REPOST: Why I Love ‘Independence Day’

Posted this last year, but since I watch the film every year, I might as well post this every year as well.

x538            When Independence Day came out, it was a huge hit, but ever since then it’s kind of become the poster-child for the big, dumb, CGI-fueled blockbusters of the late 90s. And, yes, in a way it is, but…well, that’s kind of beside the point.

The Story: On July 2nd, a massive alien craft appears in orbit around the earth and sends out an armada of city-sized flying saucers that take up position above several of the world’s major cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. We then see the unfolding war of the worlds through the eyes of four American men and their families: underachieving New York cable company technician David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), Los Angeles-based Marine pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith), drunken Californian crop duster pilot Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), and the youthful President Whitmore (Bill Pullman).

So, is this movie pretty stupid? Sure. This is light science-fiction pulp, of the kind you might find in Amazing Stories, or in a drive-in theater in the late 1950s, only given a massive budget and an all-star cast. Granted, a lot of those classic films were better than this one (The War of the Worlds in particular does many of the same things while being an overall superior film), but none achieved the same sense of scale and grandeur as this one.

As for me, I’m glad we have it.

This is the movie that Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, or Invasion of the Saucer Men, or those 1940s serials dreamed of being. It’s cheesy pulp sci-fi done as epic: national and world-spanning in scope, drenched in apocalyptic dread and patriotic defiance, with implacably hostile collectivist aliens pitted against scrappy, courageous, freedom-loving humans. This may or may not sound appealing to you, but to the film’s credit is unambiguously knows what it’s trying to be and doesn’t make any apologies for it.

There are a lot of things to like about this movie. In the first place, it’s huge. Four main characters, each one carrying a small cast of supporting characters, a world-spanning plot involving a large-scale alien invasion targeting the major cities of the globe, huge airborne battles…it’s just a grand, glorious spectacle. Yet, amazingly enough, the film still manages to keep the focus largely on the people involved: we see these events through their eyes, and the real story of the film is how it affects them. It’s not done brilliantly, but it works. We very rarely leave the perspective of one of our leads, and then only briefly to illustrate things that they are talking or thinkings about. For instance, late in the film we have a brief glimpse of various armies around the world receiving and responding to the President’s call for a united counter-attack, but we quickly cut back to where the President and his military aids are receiving the answers.

At the same time, though, the four interconnected storylines make the film seem anything but constrained. On the contrary, the multiple-perspective format gives the story an epic feel that few subsequent blockbusters (Armageddon, Transformers, etc.) have successfully imitated. This is in stark contrast with Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which though in some ways a better film was rendered all-but unbearable by the fact that we spent the whole thing welded to three boring and unpleasant characters.

The leads here, by contrast, are all charismatic and likable (though some might find Jeff Goldblum’s stammering speaking style annoying), as are most of the supporting characters. They’re not especially original, but they all have personality and serve as pleasant enough company. I particularly like Robert Loggia as the President’s right-hand general and Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s father.

More than that, though, it’s just a really good story and well-done adventure. It’s grand and epic, but also keeps focused. Appropriate for a film about the Fourth of July, the theme is pitting freedom and the American way of life against the encroaching forces of collectivist aliens backed with all-powerful technology. When, after the opening salvos, we see the Statue of Liberty lying broken in New York harbor we understand what the battle is really about.

The film’s theme plays out in the lives of its characters, who all start off having forgotten what’s really important, which they rediscover throughout the film, even as they have to fight against the implacable hostility of the alien menace. Levinson and his wife have divorced due to their divergent career paths, with her working on the White House staff while he wastes his talents at a dead-end cable job. Whitmore’s caught up in politics and has lost his authority. Hiller dithers about marrying his girlfriend for fear of how it will affect his military career. And Casse is a drunken wreck who can barely take care of his family. All the characters are then forced to reexamine their lives and ‘re-center’ on what really matters: family, faith, and country.

The four leads provide an interesting cross-section of American society about the mid-nineties: blue collar, white collar, military, politics; Black, White, Jewish; married, unmarried, widowed, divorced. The film is thus about as representative of the American way of life of the time as could be asked for. We see that the characters in the opening don’t appreciate what they have in that way of life, being lost amid their petty concerns and self-destructive behavior. It’s only when their world is threatened that they begin to re-orientate their lives around the things they’ve neglected for so long, and it is this that gives them the power to strike back.

On the other hand, the aliens prove to be the reverse of American values; they’re a kind of hive-mind, with little or no individual personality, each subject to the collective. They have no home and no land of their own: they simply move from planet to planet taking whatever they need like locusts and moving on when they’re done. When asked if there’s any possibility of the two species co-existing, they bluntly respond that there isn’t.

In this context, it’s significant that the film explicitly describes the aliens as having bodies ‘just as frail as ours.’ All men, and aliens, are created equal; the aliens just have better technology that allows them to impose their will upon the earth. Once mankind figures out a way around that technology, the fight becomes more even.

The specifics of that method have justly been called out as ridiculous, but, again, that’s not really the point. All they needed was a semi-plausible excuse to bring down the alien shields, and a computer virus works as well as any other (the fact that the aliens were previously established to have been using the Earth’s satellites in their attack lends it just enough pseudo-validity to work in context). The important thing was how the idea was given (amid a heart-to-heart between Levinson and his father about the need to go on hoping) and what it leads to (a last-ditch battle for freedom).

I could go on about it, but suffice to say, I think it’s a really good movie. Yes, it’s kinda stupid, yes it’s cheesy and overblown, but at the end of the day it succeeds in being exactly what it sets out to be, which is a big-budget, large-scale version of a classic sci-fi b-movie. It has pleasant characters, great visuals, and tells a simple, but solid story. All in all, it’s one of my favorites.

Why ‘Phineas and Ferb Star Wars’ is the Best Disney Star Wars

It is kind of a sad commentary on the state of the once-venerable franchise that the best and most satisfying work to come out of Star Wars’s move to Disney is a Phineas and Ferb special. Granted, Rogue One was pretty good, though it wasn’t well paced and the characters were mostly pretty bland. And I haven’t seen The Last Jedi, so maybe it’ll…you know what, I’m actually going to go out on a limb and say I don’t think it’ll make much difference.

So, what does Phineas and Ferb do right that the other recent Star Wars films fail to do?

First of all there’s the fact that, though it’s a spoof, it nevertheless manages to pay sincere homage to the original while also doing something new. Unlike Force Awakens, which was a lamer retread of the first film, PnF cook up their own storyline set in the Star Wars universe…and, just to compound the insult, they do it while literally retreading the first film.

The special posits versions of the Phineas and Ferb characters were present and played an unseen, but crucial role in the events of the first Star Wars. Phineas and Ferb live next door to Luke Skywalker on Tatoinne, but where Luke longs for something more the two brothers are perfectly content with their lot and spend their days making the most of their life on the desert planet. Until, that is, they run across R2-D2 and accidentally end up with the Death Star plans. So, while Luke, Obi-Wan, and the rest try to get R2 to the Rebels, thinking he has the plans, Phineas and Ferb race after them to try to get the plans back to them.

Thus, instead of a character who is dissatisfied and longs for more, he we have two characters who are satisfied, but are knocked out of their comfort zone and forced to attend to larger issues they hadn’t thought of (neatly foreshadowed in an early scene where their father tries to get them to go off the planet to experience the wider world). This is paralleled by both Candace – here an overzealous and underappreciated stormtrooper – and Isabella – here a rival smuggler to Han Solo, in a somewhat jarring departure from her normal characterization. All three sets of characters are more or less comfortable in their present lives, not realizing that those lives are unhealthy or unsuited for them, and over the course of the story are pulled out of their comfort zone and forced to re-evaluate their situation.

The one exception is Doofenshmirtz (here called ‘Darthenshmirtz’), an underappreciated scientist for the Empire and the actual designer of the Death Star (which, of course, is why it was so easy to destroy; it had a self-destruct button. This is even funnier in the wake of Rogue One’s revelation that that’s actually the canon explanation). Doof, in typical fashion, wants to cheat his way to greater respect and to that end has created a ‘Sith-Inator,’ which makes anyone it hits extremely attune to the Dark Side of the Force.

Now, I don’t know enough Star Wars lore to know if that fits the universe, but quite frankly, and setting aside Doof’s goofiness, that’s actually a pretty decent superweapon and a neat twist on the established elements. It sounds plausible given the setting, and it’s both more interesting and more insidious than just another planet buster. It’s mostly a gag, and primarily exists to set up a fight between Phineas and Ferb (the writers went on record saying evil mind-altering technology was literally the only way that could happen), but it’s a gag that evinces more real creativity than the whole of The Force Awakens, and one that honestly could have served for a whole trilogy.

It also sets up a genuinely emotional and tense confrontation playing on established themes of loyalty and ambition…while also making a joke about the way lightsabers keep getting more complicated and impractical (and they somehow made Ferb actually look scary, which is impressive in itself). That’s the thing: the special is a goof, but it’s a goof with honestly good storytelling.

Also the way the characters develop and change over the course of the special is really well done. Like Force Awakens we have a stormtrooper switching sides, but it’s done a lot better here. Candace has her perspective altered by experiencing something her training has taught her could not happen, letting in a bit of light that finally makes her question her point-of-view. And, equally believably, once she does that she quickly notices other things that didn’t fit with her assumptions (“didn’t we just blow up a planet?!” “Yes, that is sort of difficult to justify, morally”). Also, when she does change sides, she’s still kind of a badass and proves an effective ally, putting her stormtrooper skills to good use, rather than being a total ineffectual loser.

Likewise with Isabella’s story arc of learning to open up and care for Phineas and Ferb, both being impressed by their skills and attracted by their loyalty. It’s a standard character arc, of course, but it works. The progression is believable, much like Han’s progression in the first film was believable.

Speaking of which, I can much sooner buy Han Solo having a rivalry with Isabella and talking smack with her at a bar than I can buy him divorcing Leia and going back to smuggling after losing the Falcon and what the hell were they even thinking?! Stupid, stupid, stupid!

Sorry. But, yeah, oddly enough Han and Isabella’s conversation and mutual prodding actually sort of works and I can almost imagine it really going down like that.

Also, it’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s funny. It moves quickly and the characters are all engaging and likable. It let’s us know how and why the Empire is bad and makes us feel what’s at stake even as it uses the material for jokes. They play Alderan’s destruction for dark humor, but it’s balanced by Phineas’s stunned reaction when he finds out what the Death Star can do (“I never thought the Empire would go that far!”).

So, yeah, the silly parody in a Saturday morning cartoon special was better, more interesting, and more in keeping with the spirit of the original than the ultrabudget sequels.

 

Mission Marvel and Legit Heroes

On the subject of genuine heroics, allow me to present Phineas and Ferb: Mission Marvel, a crossover special where the Phineas and Ferb cast meet a bunch of Marvel characters.

Now, this sounds like it wouldn’t work; goofy surreal kid’s show meets semi-serious comic book heroes. And it’s not perfect, or even one of the better PnF specials (which frankly says more about just how good the others are than about this one), but there are some key elements that it does really well.

First of all, the difference in tone is actually the main point of the special, with the PnF characters being a little disturbed by confronting a situation much more serious than they’re accustomed to, while the Marvel characters are confused by the more absurdist tone of Phineas and Ferb (it’s actually similar to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein now that I think about it).

By the way, this blending of tones is something a lot of crossovers miss: that it’s not enough to put two different groups of characters together, you have to make it feel like a meeting of two distinct stories with their own special themes and emotional tones (Oddly enough, the best example of this I’ve seen yet is Freddy vs. Jason).

Another thing the special does really well is that it doesn’t just feel like a meeting of worlds, it feels like this is what a kid would hope meeting his heroes would be like. Phineas and Ferb is, in large part about childish imagination brought to life: kids who get to really do what other kids pretend to do. In this case, they get to hang out with some of their favorite heroes and even help them save the day.

But that’s that point: the heroes are still the dominant figures, with Phineas, Ferb, and the rest in support roles, because that’s exactly what a real kid would want. Kids don’t want to show up their heroes, but only to be able to feel worthy of them. The scenario here is perfectly suited to that, with the heroes temporarily deprived of their powers, requiring Phineas and Ferb’s help to get them back while trying to thwart a group of supervillains at the same time. So, the kids can legitimately contribute without diminishing either the heroes or the villains, and the situation is desperate enough that it’s acceptable for the heroes to bring the kids into battle (once the heroes get their powers back, the kids stay out of the fight).

Which brings me to another point: the heroes are genuinely heroic. Remember what I said about legit heroes? The superheroes here count (actually, from what I can tell, the heroes are more heroic here than in the actual comics at the moment).

The heroes here are constantly behind it: either lacking powers or having the wrong powers. Yet again and again, they still step up to the plate and go into battle. Even when they clearly have no chance of winning, they still saddle up to do whatever they can because, as they explain, that’s what they do. Their powers aren’t what makes them heroes, their willingness to do the right thing whatever the cost is.

This also inspires the kids, who join them in battle despite being obviously outclassed. Phineas and Ferb discover early on that their tech is woefully inadequate to fighting real supervillains, but in the final battle they put on their damaged Beak suit and go in anyway. Like any good adventure story, the heroes are constantly being dumped on in one way or another, all the way up until the end, where the heroes and the kids they inspired engage in a mad dog-pile scramble just trying anything and everything they can think of to keep the villains from winning for as long as possible (the action sequences are fantastic, by the way, with really fast, highly detailed animation that encourages multiple viewings to catch everything going on).

So, Phineas and Ferb absolutely nailed what people love about comic book heroes, just another example of how deceptively excellent that show is.

Legit Heroes

Every so often, while watching a show or movie, I’ll think to myself ‘yeah, this character’s a really legit hero.’

The concept seems worth expanding on. Of course, there are a lot of heroes running around in fiction one way or another. But a lot of stories seem to think that ‘hero’ simply means ‘opposes the bad guy.’ I would not call, say, Rey in The Force Awakens a legit heroine; she’s too bland for that. Nor would I necessarily list the average superhero as a ‘legit hero,’ much as I enjoy superhero movies.

A legit hero, to my mind, is one who you can point to and say ‘this character has the heroic mindset; he does the right thing, however difficult and whatever the cost. He’s a self-sacrificing character.’

Now, a character can be admirable and even in a sense heroic without creating this kind of impression. Again, I find this to be the case in a lot of superhero films or action adventures in general. Since I’m about to be citing a few examples from cartoons, I’ll start with Danny Phantom: he’s a heroic character, but I never thought ‘yeah, he’s a legit hero.’ That is, he went through the motions of being a hero without really conveying that sense of selflessness. He was a hero because he helped people and opposed the bad guys, but not so much because it felt like he was simply that kind of person.

As a counter-example, there’s Dakota of Milo Murphy’s Law. Now, he’s kind of a slacker and generally spends his time cracking jokes at his partner’s expense, but there’s a moment in the special two-parter Milo is Missing where he, Cavendish, and Milo are surrounded by plant monsters (just go with it). Dakota’s first move is to order Milo – a preteen boy – to get behind him. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about: Dakota isn’t an especially imposing or skilled fighter, but when faced with a fight the first thing he does is step up to protect the child who has fallen into his care. It’s a very brief moment, but it’s a solid example of what I mean. Slacker though he is, Dakota understands his duty and steps up to the plate when needed.

A more notable example, and the one that really made me take a look at this concept, comes at the end of the first Equestria Girls film. In brief, Twilight Sparkle’s travelled to the human world to try to keep a magical artifact out of the hands of the power-hungry Sunset Shimmer. When Twilight gets ahold of it, Sunset threatens to destroy the portal back to Equestria unless Twilight will hand it over. After a moment’s consideration, Twilight refuses: yes, it would mean losing her home and all her friends, but they could survive without her, while this world might not if she gave Sunset what she wanted. So, to protect as many people as possible, Twilight declares herself willing to give up everything she loves most.

Again, Twilight is willfully and explicitly putting others first, even if it means painful sacrifices for herself. Sacrifice, selflessness, and devotion to duty: these are the marks of the legit hero.

This is, in some ways, a subjective impression: the best I can say is that when I can feel the sacrifice, the putting others first, and when it feels like it’s an essential part of the character, that’s when I say ‘wow, that’s a legit hero.’

A Quick Word on the Beauty of ‘Phineas and Ferb’

I’m rewatching Phineas and Ferb again at the moment and just finished the episode Magic Carpet Ride. During the song sequence, it suddenly occurred to me that this really is a microcosm of just what makes this show so special. It’s that it manages to be both absurdist and sincere at the same time. It simultaneously makes you laugh and warms your heart.

The scenario here is that Phineas and Ferb’s father has been watching his favorite childhood show and laments that the ‘magic carpet’ tie in wasn’t as magical as he remembers. So the boys turn the living room carpet into a flying carpet to give him a real magic carpet ride. What follows is a genuinely beautiful sequence of them flying around town, accompanied by a song that includes lyrics like “it’s aerodynamics are highly advanced / and its weave is so tight and so soft.”

Seeing the kids casually flying around town on a carpet, complete with sofa and TV, is obviously absurd and prompts some ridiculous imagery. But it also has some really sweet scenes like Phineas and Isabella sitting together in rapturous delight at the view below, not to mention the whole thing was two kids trying to cheer up their father.

This blend of the sincere and the ridiculous is pretty much in the show’s DNA. Even the animation style hits this balance of being both surreal and actually very beautiful at times. The scenes of them flying around the town are gorgeous and enlivened by little moments of innocent emotional power.

I don’t like a lot of modern art, like Picasso and Duchamp and so forth. I think their work is frankly hideous. The excuse generally made is that they did something different and original, but something like Phineas and Ferb puts the lie to that plea. The animators here create a unique, stylized, and surreal art style, but do it without sacrificing beauty. Likewise the writers make something creative, funny, and satirical without being in the least cynical or mean spirited.

So, this goofy kid’s show puts the lie to the vast majority of modern and post-modern art and literature; you can be as different, creative, and original as you like without being nihilistic, ugly, or mean. That’s why I have little patience for works that strike me as such, because, well, it could have been otherwise if the creators had wished it. The fact that they didn’t says something about them and their work that I don’t care for. And as long as there are works like Phineas and Ferb around, I’ll know where to go instead.

 

My Little Pony Touches on the True Meaning of Christmas (Yes, THAT True Meaning)

I’m repeatedly amused at the thought that, this time last year, I’d barely given a thought to My Little Pony, and now it’s one of my all-time favorite animated shows and keeps compelling me to write about it. Among the many pleasures it’s brought is that I now have another favorite Christmas special to watch.

Ponies_sing_together_in_the_Castle_of_Friendship_S6E8.png

MLP has had a few ‘holiday’ episodes centered around Hearthswarming: the Equestrian equivalent to Christmas. Typical of this show, they’re much smarter about it than the cutesy exterior would lead you to think and the best so far is A Hearthswarming Tale from Season Six, where they do a ponyfied version of A Christmas Carol (which a bit of the Grinch thrown in).

The episode opens with Twilight Sparkle hosting a Hearthswarming party at her castle. However, her friend Starlight – the recently-reformed ex-egalitarian dictator – reveals that she doesn’t celebrate. She complains that, though it’s supposedly about an important event in their culture, for most people it’s just an excuse for candy and presents (Spike: “And why would you deny yourself presents and candy?!”). In response, Twilight offers to read Starlight one of her favorite Hearthswarming stories to try to get her into the spirit of things.

The story tells of a powerful and dedicated wizard named Snowfall, who is annoyed that everyone is wasting time partying around Hearthswarming instead of working to make a better Equestria. She then decides to use a magic spell to remove the holiday entirely, including everyone’s memory of it. However, three ghosts – of the past, presents (sic), and future – show her why this would be the wrong decision. Of course, each character in the story is played by one of the established cast, with Starlight as Snowfall, Rainbow Dash as her put-upon assistant, etc. (which leads to a great joke about Twilight doing the voices as she narrates).

Obviously, it’s not the story of A Christmas Carol so much as a modified take on it to fit better in the setting, which actually works a lot better, both because it would be odd if they just did a straight version with the ponies, and also because the changed story allows for them (in typical MLP fashion) to touch on some very interesting ideas.

For instance, Snowfall’s reason for hating Hearthswarming is specifically that she thinks it wastes time and effort that could be better spent on creating a better world for everyone: just like many a Communist or political radical has objected to Christmas or any kind of fun and enjoyment because it wastes time and money that could be better spent solving the world’s problems.

The show succinctly deconstructs this position. When some of the other characters are discussing Snowfall’s argument, they ask, “what does she think a better world would look like?” If it’s people being kind and generous to each other, enjoying one another’s company, and coming together for a common purpose, then, well, that’s what they’re doing. It hardly makes sense, when trying to make a better world, to seek to remove something that actually makes people better.

Likewise, Snowfall’s dismissal of gift-giving as silly and wasteful is also deconstructed: the point’s not the gift itself, but the thought behind it. The gifts, parties, and so on are only ways to express love and goodwill. Again, what does she think a better world looks like if not that?

Then comes probably the most interesting and startling part (which I didn’t even catch until my most recent viewing): Snowfall gets shown the future that will come to pass if she casts her spell to destroy Hearthswarming and finds it to be a frozen wasteland. You see, in the MLP mythos there are creatures called Windigos: ghostly frost monsters that feed off of strife and hatred. Hearthswarming celebrates the defeat of these monsters when ponies first came together in Friendship, and the love and goodwill borne of the annual celebration keeps them at bay.

Leaving aside the fantasy setting, note what’s happening here: Snowfall, the hardheaded would-be realist, scoffs at this quasi-religious origin of the holiday. Then, when she sees the future, she discovers that what she dismissed as a myth or a story for children is not just true but vitally important to her and everyone else.

Now, obviously they don’t come within a mile of the actual Birth of Christ, but, in their oblique way they actually make the point that the ‘mythic’ element of a holiday may be the most important thing about it, and that all the other trappings might just be a means to celebrate what it’s really all about.

Have you ever wondered, in all those stories about ‘saving Christmas’ (which, frankly, mostly amount to saving presents), what would happen if they didn’t save Christmas? What if, somehow, the Grinch actually could steal Christmas? What would that mean?

Well, through the lens of its fantasy world, My Little Pony actually becomes possibly the first Christmas special to not only ask this question but to give a pretty good answer. Here the result is an endless winter born of strife and hatred. On a more fundamental level, the answer is that it would be a world without hope. If, somehow, you could destroy Christmas – that is, remove the coming of Jesus – you would be left with a hopeless world still mired in sin. Again, it’s done obliquely in a fantasy setting, but the storyline and imagery are certainly applicable to the real meaning of Christmas.

So, in other words, My Little Pony MY LITTLE PONY – actually has a pretty good idea of what ‘no Christmas’ would actually mean. This show gives a better image of the true meaning of Christmas than the whole Hallmark channel.

Plus the humor is spot-on, the music is some of the best of Season Six (Luna gets a solo: what else needs to be said?), we get to see everyone in Victorian-style dress, and the evocations of the holiday both positive (“Growing like a seedling / and playing is like dreaming”) and negative (“Finally set free from your forced celebration / no need to reply to your trite invitations”) are so apt that I found myself repeatedly quoting the episode as I went about my Christmas shopping.

So, I’m left asking the same question I’ve been asking all year: why is this show so darn good?

Derpy_pretending_to_be_a_tree_star_S6E8.png

 

 

Catholic Match: On Beauty

My latest post is up on CatholicMatch, in which I get to quote St. Augustine, The Lord of the Rings, and My Little Pony all in the service of beauty.

That is why I hate the phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ and consider it a grotesque blasphemy. To turn that which so completely removes our gaze from ourselves and twists it into a mere statement of our own reactions—in fact to turn our gaze back upon ourselves—is the sensual equivalent of an auto-immune disease, akin to making your charitable works a demonstration of your own piety. Like so much in our modern culture, it invokes compassion to tempt us to self-centeredness.

No, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. It is not something we project upon the world around us, but something that we meet and respond to. It is undeniable reality. As St. Augustine said, if you question the beauty of created things, they themselves will answer you “Here, look; we are beautiful,” and in so doing, point to the glory of their Creator.

The natural response, the one we ought to have, is to admire beauty and to be thankful for it. When we meet beauty in the form of a woman (which is the greatest form of beauty we normally meet in this life), it can inspire the first beginnings of love.

le_ravissement_de_psyche-large

Read the rest and see what you think.