Independence Day vs. War of the Worlds Part 1

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April 10th 2014
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NChick: Alien invasion movies.

(cut to clips from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Attack The Block)

NChick: They just never go away!

(Clips from Signs and Skyline)

(Clips from Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, Independence Day, The Host and Skyline)

NChick (VO): Low budget, high budget, success, epic-est of failures, you name it, this is a premise that does not look to ever be going away.

NChick: Why is that? Well, as a concept, 'alien' is a super-broad one. Aliens have a wider embodiment of our hopes, our fears, our self-defined relationship to the other than any other paranormal, magical, or sci-fi concept. In short, aliens have a lot of versatility just as a basic premise.

(clips from Signs and Independence Day)

NChick (VO): But big-budget Hollywood invasion movies, less so.

NChick: Because they have to have a happy ending. It's in the rules.

(Clips from War of the Worlds, Battleship, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen)

NChick (VO): And really huge giant big-budget blockbuster alien invasion movies, there are really only a handful of those. Most recently, you have Battleship and the Transformers franchise, though I'm not sure how the alien part figures into the appeal of Transformers. They're about as un-alien as anthropomorphic car-men are gonna get.

Mudflap: Look at this motherf- *CLONK*

NChick: No, no, I am more interested in the honest to God, they're here to exterminate us, boom and bombast, straight up invasion narrative and to do that....

(clips from Independence Day and War of the Worlds)

NChick (VO): ...we are going to compare the seminal alien invasion movie of the 1990s and the seminal alien invasion movie of the....

NChick: ...aughts....two....two-thous.... Seriously, guys, it's been, like, 5 years since that decade ended, we need to agree on a name for it.

(intercutting clips of ID4 and WOTW)

NChick (VO): Two movies that, despite the basic premise being nigh-identical, are incredibly different takes on the same experience. One bombastic and full of optimism, the other dour, gritty and full of painful honesty about human nature, one generally remembered fondly, the other less so.

NChick: But before we get into the content of the movies themselves, let's examine the.....everything that went into making these movies the way they is. Why is they the way they is? And more importantly....

(Clip of tripod rising from ground in WOTW)

NChick (VO): Why is War of the Worlds, which is in so many ways a masterpiece of modern filmmaking and by most metrics - 

NChick: Key word, 'most' - a superior film, remembered less fondly than Independence Day? I've thought us up some reasons. Let us list them.

Title Card: 1. War of the Worlds had a really hard act to follow. (called 'Independence Day')

NChick: War of the Worlds is, in many ways, a response to Independence Day.

(intercutting clips of WOTW and ID4)

NChick (VO): Part of that might be because Spielberg was thinking of remaking War of the Worlds when Independence Day came along and it became the ultimate alien invasion movie.

NChick: So there are elements that respond to Independence Day in War of the Worlds.

(pilots' briefing in ID4)

NChick (VO): This....

Steven Hiller: I'm just a little anxious to get up there and whup E.T.'s ass, that's all.

NChick (VO): Evolves into this...

(Robbie and Ray arguing at roadside as army rolls by)

Robbie: And we get BACK at them! We get- We get BACK at THEM!

(Emerging into the destroyed city in ID4)

NChick (VO): This....

Dylan: What happened, Mommy?

NChick (VO): Evolves into this...

(Rachel screaming as Ray tries to focus on driving)


Ray: OK, that's where we're going right now! Rachel, be-

(Casse rolls up in his RV)

NChick (VO): This....

Russell Casse: Need a lift, soldier?

NChick (VO): Evolves into this...

(desperate man ripping apart windshield with bloodied hands

NChick: And this, my favorite subtle dig....

(Ray and Rachel watching lightning storm)

Ray: Isn't this fun? It's like the fourth of July!

Rachel: No, it's not....

Ray: O say, can- (they retreat indoors after a violent strike sets off car alarms)

NChick (VO): Your movie's not scary, MY movie is scary, fuck you, Roland Emmerich.

NChick: The most obvious refutation is the tone...

(Ray's breakdown in the diner)

NChick (VO): Which makes Schindler's List look bright and cheerful.

(Intercutting clips of ID4 and WOTW) 

NChick (VO): As with all of Roland's movies, the fall of civilization brings people together. In War of the Worlds, the fall of civilization turns people into self-serving animals.

NChick: But at the same time, while refuting certain elements, War of the Worlds certainly borrows a lot from Independence Day as well.

(missiles exploding against flying saucer's shield and grenade exploding against tripod's shield)

NChick (VO): For instance, there's this....

(skyscraper being obliterated and tripod unleashing Heat Ray)

NChick (VO): This...

(Bacteria in opening of WOTW)

NChick (VO): Both rely on a contrived virus of some sort to save humanity...

NChick: And is that an ex-wife I spy? 

Mary Ann: You think?

NChick: But to me, the most egregious thing is this.

(WOTW alien appears snarling)

NChick (VO): Really, Spielberg? Really?

(side by side comparison of ID4 and WOTW aliens)

NChick (VO): COME ON!

NChick: Before I start digging on the alien design, I want to talk about the tripods.

(montage of tripod scenes)

NChick (VO): I. Fucking. Love. The tripods. God damn, there is nothing about the tripods that I don't love. There is not one second of screentime with tripod on it that I don't adore. Hell, I'd watch an entire movie of tripods! Tripods massacring people, suckin' out the blood, burning the innocent, new and innovative ways of- OH FUCK YES TRIPODS.

NChick: Seriously, the tripods are so beautiful and genius and gorgeous, I don't understand why they aren't an know, thing, on the level of Giger's Alien or the Terminator or E.T.. The tripods. Are. Awesome. The aliens what drive them...

(alien snarling again)

NChick (VO): Less so.

NChick: Let's talk a little bit about the design of aliens in Hollywood movies. They tend to be a bit samey, don't you think?

(artwork of typical 'gray' aliens)

NChick (VO): It would seem that somehow our culture has more or less agreed on what aliens look like...

NChick: And this is based completely on physical traits that are signifiers to humans.

(side by side comparisons of WOTW alien with Independence Day alien)

NChick (VO): Big pupil-free eyes denote mysterious, big head denotes intelligence, sallow inhuman-coloured skin that is vaguely reptilian denotes foreignness...

NChick: It has to tread a line between bestial and intelligent-looking so by the 1980s we more or less figured out.

(artwork and costumes based on gray aliens)

NChick (VO): We're onto you, aliens.

NChick: So, in War of the Worlds, they start with....

(concept art of the WOTW aliens)

NChick (VO): ....this really genuinely alien body structures that echos the tripods themselves.

NChick: Which is interesting but what do they put on top of it...

(full 3D model of the WOTW alien, and close-up of the Independence Day alien)

NChick (VO): But a really familiar looking head and where have we seen this before, hmmm?!

NChick: The only appreciable difference in the design is the fact that the War of the Worlds aliens had mouths.

(aliens prowling in the basement)

NChick (VO): So they can go "rarrr!"

WOTW Alien: (snarls at its fellow)

NChick: This is not to imply that the Independence Day aliens are the most original thing ever. Again, they're pretty heavily patterned off the Roswell aliens, but then I guess Roland's like:

(pictures of Roland Emmerich, a Xenomorph and the ID4 alien)

NChick (VO, in faux-German accent): You know how the Giger took the eyes from the Alien, and it had no eyes, and that made him scary? Let's take the mouth. So instead of no eyes, they have no mouth. And it is scary.

(WOTW aliens investigating junk in the basement and ID4 alien writhing)

NChick (VO): And so the aliens in War of the Worlds end up looking nigh-freaking-identical to the ones in Independence Day.

NChick: But here's the thing. In Independence Day, they had an in-universe reason to look the way they did....

(preserved aliens in cryo tubes and front page of Roswell Daily Record reporting flying saucer capture)

NChick (VO): our pre-conceived alien idea, because the whole scenario is based on conspiracy theory Americana...

NChick: And the idea that the Roswell aliens were real. We already know what those guys look like! So in War of the Worlds, there is no in-universe reason for them to look the way they do, only the real-world context of living in the shadow of Independence Day.

(footage of WOTW and District 9)

NChick (VO): In fairness the aliens also show up a little too late for them to be anything unfamiliar. Compare this to the relatively weird designs of District 9. The audience is freaking inundated with images of them so you're basically forced to accept them as characters by the end of act 1. Here they don't show up until the beginning of act 3, so they pretty much have to look like our pre-conceived idea of an alien. But after an hour of the sheer unadulterated awesome that is the tripods, they were bound to be disappointing no matter what they looked like.

NChick: I'd personally rather not have seen them.

(Footage of Independence Day and WOTW)

NChick (VO): Maybe, like, y'know, a hand at the end and that's it, but saw 'em in Independence Day, so guess we'd better do it here too.

WOTW Alien: (snarl)

Title Card: 2. 1996 > 2005

NChick: (Alanis Morissette's "Ironic" plays in the background) So, this thing going on, you know, with like, the Buzzfeeds of the world, it's all like "weren't the 90s awesome?" and people kinda shaking their heads and saying, "oh, you kids, everyone feels that way about the decade they grew up in..." and, yeah well, and that is true but here's a thing: The 90s were awesome.

(footage of the fall of the Berlin wall and Bill Clinton)

NChick (VO): I was super-young when it happened but, believe me, the fall of the Berlin wall took such a load off. Our young, hip saxophone-playing president wasn't so scandal-plagued yet, we had the best job market we'd seen in decades - (DVD cover for Reality Bites) fuck you, Reality Bites.

NChick: And we, the American film-going public: We just didn't have much to worry about.

(Footage of Independence Day and Dante's Peak)

NChick (VO): On some levels, Americans were bored and disconnected from any kind of societal anxiety and, film's a great outlet to get some quick, easy thrills and enjoy some blameless conflict. Even relatively wheezing little farts of disaster movies were big business in the 90s. (Screen cap of Dante Peak's budget and box office) I am genuinely bewildered by how much Dante's Peak made.

NChick: (The music changes to The Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps") 2005, conversely, sucked. Especially if you were an American and double especially if you weren't.

(Footage of army action and The Black Eyed Peas' video for "My Humps")

NChick (VO): The country was finally coming around to feeling really stupid about the whole invading Iraq thing, our pop charts were dominated by pain....

Fergie: My hump, my hump, my hump

NChick (VO): ....and suffering. (Footage of Hurricane Katrina) That was the year Katrina happened. (Poster for Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith) And also this.

NChick: It was also the year of this...

(Footage of Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah's couch)

NChick: Which, is relevant, but we'll get to that later.

NChick: And no, the economy had not yet crashed, but, it was still, an uneasy time.

Fergie: Say I'm really sexy, the boys they wanna sex me...

NChick: ...2005 sucked.

(clip of War of the Worlds)

NChick (VO): So if we're going on the logic that monster movies tap into the societal anxiety of the time....

Rachel: Is it the terrorists?!

NChick: What anxiety was there in 1996? Not much.

(intercutting clips of ID4 and WOTW)

NChick (VO): And I think Independence Day reflects this. Compared to the genuine terror we see in War of the Worlds, there is absolutely no horror to seeing these super-familiar symbols of American power destroyed in the most complete and terrible way.

NChick: In fact, even now, it's kind of awesome.

(Footage of ID4 and briefly Clinton playing his sax)

NChick (VO): It's a FUNpocalypse! Wheeeeeee! Aliens show up ominously and our dumbass president doesn't evacuate the cities but it's okay, because, you know, he heroically plays a saxophone- I mean- flies an airplane and shoots the aliens and America saves the day.

NChick: So playing on this idea of movie monsters and invading aliens in particular embodying cultural anxieties, what social anxiety were we as a culture still recovering from in 2005? What happened in 2001 that changed the world, and by extension, disaster movies, forever?

(long uncomfortable pause)

(footage of Pearl Harbor)

NChick (VO): Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor! Man, what a mess that was. Man, even Jerry Bruckheimer had a moment where he questioned the validity of film, let alone big budget action shlock after that one.

Title Card: 3. 9/11

(The Ferriers hitting the road in WOTW)

Robbie: What the hell is going on?!

Ray: Look, you saw, we're under attack!

NChick: Gone were the days of goofy action movies like Independence Day and Godzilla and Wild Wild West, no more disaster movies.

NChick (VO): The few stragglers that crept in were released, ignored and forgotten just as quickly.

NChick: When big, destructive action movies DID eventually begin to edge their way back into the theaters, things were different somehow.

(footage of Bozo the Clown and Saving Private Ryan)

NChick (VO): And I'm not saying that Hollywood movies were all like Bozo the Clown with machine guns, and then 9/11 happened and it was all like brooding variations on Saving Private Ryan....

NChick: Action movies, especially, like, pulpy action movies, had already started grafting in a more serious direction for a while.

(footage of Batman and Robin)

NChick (VO): But here is 90's Batman....

Batman: (whips out the BAT CREDIT CARD?!?!?)

NChick: And here is Oh-Oh-Aughts-Two Thousands Batman.

(Footage of Batman Begins)

Flass: ...swear to God-

Batman: SWEAR TO ME!

NChick: They were different times.

Title Card: 4. So about those social anxieties being embodied by movie monsters and stuff.

NChick: The success of a monster movie is because it must happen to something.

(Corresponding clips of Independence Day, War of the Worlds, and The Day The Earth Stood Still)

NChick (VO): Whether it is the high of American hegenomy and how awesome it is, or the terror of an America that was never as secure as you thought it was, or 'hey, guys, let's have a talk about this whole nuclear weapons thing...'

NChick: Whatever. The Day The Earth Stood Still featured an all-knowing Christ power demanding that Americans use their newfound nuclear powers responsibly or we'll kill you.

Klaatu: Join us, and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.

(Footage of Godzilla)

NChick (VO): The original Godzilla, which came out three years later, personifies Japanese anxiety about nuclear power by having a giant monster destroy Japan. Look at 'em, all terrified and helpless.

NChick: Actually, come to think of it, Godzilla has a LOT to do with War of the Worlds 05. On THAT note....

(footage of Invasion of the Body Snatchers)

NChick (VO): Invasion of the Body Snatchers came out at the height of the McCarthy era, don't think we have to point out what that represents....

Miles Bennell: They're after you! They're after all of us!

(footage of Dawn of the Dead and They Live!)

NChick (VO): Dawn of the Dead speaks to many anxieties, not the least of which the mindlessness of consumerism, a statement expressed even more overtly with 1988's They Live!. .....Subtle.

NChick: Monsters aren't necessarily a one to one metaphor, but they have to tap into something the audience finds threatening, or you know, who cares?

(Footage of Independence Day, The Host, Avatar, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, District 9, Attack the Block and Transformers: Dark of the Moon)

NChick (VO): Here's where aliens come in. Aliens can represent basically anything you want. They can represent a historically colonized people, they can be the innocence of childhood, they can be some sort of spiritual revelation, they can be a class oppressed by poverty, or the ravages of poverty itself. Or they can be completely meaningless.

NChick: Player's choice.

(Footage from District 9 (I think) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers)

NChick (VO): In an invasion scenario, they must be an other and it threatens something that you value.

NChick: In America's case, that thing tends to be power over ourselves and, by implication, the rest of the world.

NChick (VO): So what do War of the Worlds' aliens represent in 2005?

Robbie: Is it terrorists?

NChick: Well..... Kind of?

(Multiple clips of WOTW)

NChick (VO): In a time as complicated and confusing as the mid-Bush years, it's not as simple as saying that the War of the Worlds aliens are really just embodiments of terrorists. Spielberg's intent here is less to say that terrorists are literally invading aliens than to tap into that sense of helplessness and impotent desire for retaliation Americans felt after 9/11. The feeling of confusion and the immediate aftermath...

Ray: These came from someplace else.

Robbie: What do you mean, like Europe?

Ray: NO, Robbie, NOT like Europe!

NChick (VO): The misguided impulse to get back at an enemy you don't understand or even know how to fight....

Robbie: And we get BACK at them! We get.... We get BACK at THEM!

(Refugees making their way past a large board covered in posters looking for missing people)

NChick (VO): And in terms of sheer imagery....

NChick: There's a lot in here.

NChick (VO): In the very start of the film, we zoom in on a backdrop of where the World Trade Center USED to be.

NChick: Taking it a step further and creepier....

(Ray frantically scrubbing off the dust of people vaporised by the Heat Ray)

NChick (VO): Eesh. Like, oh my God.

NChick: If you, or if anyone you know was at Ground Zero, this image feels pretty familiar.

(Tripod rising out of the intersection as a quote from Steven Spielberg is superimposed on screen)

NChick (VO): It's Spielberg's ultimate statement of life in the 21st century.

Text: "Every iteration of War of the Worlds has occurred in times of uncertainty. We live under a veil of fear that we didn't live under before 9/11. There has been a conscious emotional shift in this country." - Steven Spielberg, 2005

NChick: About living in an America that no longer feels secure.

(footage of Independence Day)

NChick (VO): Independence Day, conversely, feels pretty damn secure. Funpocalypse, wheeeeeeeee!

NChick: So there are always those, of course, that are threatened by ideas like this and say that movies have nothing to do with what's going on in the world at the time and Animal Farm is really just a book about livestock not getting along. But....

(Ray escaping the first tripod)

NChick (VO): The imagery, content and tone of War of the Worlds, while it obviously isn't a one-to-one metaphor, takes a lot from the anxiety of the TIME, GOD I LOVE THE TRIPODS, THEY ARE SO BADASS!

NChick: Sorry. Okay. Anyway.... *clears throat* Anyway. This is not to say that Spielberg was trying to make a political statement like Roland was in The Day After Tomorrow.

(Aftermath of first tripod attack)

NChick (VO): It was less that and just tapping into something visceral in order to get a reaction.

NChick: Sometimes in movies, you have your one-to-one allegory, and sometimes a cigar...

(King Kong atop Empire State Building)

NChick (VO): ...Is just a metaphor for black people.

NChick: So now we get into the meat of War of the Worlds.

(Footage of War of the Worlds, mostly first tripod's appearance)

NChick (VO): As a film, it should be more culturally relevant, not because it borrows heavily from the 9/11 imageries and mindset which it totally does, but because it contains some STAGGERINGLY good filmmaking. Seriously: Spielberg, the most important director of his generation....

NChick: ...does some of the best work of his career in this movie. I am not kidding!

(further footage of tripod rising up)

NChick (VO): The reveal of the tripod is one of the greatest scenes in action movie-dom, period. This thing takes almost five minutes to stand up, and not a single frame of it is wasted. The pacing is slow, deliberate and impeccable. This scene stands head to head with the likes of the T-Rex attack and the storming of the beach at Normandy in Saving Private Ryan.

Tripod: (roars)

NChick (VO): Film techniques that sometimes are gimmicky are used to brilliant and careful effect in this movie, like this scene. It's built to look like a single shot...

Ray: Keep it down... Rachel.... Rachel- SHUT UP, RACHEL!

Robbie: (Over Rachel's screaming) YOU'RE FREAKING HER OUT!

NChick (VO): Captures Ray's stress pretty well, don't you think?

NChick: And in the era of Spielberg's bestie, George Lucas, ruining everything, this movie relies almost entirely on real sets!

(Destruction scenes)

NChick (VO): Real sets! Look at the real sets! Oh, the real sets, look at the- oh.... Crashed plane. Awkward.

NChick: You see what I mean about the imagery?

(Tripod roaring as it emerges alongside the ferry)

NChick (VO): And the sound design, can we talk ab- Oh my God, the sound design!

NChick: And the score? I honestly feel like this is some of John Williams' best work, not because it's beautiful and the stuff we'd normally associate with John Williams....

(The Intersection Scene, a low, foreboding piece with a throbbing rhythm set to the scene of the first tripod's appearance)

NChick (VO): But because it's so understated and effective. It's less a score than part of the sound design. Half the time you don't even realise it's there.

(Alien dying in downed tripod in Boston)

NChick (VO): People like to complain about the illogic of the aliens burying tripods underground, or "wouldn't they have known about the common cold," you know, that sort of thing. I can forgive that.

Steven Spielberg: We don't go into "What's their motivation?" We just basically experience the result of these nefarious plans to supplant us with themselves.

NChick (VO): They work in mysterious ways.

NChick: Whatever. But those things aren't really what sours it for me. No, those are more like plot hopscotch, you know. No, where War of the Worlds goes wrong is honestly a lot simpler than that.

Title Card: To be continued.

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