, the threat came from close to home rather than from death squads or in the form of some big, shadowy conspiracy. All along, the characters are moving about thinking that they are witnesses to an assassination and that they can’t trust the authorities. But in the end, it turns out that the “assassination” was just a random act of violence – albeit with disastrous consequences if it went public – and that it’s their best friend they can’t trust. All of this is in keeping with the central theme and setting of the movie, which again, is millennial madness and an impending set of doom, all of which proves baseless in the end.
Movies like this one remind me that Cameron had a keen mind and some pretty cool ideas way back when. So… what happened? How did he go from Aliens, T2 and Strange Days to “I’m king of the world” and “Unobtainium”? Was it the money? Must be the money. Screws up everything!
Entertainment Value: 7/10 (admittedly, not the funnest movie around)
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!