Independence Day vs. War of the Worlds Part 1
April 18th, 2014
NCh: *sigh* You know, sometimes I feel like I don't give Independence Day its due. I mean....
(clips of Independence Day and War of the Worlds)
NCh (VO): It's dumb as all hell but I still love watching it.
Casse: Alright, you alien assholes!
NCh (VO): Certainly more than I love watching War of the Worlds, which is kind of a drag.
NCh: Hmmmm. Let me state, from the outset, that this part 2 part is mostly gonna be about War of the Worlds 05, with Independence Day as a reference point for where War of the Worlds failed. But to really get into it, first we gotta figure out some context for this story. Uh, let's see.... First the adaptation thing.... No, no, wait, first we gotta do the, um.... Spielberg's dad thing.
(Clip of Ray singing a lullaby)
NCh (VO): Daddy issues, they are strong with this one.
NCh: God, where to start.... Well, you know what, we'll just start with the most obvious in common point of complaint and go from there.
Title card: Number something: Tom Cruise.
(clips of Mission Impossible series, Top Gun, Independence Day and War of the Worlds)
NCh (VO): Tom Cruise. Look at that Tom Cruise, he sure is a....movie star with....hair and a....face. Still unlike Roland's trademark cast of thousands, War of the Worlds features a cast of four.
Ray: You remember the union regulations, Sal!
NCh (VO): So while Tom Cruise probably wasn't the best choice to play blue-colla Joisey guy....
NCh: You- You can still understand it. 2005 was the twilight of the era of the bankable star and even Spielberg probably couldn't have got the budget he wanted without a name like Tom Cruise in the lead. Independence Day, conversely, didn't have to worry about stars so much. It wasn't selling celebrity, it was selling premise.
(first destruction scene in ID4)
NCh (VO): And the premise was BOOOOOOOOM.
NCh: But now it's 2005, the premise of BOOM is no longer so appealing, so....
(clips of War of the Worlds)
NCh (VO): We need a giant star in the lead with a giant famous director and that is how we will sell it. That said, Cruise is a hard sell as "car fixin' union guy". Like, look at that delicate flower petal skin hand. You wanna tell me this guy has ever done a day of hard labor in his life? But as "deadbeat dad who is in way over his head" which is, you know, most of the movie...
Ray: Alright?! It's "Dad!"
Rachel: (over Ray): No fighting!
Ray: Or "Sir", or, if you want, "Mr Ferrier".
NCh (VO): I can buy that. Cruise always kinda had this sort of "not quite an adult" affect to him and as the worthless manchild with no interest in his kids or, y'know, anyone that isn't him...
(Ray flings an unwanted sandwich at the window)
(Clips of War of the Worlds, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind)
NCh (VO): For this, really, you definitely could have done better. A young Richard Dreyfuss, perhaps.
NCh: But you also could have done a lot worse. And the truth is most people don't take an issue with Cruise's performance so much, per se, as the weird, y'know, Tom Cruise periphery. This sort of thing....
(clips of that time Tom Cruise acted like an absolute maniac on Oprah)
Tom Cruise: I KNOW YOU ARE! YES!
NCh: But that doesn't really have anything to do with this movie, so.... You know, ehhhh.
(more footage of Cruise being weird on Oprah)
NCh (VO): But the periphery is super important in a movie like this. Not only is it a star driven vehicle....
NCh: But it is a remake of a very famous..... (studies War of the Worlds book cover for a moment) ....phrase.
Title card: 1. War of the Worlds has a really hard story to adapt (because there hardly is one to begin with).
(Clips of George Pal's The War of the Worlds)
NCh (VO): So everyone knows elements from War of the Worlds. The Martians, the war machines, the Heat Ray....
NCh: But the story isn't really iconic because there's not much of one. Well, I mean, there is but, you know, it's different each time
(Clips of multiple versions of Les Miserables)
NCh (VO): This isn't like Les Miserables where it's the same characters and basically the same story each time with some variations here and there.
NCh: War of the Worlds, the book, y'know, we don't even find out the narrator's name.
(Clip of War of the Worlds '53)
NCh (VO): It is a premise, and the characters are totally different in each iteration.
Dr Clayton Forrester: What do people do around here on a saturday?
Sylvia Van Buren: (chuckling) They don't do much of anything!
Pastor Dr Matthew Collins: There's a square dance at the social hall this evening!
NCh: Spielberg said that adaptations of The War of the Worlds tend to come about in times of cultural stress. For the purpose of argument, let's assume he's referring to the two most well-known adaptation, Orson Welles' radio adaptation from 1938 and the film adaptation from 1953. But before that, let's go back, WAY back to the original War of the Worlds by HG Wells. What did the Martians represent in the original book?
(artwork of Britannia while Rule Britannia! plays)
Subtitle: (Or "The War of the Worlds" is popularly read as an allegory for imperialism.)
NCh: Wells was super into the most, you know, up-to-date scientific theories and social science of that time, so given that Britain, which in 1897 was at the height of its empire, Wells basically took this imperialist idea in social Darwinism and flipped it on its head like "hey, if you think it's all well and good that we stomp on less technologically advanced people and wipe them into extinction, and that's fine because, you know, survival of the fittest, how would you like that if it happened to YOU, Britain?"
(Clips of War of the Worlds '53 and '05)
NCh (VO): So, tying that back into War of the Worlds '05, about that ending....
Narrator: From the moment the invaders arrived, breathed our air, ate, and drank, they were doomed.
NCh (VO): Point I'm making is about that ending in the '05 movie, that bacteria thing that everybody hates, because it's not, you know, awesome like in Independence Day, we're America, fuck yeah.
NCh: And, yeah, it was there in the original novel, but it's less satisfying because that, y'know, important layer of allegory is lost, that element of reflexive "maybe we should reexamine our place in the world" theme. It's not so much there in the '05 movie and that's why the bacteria thing falls flat....ter.
NCh (VO): But how to be true to this story as well as your own Spielbergy vision at the same time, all while updating it for a wildly different era, oh my God, those gas prices....
NCh: (beat) Well disregarding all the modernities, War of the Worlds '05's ended up being one of the more faithful adaptations, making it about one guy and his journey, beholding, you know, the world end, with one....two major additions.
Rachel: TAKE ME TO MOM!!
Ray: I know that, that's where we're going right now!
Title card: Spielberg's dad thing.
(clips of War of the Worlds, Amistad, Jurassic Park, Lincoln, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade play behind Everclear's "Father of Mine")
NCh (VO): You're a daddy, they're a daddy, you're a father figure, they're arguing about being a daddy, even managing to jam one in here.
(clips of Hook and The Lost World)
NCh (VO): Daddy didn't go to my baseball game, daddy didn't go to my gymnastics thing...
(Velociraptor squeals as Kelly kicks it out the window)
(clips of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and War of the Worlds)
NCh (VO): Daddy left me for the aliens, daddy left me with nothing BUT an alien...
Ray: I'm not letting you do this! You can hate me.. You can hate me....
NCh (VO): Spielberg kinda has a....thing.
NCh: I'm not saying it's bad, I'm just saying it's a thing. You know, most artists have a thing. Spielberg has a few but his biggest has to be his strained father-son relationships. Spielberg's parents divorced when he was young, and once he got older, he didn't speak to his dad for years. So almost all his movies grapple, in some way, with dads who aren't there for their children. So War of the Worlds is something of a refutation of Independence Day in an impersonal "fuck you, Roland Emmerich" kind of way.
Ray: O say, can... (thunderstrike)
(clips of Close Encounters)
NCh (VO): It's also a refutation of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in a deeply personal way.
Roy Neary: Well, I guess you've noticed...there's something a little strange with Dad....
NCh: Close Encounters is a remarkable movie in a lot of ways but let's focus on the dad thing.
NCh (VO): It's basically about a small-town dad who encounters a UFO one night, becomes obsessed with it and this, you know, plateau thing in Wyoming. His wife can't take it and leaves him, he abandons her and his kids and he runs off to find the landing site. And when the aliens show up, he basically volunteers to get abducted and then happily flies away with his new alien buddies.
NCh: So in a way, this is a narrative about "Dad HAD to leave me and my family and here's why." It's really quite sympathetic to this guy who abandons his family to go...alien....thing....spiritual....anal probe.
NCh (VO): So where Roy runs open-armed to the aliens at the expense of his family, Ray runs AWAY from the aliens as fast as he can for the express purpose of protecting his family against all his prior experience and desire.
NCh: That is a key difference between early Spielberg and late Spielberg. Later Spielberg demands way more dad. Just stick around, dammit. Spielberg went on record later saying if he'd made Close Encounters like, y'know, now, there's no way he'd let Roy abandon his family and get on the ship at the end. Of course this is the same Spielberg that made THIS executive decision.
(side by side comparisons of original and remastered versions of E.T., showcasing the CGI replacement of guns with walkie talkies)
NCh (VO): Oh no, not....WALKIE TALKIES!
NCh: Though there is so much that is deliberate and feels real. The fact that children in this movie act like children, for instance. Especially hypochondriac upper-middle-class children.
Rachel: I wanna sleep in my bed. I've got back problems.
Robbie: This is yours, this belongs to you, right?
Robbie: You're safe in your space.
Rachel: I'm safe in my space....
Robbie: You're safe in your space.
NCh (VO): Awww, who went to therapy because daddy's inadequate?
NCh: This movie is more realistic, but not as easy to swallow as the dull-eyed marionettes in Independence Day rationally discussing their fear.
Dylan: Are you scared? Me too.
NCh (VO): Like, seriously, this kid is standing atop the burnt and savaged ruins of the only home he's ever known and his only reaction is.....
Dylan: What happened, Mommy?
NCh (VO): Children! War of the Worlds, I'd say, knew what it was setting up, but didn't know where it was going.
NCh: And here we are! (sings little fanfare)
Title card: The big problem with War of the Worlds.
NCh: Nope! It's not the ending. Well, it- It's kind of the ending.
Robbie: Hi, Dad...
NCh: So where this movie both borrowed and refuted a lot from Independence Day, we didn't need humanity to save the day in this movie, we just needed a satisfactory arc for these three characters we spend the entire movie with.
(clips of WOTW)
NCh (VO): For instance, Rachel, played by Dakota Fanning. Mom clearly thinks she's incapable, Dad says SHE can get it.
(all talking over each other regarding Rachel's suitcase)
Mary Ann: I don't mind.
Ray: Hey, she said she can get it.
Rachel: I got it. I got it.
Mary Ann: It's heavy.
Ray: She said she can get it.
NCh: Almost like we're setting up a character arc here.
NCh: Like Rachel's gonna realise that she could, in fact, get it, even though mom and therapists coddle her to the point of being a complete deer in the head- Nope!
(Rachel screaming as a tripod grabs her)
NCh (VO): Rachel can't get the bag. A realistic kid and well-rounded character in the first half of the movie, she's relegated to little more than a McGuffin in act 3. Fuck if she has a character arc. Kind of a problem for the second biggest character in your movie.
NCh: And here's the one spot where Independence Day is the superior film despite having the trademark Roland cast of thousands. All of the character arcs are complete and they work. They're silly, but they are complete.
(clips of ID4)
NCh (VO): So unlike Roland's other movies which always have one clear protagonist, Independence Day has three. Roland managed to give all three of his protagonists a starting point and a culminating moment. President Clintmore is faced with a country beginning to doubt his adequacy.
Woman on TV: That's the problem, they elected a warrior and they got a wimp!
NCh (VO): And through a series of trial and error including the use of nuclear weapons...
Whitmore: May our children forgive us...
NCh (VO): Whoopsie-daisy! He literally gets to become the warrior the country wanted.
Whitmore: I'm a combat pilot, Bill. I belong in the air.
NCh (VO): Captain Hiller aspires to fly the space shuttle despite, y'know, political crap, and after a series of conflicts, arguably becomes the most qualified person on the planet to fly the alien craft.
Hiller: I've been waiting for this my whole life....
NCh: And Jeff Goldblum, well, he starts with his father and ex berating him for being a lazy genius, but in the end, not only does he rise above his lazy, but his genius saves the world!
David: You really think you can fly that thing?
Hiller: You really think you can do all that bullshit you just said?
NCh: These are three separate and distiguishable arcs, and they are all set up flawlessly so that the audience is very clear on who is accomplishing what based on whose skillset by the time act 3 rolls around. Hell, even the Randy Quaid subplot which seems genuinely pointless for most of the movie ends up being one of the most important elements. His motivation by way of kids, why he's drunk all the time, his skill as a pilot, all of it, we see all of the Randy Quaid scenes for a reason, so when it culminates....
Casse: Alright, you alien assholes!
NCh: We're like....yeah.
Casse: HELLO, BOYS! I'M BAAAAAACK!
NCh (VO): Wheeeeeeeeeeeeee!
NCh: Spielberg's War of the Worlds for all its masterful tension building, beautiful cinematography and effects, genius sound design and pretty good first half of the screenplay does not have the same level of buildup and pay-off as Independence Day. So compared to these three plots, each cheesy but complete in its own little world, what is Ray's culminating moment?
NCh (VO): Ray Ferrier is set up as an inadequate father, a blue collar kinda guy who doesn't know how to take care of his children and only endures his custody weekends out of obligation.
Robbie: You're an asshole. I hate coming here.
NCh (VO): And when the aliens invade, he is forced into a situation where he MUST care for his children. Ray does not know how to take responsibility for them, being a manchild himself, but through the situation, he is forced to.
NCh: And the screenwriters didn't seem to know where to go with that. And that's where our movie falls apart.
NCh (VO): Robbie is constantly wanting to get out and break free, you know, be a man, but break free from what? Ray's not an overbearing father, he doesn't even give Robbie a slap on the wrist when he steals his car.
Ray: Robbie.... (slaps own hand warningly)
NCh (VO): I'll slap my hand at you! Moreover in act 1, Robbie isn't given any motivation to find some kind of greater calling. He doesn't lose anyone or see what Ray saw, so this....
Robbie: And we get BACK at them! We get- We get BACK at THEM!
NCh (VO): ...is the idiotic macho blathering of a teenage boy who has no idea what he's talking about.
NCh: He's young and he thinks he's immortal. He doesn't get it. But then a few scenes later, we come to it again....
(Robbie starts running into the clash between the army and the aliens)
Ray: Robbie.... We stay together! ROBBIE!
NCh (VO): No. No, Robbie, come back. No, no, Robbie, no, you're gonna ruin the movie, come back. Come back, Robbie.
Ray: Don't do this!
Robbie: I wanna be here!
Ray: I know you wanna!
NCh (VO): What, you're gonna be the Randy Quaid of this movie? What do you think you're gonna do? What are you trying to do, Robbie?
Ray: I'm not letting you do this!
NCh: So then Robbie is basically out of the movie for the rest of it until the very, VERY end and the one thing that people HATE is the fact that despite idiotically running into a fireball.....Robbie lives.
Robbie: Hi, Dad....
NCh: It's not even that Robbie NEEDED to die after leaving his father and sister, he needed a different story altogether. If they wanted it to be "Ray realises that Robbie is a man" they should have built it to that because ROBBIE IS AN IDIOT. Everything he thinks and says is wrong. He doesn't need to be free, he needs his dad to step the fuck up.
Ray: Robbie.... (slaps hand)
NCh (VO): So when Robbie does this thing.....
Robbie: Please let me go, you NEED to let me go.
NCh (VO): It's like, where the hell did this come from? Let go? Did- Did Ray need to let go all along? Is that what Ray needed to do, is that what Robbie needed?
Robbie: Please let me go, you NEED to let me go.
NCh: The most obvious point of comparison here is, of course, Finding Nemo.
Dory: He says "it's time to let go!"
NCh (VO): There's a moment where Marlin and Dory are trapped in a whale and Marlin has to make a metaphorical leap of faith.
Marlin: How do you know something bad isn't gonna happen?!
Dory: ....I don't!
NCh (VO): But this makes sense in the arc of Marlin's character. Marlin is an overprotective father, he's overbearing, he's overcompensating, he's neurotic, he's already endured the horrible loss of his she-clownfish, which makes the loss of Nemo literally the worst thing that could happen to him. Ray, on the other hand, is the polar opposite of that. So what sense does it make for this to be any kind of culminating moment?
Robbie: You NEED to let me go.
NCh (VO): Like, I GUESS they're making it out like he's gotta choose between his two children, but again, it's THIS kid trying to break free from the dad who was never really there for him to begin with. And eventually Ray is like "OK" and more or less gives in to his own inadequacy. Like "Yeah.... Yeah you're right, I- I didn't really wanna deal with you anyway."
NCh: You can see the movie TRYING to push at points that it's building up to this, you know, Robbie crossing into manhood and Ray learning to respect him as a man.
Ray: Gonna rest my eyes, why don't you drive for a bit?
Robbie: I don't have a license.
Ray: Since when has that stopped you?
NCh (VO): But this obviously doesn't work, given how obviously wrongheaded his moves to be a man are.
Robbie: If we had any balls, we'd go back and find one of those things and kill it.
NCh (VO): NOPE. So jere, for me, is where the movie falls apart. We trade in Robbie for Tim Robbins and spend the next forty minutes in a basement.
Ogilvy: I got water. Food enough for weeks. You're welcome to stay, both o' youse.
NCh: And you cast Tim Robbins as your doomsday prepper? Christ, you might as well have cast Christopher Walken.
Ogilvy: This is not a war any more than there's a war between men and maggots.
NCh (VO): Tim Walken in a lot of ways is Robbie 2.0. They both want to strike back, against the wishes of Ray, who is just trying, y'know, not to die.
Ogilvy: Now we'll be the ones comin' up from underground.
NCh: And it is just the stupidest thing. I mean we have no attachment to this guy, he's crazy and he just showed up. And yeah, he's kind of inspired by the book, but....
Ogilvy: They drink us! They drink us!
NCh: So rather than making it a story about how Robbie and Ray reconcile these two approaches to, y'know, alien invasion, all the while trying to keep the helpless girl-child safe, we get this.
Ogilvy: Spit us out all over the goddamned Red Weed!
Ray: D'you understand what I'm gonna have to do?
NCh (VO): Man, if you keep chewing that scenery, there won't be any basement left! Also this shot is just wonderful.
(Ray stands in silhouette in the doorway, ready to kill the deranged Ogilvy)
NCh (VO): Hold on, actually, hold on, it needs different music.
(the same scene, with a sax-driven porn soundtrack)
NCh: Well, you know, if I guess I had to put up with Tim Robbins, I might kill him too.
NCh (VO): I'm not saying it would have been better if Robbie never came back - it would have shown Ray that his inadequacy actually has a consequence and maybe Spielberg would actually have the balls to kill a kid for once - but rather that Ray steps up and is the goddamn dad, like "I've always been shitty and inadequate but not this time, you know, in order to survive, we have to stay together."
Ray: I'm not letting you do this!
(Ray tries attacking the tripod to rescue Rachel)
NCh (VO): And then later when this happens, Robbie plays some integral role and helps Ray out and then, they all three realise that yeah, they needed each other something something and then father-son something something mutual respect, you know, SOMETHING that pays off the set-up in the first act, and that's not a bad set-up, but it needs to be paid off or your audience is gonna be pissed that they spent the last two hours with these people!
NCh: Which is more or less what happened!
NCh (VO): War of the Worlds.... It wasn't what we wanted, but it is what we were willing to accept in 2005. A devastating realistic portrayal of human suffering in a country where that shit was still real raw.
NCh: But that doesn't excuse the core problems of the character arcs, and the problems with War of the Worlds really pretty much boil down to that. And there we have our answer to our earlier question: Why is Independence Day remembered more fondly? Well, let's be honest.... Wheeeeeeeeeeeee!
Hiller: We're not hit! We're not hit! Stop sideseat drivin'!
Casse: HELLO BOYS!
NCh (VO): It is a very "fuck yeah" movie in a way that War of the Worlds is not.
NCh: But it also wins by having simpler virtues despite the way more complex plot. It's super easy to turn off the brain and watch this one over and over because fuck yeah and wheeee. Wheeeeeeeeee! So here we are left with a truly fascinating, masterful first half of a movie, and the rest of it, and a mindless, well-crafted, America fuck yeah, shhhh-shhhhh-shhhhhhhh, don't think about it, complete hole of a movie. Which is our winner? (shrugs)