Flotsam: Twenty Years Later

1. I try not to talk politics much here. I don’t have the background or knowledge as yet to say anything really worthwhile about it. So don’t ask me for a rundown of how the past twenty years have gone and what we as a nation have to show for it all, though I don’t think anyone would deny that we’re worse off than we were in just about every way. It looks to me like America’s entered a full-on decline, which is accelerating fast, but where that will lead, I haven’t the foggiest.

2. That day twenty years ago marked the end of the heady, hopeful interval of the 1990s following the end of the Cold War: the time where, for many people at least, it seemed we’d reached the happy ending of history, a golden age born of the triumph of the Baby Boomers. It was always an illusion, of course; merely the penumbra of a sin, between the commission and the consequence, when it looks like you’ve gotten away with it after all.

I’m speaking generally. The consequences were already being felt on an individual level, but hadn’t yet penetrated enough into the public conscience to cause the sense of unease and disaffection that they do now. At least, that’s my impression of the era.

In any case, that time came to an end on September 11, 2001.

3. Hard to believe it’s been that long. I remember it quite well. I was in sixth or seventh grade at the time. We were kept in at recess for no reason whatsoever, then at the end of the day there was an announcement: “We in this country sometimes forget how much more fortunate we are than some other people….” That’s how it began. Which, in retrospect, is a kind of disgusting way to break the news that thousands of your fellow citizens have been murdered: rather like beginning the news that a family member was killed in a drive-by with a comment on racial injustice. Bit of a herald of things to come.

As I recall, rumors were beginning among the students even before the announcement. Then I remember going home and turning on the news and seeing a big hole in the side of the building. At first I thought ‘oh, that’s not too bad.’ Then I found out that was footage from earlier in the day. It was a process of realizing what actually had happened: big holes in the building. One building’s partially collapsed. One’s collapsed entirely, the other damaged. Both are completely destroyed. It was odd to my twelve-year-old brain to realize that a great landmark like that was actually gone for good.

4. I also remember footage of people dancing and cheering in the streets in…I think the Palestinian parts of Israel it might have been? Somewhere in that area. I never forgot that over the next few years as ‘tolerance’ and ‘oh, how sad it was that Middle Easterners are being profiled’ replaced outrage and patriotic zeal. I remember how quickly that happened, by the way, and how little there was to go on. I may have missed something, of course, but I only ever heard of a few minor incidents of that sort of thing actually happening. Though it was common enough in TV shows.

5. I was a pretty enthusiastic supporter of the subsequent wars, of Bush, and so on for a long time. I wanted something to be done. I wanted America to reassert its dominance in the world, and I was then still fully onboard with the American creed. Quite a bit has changed since then, and I’m not entirely sure how.

Looking back, I’m still not completely against the wars, at least in principle. But then, I’m not against imperialism. But modern America is not cut out to be an empire. To be an Empire, you have to truly believe in your right to rule. That was true when Americans saw themselves as the shining city on the hill, the beacon of freedom to the world. Conquering large swathes of Mexico, Cuba, the Philippines, Hawaii, and so on were, therefore, a way of spreading freedom to more people.

We don’t believe in that anymore, at least the majority of the population doesn’t. We’ve been raised on tales of Vietnam and the movements of the 1960s and 70s, conditioned to regard imperialism as an insult, something that bad people and bad countries do out of greed and arrogance. So we had the ridiculous spectacle of America trying to do an empire’s job while insisting that it wasn’t an empire: that we weren’t ruling Iraq and Afghanistan, we were liberating them, and that they would be eager to accept democracy and so forth once it was offered to them, because who doesn’t want to be free?

I rather think that if we had acted as an empire, if we’d put down in these places and simply said “we’re in charge now, deal with it,” and claimed them as territories, that may have gone off better. A fait accompli is generally accepted better than a patronizingly half-hearted ‘we’re just going to rearrange the furniture a bit and make things better for you and then we’ll let you alone’. Because for most people, stability is far more important than the specifics of law or government. A settled and enforced rule as the new status quo is easier to accept, whoever the rulers are, than an indefinite and hazy promise of improvement.

But all that’s academic, and I may be completely wrong. I haven’t studied the situations either Iraq or Afghanistan, so I don’t know.

6. For me, the past twenty years, especially the past few, have brought considerable disillusionment. I don’t believe in the American creed anymore, for one thing: the notion of ‘the last best hope of mankind’, the ‘shining city on the hill’ and the rest of it. I view it in much the same way that I see classical mythology: beautiful as a story, but false and dangerous to believe in. But that doesn’t mean I’m no longer invested in my nation. I feel towards it much the same way that, say, a Catholic Jacobite in 18th England or a Christian in Japan might feel: precisely insomuch that I want it to survive, thrive, and be great, I see that it needs conversion.

7. A rather grim and downbeat retrospective, I’m afraid. Here’s an Mst3k short to lighten things up:

RE-POST: Why I Love ‘Independence Day’

I missed this 4th of July’s ‘Independence Day’ rewatch due to being sicker than paint, but here’s my yearly post on why it’s among my personal favorites.  

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            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 pulp sci-fi done as an 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. It tackles big ideas of freedom, heroism, faith, family, and patriotism in a simple, but solid fashion. 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. It helps that most of them are played by veteran supporting players and character actors (including a pre-Firefly Adam Baldwin as the commander of Area 51 and a very young, pre-Avatar: The Last Airbender Mae Whitman as the President’s daughter). Even the SETI boss who only shows up in the opening scene is invested with life and character, thanks in part to old-pro Eric Avari. This is really one of the most impressive ensemble casts I can remember seeing in a 90s blockbuster.

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, while his adult son sees him as an embarrassment. 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, single, 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, 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: the trademark American skill at integrating different cultures is not going to work here.

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 be using the Earth’s satellites to coordinate 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 have faith even in the face of disaster) and what it leads to (a last-ditch battle for freedom).

There are so many things that, looking back, the film does really well. The motives and backgrounds of the characters are established very quickly and concisely. For instance, we meet Levinson talking with his father over chess, who urges him to move on after his divorce. The scene establishes at once 1. their respective personalities and close relationship, 2. Levinson’s divorce, 3. his intelligence as he smoothly checkmates his father, 4. his environmentalist principles, 5. his reluctance to move on with his life, suggesting both his continuing attachment to his wife and his unambitious, lethargic personality. All that in one scene that lasts maybe two minutes (these key points are  reiterated and expanded on in equally efficient subsequent scenes). A quick moment of Hiller receiving a rejection letter from NASA establishes his dreams of flying in space, which he achieves at the end, as well as establishing the reasons for his inner conflict over marrying his girlfriend. Considering how many characters the film juggles, it’s remarkable that it manages to develop its leads as well as it does.

The film also does a good job of conveying the impact of the events; a minor, but established character dies in the destruction of each city, then more characters die in the subsequent counter attack. At least one character who survives the initial bombardments later dies of her injuries simply because she couldn’t get medical care soon enough. And we see things like the President agonizing over his failure to act more decisively, or Hiller making his way to Area 51 only to learn that he’s the only survivor of his entire Marine base. The film keeps moving, but it does allow the characters to react to the disaster.

I like the humor in the film a lot as well. Many of the jokes turn on the fact that, in the course of the disaster, normal social barriers have been eliminated, leading to unexpected situations, like when Hiller’s girlfriend sheepishly admits to the First Lady that, “I voted for the other guy.” Or when Levinson’s father unexpectedly finds himself about to meet the President…and discovers that his son once punched him in the face.

I’m also impressed at how well the effects have held up, probably because (like many of the best early CG-driven films) the movie actually uses a large amount of model work and practical effects and only supplemented with computers where necessary. The destruction of New York, Los Angeles, and Washington was mostly done with models and real fire effects filmed at low speed (so, the exact same techniques pioneered in the original Godzilla), the fiery clouds surrounding the ships as they enter the atmosphere were done with models in smoke-filled tanks, while the aliens themselves are glorious animatronic costumes. On that note, the sheer fact that the film manages to make flying saucers frightening and otherworldly again after so many decades of parody and over-exposure is impressive in itself. The featureless, almost motionless ships hovering ominously over the cities convey a distinctly alien atmosphere, especially contrasted with the more familiar planes and buildings of our own world.

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.

Flotsam: Snobbery, Revolutions, and the Fourth of July

1. Still in the ‘awkward transition’ phase regarding my new job, where I haven’t even begun to do the actual job I’ve been hired for (which itself is a trainee position), and I’m still getting used to the new schedule and what is and is not an option now. I’m at least keeping regular writing times, though, so that’s making me feel grounded, though I haven’t figured out how to fit blogging in.

2. At work the subject of arbitrary enforcement came up: the thing where people will create completely meaningless standards – e.g. “you take cream in your coffee? What kind of man are you?” – and enforce them for the group. I said (and the conversation moved on) that this is an authority thing: people assuming a position of authority in the social hierarchy. Status means that you are the one who sets the standard (giving nicknames is another way of assuming authority), so when you have an otherwise ‘equal’ group, those of an aggressive temperament will naturally try to seize the highest position they can.

Again, allowing for human wickedness and stupidity, this tends to only occur between ostensible equals as a means of setting the social hierarchy. It occurs between privates in a platoon, not between privates and officers. It occurs between priests in a parish, not between priests and bishops. It occurs among the gentry, not between the gentry and the artisans. Not to say you won’t find a stupid aristocrat who sneers at his tenants for not liking the right music or something, but generally vices directed at inferiors are of a different kind than snobbery: more of officiousness or arbitrary rule or selfishness.

3. Reading a piece at The Orthosphere I had one of those ‘oh, of course,’ moments, where you’re told something and realize that you should have known that all along from the nature of the case.

“highly egalitarian societies… have high homicide rates.”

Well, of course they do. When no one is any better or higher than anyone else, officially, then when there’s a dispute, the principles have to settle the matter themselves. But the only final, ‘authoritative’ way that two equal individuals have of settling matters is violence. The ‘talk it out’ solution advocated in schools only works when both sides are prepared to be reasonable and look at the matter objectively, which will be so in only a tiny minority of cases. How many times do kids on a playground actually ‘talk things out’ to the satisfaction of both? Not saying it never happens, but it would require exceptional kids on both sides.

What actually happens probably ninety-nine cases out of a hundred is that one kid, the one with the more extroverted and aggressive temperament, talks down the other and gets the rest of the group to gang up on him to force him to concede.

Because there’s another factor at play which the Orthosphere author doesn’t bring up: the fact that in the absence of an official hierarchy (or even in the presence of one, but wherever it doesn’t operate), people will create their own, even in something as petty as ‘what kind of shirt do you wear?’ or ‘what kind of car do you drive’? And people will be much more aggressive and quick to enforce these kinds of ‘unofficial’ hierarchies because they don’t rest on anything but the vigilance of the individual. A king doesn’t have to keep pushing arbitrary rules to remind people he is the king, but a ‘free and equal citizen’ does, because it’s the only way he can keep his place.

The more egalitarian you try to make a society, the more socially repressive, mistrustful, and violent it will become as people try to claw out and maintain their position.

Because the fact is that all human societies are hierarchical: that is just part of the form of society as such. If you don’t have a structure, a hierarchy, then you don’t actually have a society, just a collection of individuals, who will operate as individuals (like how if you get the parts of your computer ‘out of form’, you no longer have a computer as such, just a lot of metal and plastic operating as metal and plastic).

And one thing individuals naturally try to do is to form societies and establish social status. So that even if you could create a perfectly egalitarian state, the people living within it would quickly set up their own competing tribes and hierarchies. It would be like trying to keep the sea perfectly flat: that is just not how the thing works.

4. The evil of snobbery lies in the fact that it is someone laying claim to a status that he doesn’t actually deserve and that he misuses in any case. Mrs. Elton in Emma is a snob because she assumes a position she doesn’t actually merit, defends it aggressively by cutting down people who aren’t actually a threat to it, and uses her position bluntly and officiously once she’s in it. Emma herself is also a bit of a snob, but much less so because A). she has a right to her position, and B). she mostly uses it responsibly, except in trying to encourage Harriet to lay claim to a higher position than she’s actually entitled to (so, sort of a snobbery by proxy).

But I don’t think most people really mind class distinctions. The structure would hardly have persisted so long and so universally if they did. The people who object to hierarchies are those who want to move from one level to another and find it more difficult than they think it ought to be (trouble is that these are often the very same kind of ne’er-do-wells who like to write books). The common farmer generally doesn’t mind living under a duke: it is the nouveau-riche industrialist who chafes at aristocratic privilege.

5. And it’s the latter who leads revolutions. We like to think of rebellions as the poor, downtrodden masses rising up against their aristocratic overlords. Actually, from all I can tell, it’s the rich classes who are the revolutionaries: the ones who are powerful, but feel they aren’t as powerful as they deserve to be. That is, the ones who have more practical power than official power.

(There’s another element of the ones who feel ashamed for being rich, but don’t know what to do about it. Those who lack either the training or the stomach to be Saints become Revolutionaries as an easier alternative. And part of me wants to make a ‘Navy – Coast Guard’ joke here).

The impoverished masses tend to be conservative, at least until the propaganda gets to them. Because, of course, it really makes very little difference to the average tenant farmer or artisan or factory hand whether he lives under a republic or a monarchy, except that his sense of cultural identity (and thus tribal belonging) is bound up in whichever one he happens to have been born in. Thus the very same populations who were Loyalist in 1776 tended to be Union in 1861.

So, in summary, Revolutions tend to be rich men convincing poor men that they are being oppressed so that the poor men will go risk death to gain a higher status for the rich men.

6. On that note, happy Fourth of July everyone!

Perhaps it’ll help if I say that however the nation came to be, now that it’s established I would have it continue and improve. I would see it restored to the days of its glory, and I would be thankful even for the optimism of the early-mid twentieth century. Basically, I’d hold my tongue about this whole subject if it meant we could have a functional society again.

This, by the way, is why I’m still a Union proponent in the Late Unpleasantness, even though in many ways I sympathize more with the Confederacy. Revolution is a genie that is very hard to get back into the bottle once it gets out, and I think that if the Confederacy had been established, both it and the Union would only have experienced an endless string of bloody, petty uprisings as one state or another decided it was being oppressed and took up arms against another (heck, it nearly happened between Michigan and Ohio in 1835, and again between Arizona and California in 1934). The real necessity of the war was to firmly establish that we were done with in this country, and the result is that, after the ‘simmering down’ period, we had a more-or-less unified national identity all the way up to a couple decades ago.

7. Just so there’s no misunderstanding (yeah, right), I don’t think slavery would have outlived the 19th century, whatever happened. World opinion (i.e. the British Empire) was too set against it, and I don’t think the Confederacy, or whatever Balkanized collection of states resulted from it could have survived as the lone Western slave-holding nation. Probably would have been better overall if it slavery hadn’t been settled in the war and had simply been allowed to die a natural death, but that’s another issue entirely.

8. Let’s try to end on a high note here (wish the image quality was better, but it was the only one I could find). This is the kind of thing I’d like to see come back, my own disillusionment notwithstanding:

Ross’s Game Dungeon Does America

For this week’s Saturday entertainment, I offer the 2018 4th of July (sort of) episode of Ross’s Game Dungeon, where he reviews The Crew and takes a cross-country tour of the United States.

I haven’t kept up on the game itself in the intervening years, nor its sequel, so I don’t know what the state of the series is, but I have to say that I agree with Ross that I love just the idea of a giant, continuous map of a miniaturized version of the United States, and that you could really just sell the game on that alone. No story, just the chance to drive around the country, see the sights, learn bits of trivia, and maybe have the option to play some mini-games, like races or stunts or something. I would absolutely buy a game like that, assuming it wasn’t a glorified rental like this game is.

(The size and scope of the map also makes me dream of an ‘Arkham City’-style sandbox game for Godzilla: maybe with a miniaturized version of the Pacific Ocean and Japan, plus some other coastal regions and islands. Better not dwell on that too much, or I’ll get depressed that it doesn’t exist).

In any case, enjoy Ross’s tour of America. Stay to the end for a visit to my hometown of Detroit.

“Come get me now, punks: I’m in Nebraska!

Exceptionalism vs. Patriotism at the Everyman

Wherein I tackle American exceptionalism and try to explain why we need to give up on the idea:

I don’t say this just because our system of government and society barely resembles that which existed at the nation’s founding (even allowing for the passage of time and development of technology). Nor because we have recently witnessed the departure of what may well be the last legitimate president we will ever have, leaving the nation in the hands of criminals. Nor do I say this on account of slavery or racism or any of the other sins of our past (which are only to be expected).

It isn’t even because I think the philosophy we based our nation upon is incoherent and dangerously self-contradictory, or because I think the narrative underlying it to be thoroughly false.

No, the reason we need to give up the idea of our own exceptionalism is that it is fatal to patriotism.

As Americans (as I assume most of our readers to be) this may shock you. It may even sound like nonsense. But I beg you to try to understand what I’m saying.

Suppose a man were to say to his young son “I love you because you are the smartest, best behaved boy in school.” Suppose then that the boy gets a poor grade on his test, or gets into trouble with the teacher. What is he to think? The most natural thing would be for him to fear that his father would no longer love him, or not as much because he has shown himself to not be so smart or so well-behaved as his father believed him to be.

It is unlikely his father would really feel that way, but the boy would think so. He would think so because that would be the logical deduction from his father’s words. Therefore, even if the boy never does break the rules or get a bad grade, he will have that fear in the back of his mind of “what if…?” “What if I fail this test? What if I make a mistake and get detention? My father won’t love me a much anymore.” He will thus either work fearfully and fervently to ‘keep’ his father’s love or else despair and give up entirely. One thing is sure though: any love of the subjects themselves or any enjoyment in the ordinary life of a schoolboy will be crippled because none of them can be enjoyed for their own sake. They must go toward the satisfaction of that all-important condition.

It is the same for a husband and wife. A woman whose husband tells her “I love you because you are so beautiful” will fear the aging process and, just as much, fear the inevitable rival whose looks outshine her own.

If you ask why you love someone or something, you may give reasons (“She’s so sweet and so lovely!”  “He’s so strong, so honest”), but the real, proper response – which it is important to understand whether or not it is directly stated – is simply “because you are yourself.” As Professor Von Hildebrand says, to love something means to perceive the unique idea in the mind of God that it represents: to see it as something unique, irreplaceable, incomparable.

This is the great danger of American exceptionalism: it seeks to justify patriotism. Worse, it actually takes those justifications seriously. We are to love America because she is the freest, most just nation on earth, the nation that corrects the mistakes of the rest of the world, where equality and opportunity and liberty reign supreme.

Read the rest here.

There’s obviously a lot more to be said about all this than I was able to fit in or had time to adequately research. But if there is one idea, one section of this essay that I would wish to be ingrained in the readers’ mind and to hammer home as much as possible, it’s this:

No nation is meant to be a creed. It is not our duty to save mankind or to be the shining example for the world to follow. We are not the new Jerusalem, we are not the last best hope of earth, we are not God’s chosen people. America is not the Church. It isn’t even Rome.

Yearly ‘Independence Day’ Tribute

Every year on the Fourth of July, I rewatch ‘Independence Day,’ and every year I re-post this summary of why it’s among my personal favorites.  

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 pulp sci-fi done as an 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. It tackles big ideas of freedom, heroism, faith, family, and patriotism in a simple, but solid fashion. 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. It helps that most of them are played by veteran supporting players and character actors (including a pre-Firefly Adam Baldwin as the commander of Area 51 and a very young, pre-Avatar: The Last Airbender Mae Whitman as the President’s daughter). Even the SETI boss who only shows up in the opening scene is invested with life and character, thanks in part to old-pro Eric Avari. This is really one of the most impressive ensemble casts I can remember seeing in a 90s blockbuster.

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, while his adult son sees him as an embarrassment. 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, single, 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, 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: the trademark American skill at integrating different cultures is not going to work here.

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 be using the Earth’s satellites to coordinate 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 have faith even in the face of disaster) and what it leads to (a last-ditch battle for freedom).

There are so many things that, looking back, the film does really well. The motives and backgrounds of the characters are established very quickly and concisely. For instance, we meet Levinson talking with his father over chess, who urges him to move on after his divorce. The scene establishes at once 1. their respective personalities and close relationship, 2. Levinson’s divorce, 3. his intelligence as he smoothly checkmates his father, 4. his environmentalist principles, 5. his reluctance to move on with his life, suggesting both his continuing attachment to his wife and his unambitious, lethargic personality. All that in one scene that lasts maybe two minutes (these key points are  reiterated and expanded on in equally efficient subsequent scenes). A quick moment of Hiller receiving a rejection letter from NASA establishes his dreams of flying in space, which he achieves at the end, as well as establishing the reasons for his inner conflict over marrying his girlfriend. Considering how many characters the film juggles, it’s remarkable that it manages to develop its leads as well as it does.

The film also does a good job of conveying the impact of the events; a minor, but established character dies in the destruction of each city, then more characters die in the subsequent counter attack. At least one character who survives the initial bombardments later dies of her injuries simply because she couldn’t get medical care soon enough. And we see things like the President agonizing over his failure to act more decisively, or Hiller making his way to Area 51 only to learn that he’s the only survivor of his entire Marine base. The film keeps moving, but it does allow the characters to react to the disaster.

I like the humor in the film a lot as well. Many of the jokes turn on the fact that, in the course of the disaster, normal social barriers have been eliminated, leading to unexpected situations, like when Hiller’s girlfriend sheepishly admits to the First Lady that, “I voted for the other guy.” Or when Levinson’s father unexpectedly finds himself about to meet the President…and discovers that his son once punched him in the face.

I’m also impressed at how well the effects have held up, probably because (like many of the best early CG-driven films) the movie actually uses a large amount of model work and practical effects and only supplemented with computers where necessary. The destruction of New York, Los Angeles, and Washington was mostly done with models and real fire effects filmed at low speed (so, the exact same techniques pioneered in the original Godzilla), the fiery clouds surrounding the ships as they enter the atmosphere were done with models in smoke-filled tanks, while the aliens themselves are glorious animatronic costumes. On that note, the sheer fact that the film manages to make flying saucers frightening and otherworldly again after so many decades of parody and over-exposure is impressive in itself. The featureless, almost motionless ships hovering ominously over the cities convey a distinctly alien atmosphere, especially contrasted with the more familiar planes and buildings of our own world.

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.

A Reminder of What We Are Thanking Them For

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, where we honor the memory of the soldiers who gave their lives for our country. In the land that once was England, meanwhile, we are given an object lesson in what they laid down their lives to defend us from.

Activist Tommy Robinson, who is known to be a critic of Islam and British immigration policies and who the press describe as a “far-right activist,” was arrested on Friday for ‘disturbing the peace’ because he was filming outside of a courthouse where several Muslim men were being tried for child rape. He was covering the outcome of the trial. You can watch his arrest here and judge whether he’s disturbing the peace (they flat out say he’s being arrested of the content of his stream):

He was then tried, convicted, and sentenced within hours to thirteen months in jail. Not only that, but the judge who sentenced him ordered a complete media blackout (which should not even be an option in a civilian trial in a free nation). Again, because the guy was reporting on accused child rapists.

In England, a man was arrested, then secretly tried and sentenced within hourfor the crime of filming the outcome of a trial, apparently because it would be offensive to a certain minority group.

Nor is this the first time that’s happened: last year activist Kevin Crehan was arrested and imprisoned for leaving a bacon sandwich on the steps of a Mosque. For that he was sentenced to a year in prison along with thousands of Muslim extremists who knew about his prank and with no protective custody. Predictably, he was murdered.

In England. People are being arrested, imprisoned, and quietly murdered for their political stance in the country of Burke, Churchill, and Disraeli. The country that gave us the Magna Carta and English common law.

For perspective, Communist Poland, when it arrested Lech Walesa, did not arrest, try, and sentence him all in one day. Lech Walesa, in Soviet Poland received less of a sentence (eleven months) for his actions in the Solidarity movement than Robinson has received for reporting on a public trial in England.

If you want to know the difference between freedom and tyranny, this is it. This is what tyranny looks like. This is what those men laid down their lives to save us from. The land that once was England has descended into tyranny before our very eyes. Many in the United States are eager to follow suit. On this Memorial Day, as we recall the sacrifice of our soldiers, we should also take inspiration from their example and resolve to fight to the end against the tyranny that now threatens the west.