Militarism, Misanthropy and the Body Politic:
Independence Day and “America‟s New War”
Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996) so resembles ―America‘s new war‖ that the
film demands a closer look. A list of similarities might include the incineration of government and corporate monuments, the corridor of fire barrelling down an avenue,
and distorted broadcast
images with super-text;
an emphasis on blue-
collar and middle-class
Fig. 1. New York skyline after the attack police, cropdusters, and
migrant workers; the absence of the rich and powerful as well as corporate entities; a wooden president who can only say ―nuke ‗em,‖ ―smoke ‗em out,‖ ―the evil ones,‖ ―dead or alive,‖ ―we are fighting for our right to survive,‖ and who would rather be on the ranch or in the air than behind a desk; military posturing rather than negotiation; high-tech
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military planes that search for life through moonlike, rocky environments; the dismantling of communication lines, reducing some players to early forms of technology; conventional weapons, toxins, germs and nuclear bombs; the gathering together of many races against one who cannot speak our language, who have studied us for a long time, who are watching us from both within and above, whose place of origin we are unsure of, who are using our technology against us, and who want to exterminate us; government lies and cover-ups; missile defence shields; the redefinition of nationhood; questions surrounding race, gender, religious and sexual practices; victory culture; Second World War imagery; cropdusters; kamikaze pilots.
The day after the 11 September attacks, journalists‘ listservs received many postings about how Independence Day resembled the event, and Fox Cable Network,
1which owns the broadcast rights to the film, pulled it from rotation. In this ―new war‖
that resembles none other, viewers may cope in ways that psychologists say they do: by drawing upon pre-existing scripts from lived experience and from media, such as films, books and popular songs. Though other movies—True Lies (James Cameron, 1994),
Dune (Frank Herbert, 1984), and Deep Impact (Mimi Leder, 1998)—have moments
resonant with the current conflict, no film resembles it as closely as does Independence
2Day (often known as ID4). Equally important, no other invasion film has been seen by so many people in the last five years—Independence Day is one of the ten top-grossing
3films of all time. It is also America‘s most recent apocalyptic war movie. Perhaps the terrorists also borrowed from Independence Day. It is easy to imagine viewers in the
Arab world watching the film with multiple identifications—with the aliens, with a
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cropduster-turned-kamikaze pilot, played by Randy Quaid, and with the celebratory white male war room.
While this article addresses how people in the U.S. might use Independence Day,
it devotes more time to those characters and extras who are presented as misaligned with the status quo and subsequently othered and/or removed. ID4 creates fear of an invasion
and channels it into a hysteria linked to homosexuality, sex, race, gender, ethnicity and the body. The film‘s othering is also not trivial in relation to United States‘ actions and the war today—perceiving individuals and groups among us and without as ―evil‖ can
spur such questionable actions as military tribunals, detention of people without charging them with a crime, restrictions on civil rights, the withholding of foreign aid, reduction of domestic spending, inflation of the military budget, threats of war, and going it alone, outside of the world community. This piece asks: how might ID4‘s dreamscape map onto
President Bush‘s, the government‘s, the media‘s and the public‘s imaginary of 9/11 and the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars?
Here is a brief synopsis of the film: the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI), an obscure agency that monitors the airwaves for evidence of alien communications, discovers an unusual broadcast signal and forwards it to the Pentagon. It soon emerges that an alien spaceship has entered Earth‘s orbit, and smaller ships have broken off and placed themselves over strategic sites around the globe, perplexing the U.S. President and his staff. A cable technician, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), notices that the spaceship‘s signal is diminishing and ascertains that the aliens are ―using our own
satellites against us.‖ He and his father rush to the White House to meet with the President and his assistant, David‘s ex-wife Connie. The president, his entourage, David,
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and his father, get out of Washington in time, but millions die, including the President‘s wife. The party heads for Area 51, a government facility in Roswell, New Mexico, where alien materials previously recovered—a ship and several carcasses—are the subject of
ongoing research. Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith) brings along a new specimen, a badly injured alien pilot he has just shot down in a dogfight. Levinson discovers that the military can implant a computer virus in the alien spacecraft, set off an explosion, disable the aliens‘ shields, and bring down the mothership and its progeny. David and Steven set off to do so. Independence Day ends happily with fireworks rather than global
The most sustained analysis of the film, Michael Rogin‘s Independence Day, or
How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Enola Gay, serves as a starting point for
4this article. This book catches the film‘s extreme misanthropy by cataloguing the crude
types that populate the film—the trash-talking, young African-American male, the
neurasthenic, fast-talking Jewish American, the flagrantly gay man, the oppressed, domesticated woman. Most critics responded positively to ID4‘s stereotypes, judging
perhaps that these broad caricatures functioned like vaudevillian representations with the
5power to amuse and to ameliorate difference. Rogin shows, however, that these
representations function in ways similar to Stepin Fetchit and Amos and Andy, reinforcing the self-certainties of ―mainstream‖ viewers at the expense of those who do
not fit the mainstream‘s restrictive definition. While Rogin points to these representations, he does not consider how they work. A careful look at the film reveals something canny and disturbing.
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The cultural meanings of the cartoonish figures in the foreground are reinforced by a profusion of details in the background. While this play between the background and the foreground doesn‘t represent a novel strategy, its savvy use has rarely been surpassed. In ID4 the vaudevillian characters, though objectionable, are familiar and legible. Furthermore the props and characters in the back of the frame are so subtly rendered, and pop in and out so quickly, that they remain barely perceptible. Nevertheless this background material adds depth to the cultural stereotypes—in ways as insidious as they
are technically sophisticated—and forges new connections among them. Such an
approach may have emerged from a new common practice.
David Bordwell points to a recent trend in which cinema is sped up and stripped down. Directors deploy rapid editing, choose distorting lenses and close-ups over wide
6shots, and compress what would normally comprise several shots into a single one. In
addition several scholars of acting have noted that contemporary film productions allot less rehearsal time than in the past, and suggest that characters are thus less fully realised. But big budget films can create richness by other means. Today‘s bloated production
7budgets and expanded shooting schedules allow time for the finessing of storyboards.
Sets are carefully constructed to match the wallop of the expensive effects. Contemporary films reveal a new kind of density through connections across shots and finely worked material in the background.
This article expands upon Rogin‘s study in a second way. While Rogin‘s analysis provides an excellent psychoanalytic and intertextual description of why the film was so pleasurable for viewers, this article describes several large-scale formal structures that might also have produced such effects. Filmic techniques linked to tone, form, pacing,
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viewer identification and sexuality draw the viewers‘ attention away from misanthropic representations. In particular, Freudian devices of compensation and displacement help turn Independence Day into a dream-text that relaxes a viewer‘s critical distance.
Significantly, ID4‘s densely textured misanthropic representations were deliberate attempts to obtain specific effects: Independence Day‘s regressive character touches are
8missing from Dean Devlin and director Roland Emmerich‘s original script. The script
doctors may have added the additional material during later scripting sessions in order to give the film a bit more kick and increase box office, and maybe even to balance the film‘s special effects.
9This article begins with a sketch of the construction of the stereotyped characters.
The paper‘s second half explores the ways that these devices support the stereotypes, and finally considers ID4 as a rehearsal for America‘s current war.
ID4‟s Stereotypes: Punishment of the Other
The characters who get punished by the aliens‘ wrath group together as a type: the film diminishes their humanity, which allows them to help delineate the film‘s leading roles. Nearly all of the casualties in the first third of the movie seem to assume the viewer‘s
For many viewers, a
sense of glee when flashes
of light first erase the
White House and the
Pentagon may harden into a
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Fig. 2. The White House is erased.
numbed response when the aliens‘ incinerate populations and buildings later in the film.
Other ID4 characters experience the brunt of the aliens‘ aggression before the U.S. does: the Iraqis witness the unfurling of mushroom clouds, and the Russians suffer the first deaths. In the Oval Office, the White House staff watches news footage of the destruction in Novosibirsk, and a young boy‘s bloody, bandaged head is placed in the foreground of the screen. General Grey turns away from the sight—is he too busy, uninterested, or
10repulsed? The television images elicit a re-enactment of Freud‘s narrative of a child
11being beaten. The film cuts away too quickly from this scene for the viewer to fully take in what she has just seen. Off the coast of California, a plane with U.S. pilots flies into a grand, stormy fire cloud. (Okay, we‘ve lost some of our own.) Three diminutive
―welcome wagons,‖ awkwardly jerry-rigged helicopters with large light panels jutting out from the sides, as at a rock concert, come to meet the aliens with a message of peace; but they are such a joke that, like enlarged mosquitoes, they deserve immolation by the aliens‘ death ray. The music underscores these blasts with ethereal music on impact—
only after a long held chord does the music darken in tone. Next to go down are the UFO fans. One woman wants to bring back Elvis, many people partake in a rave, and most wave silly handmade placards like ―Make Yourself at Home‖ and ―Take me with You.‖ An ebullient Tiffany runs up the ladder to meet the aliens, despite Jasmine‘s having warned her not to go. The first real character who dies—or who speaks more than four
lines of dialogue, anyway—is gay and Jewish. His death lacks any semblance of dignity: he slouches, says ―Oh, crap,‖ and gets levelled by a car.
Even the moment before the building explodes is worth a second look. We cannot tell which buildings and cities are exploding. The second impact shows the aliens‘ blue
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streak of fire touching the top of the building, reeling back in, and heading down again to initiate an explosion. Is the action reversible? Is this just a video game?
Rogin argues that Independence Day was made in part as revisionist history—to
defuse the newly emergent claims that Americans were wrong to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to return Americans to our previously imagined place on
12moral high ground. ID4 is coy about the U.S. deployment of nuclear weapons over
American soil. General Grey notes that civilian casualties should be held to a minimum (not non-existent), and the bombing is figured off screen. We see a quick shot of one-half
13of a tank and flying balsa wood at the edge of a road.
The European-American Woman
Rogin argues correctly that Independence Day advocates a return to cold war ideology
14and its notions of domesticity. Though it‘s touching in the film‘s opening—and perhaps
progressive—that both the president and the cable technician plaintively ask their wives to return home, the film makes these women pay too high a cost for non-compliance. The president‘s wife dallies, repeatedly looking over her shoulder, and dies from an internal
haemorrhage. On her death bed, she apologises to her husband, wishing she had come home. (In a subtle rhyme, Connie almost dies as well. She keeps looking back as bombs hit civilians, but an Air Force officer shoves her into the elevator.)
Of the four major female characters in Independence Day, two survive—Connie
and Jasmine—and two do not—Tiffany and Margaret Whitmore. At the film‘s beginning,
the two women survivors are committed to their careers. Toward the end they become women who patiently wait while their men go off to war. The film sanctifies this shift by
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fixing their bodies—they stand rigidly—and medium close-ups reveal their faces framed
in halos of glowing light. Perhaps Connie and Jasmine have not lost too much, however; if we look closely, the film did not have many opportunities for these women in the first place.
As ID4 unfolds white women become excluded from the public sphere. The
president‘s wife cannot return because she is going to a luncheon. Later, we discover she is conducting interviews, but we never find out what they are for, and we suspect that they might be trivial. Connie, the president‘s secretary, mouths the words of his speeches,
15but she is made to resemble an intern or a personal assistant. White women in the
backgrounds of shots have been subtly placed to create a negative impression of their power. At the beginning of the film, one woman stands within a group of male officials in the cabinet room, but as the president crosses her path, he reminds her to tend to his daughter—she is only the daughter‘s governess. In the far corners of the war rooms, we can occasionally spy one woman with dark brown hair, but her hair is cut so short that she might be taken for a man.
In later scenes women no longer appear in the war room. The film‘s final third,
which contains the grand space battles, forgoes the opportunity to present female fighter pilots, even though the commanding officers must scrape the bottom of the barrel for anyone who possibly can serve. The drunken cropduster, Vietnam Vet and former alien abductee, Randy Quaid, has to suffice. In the final space battle scenes, all of the airborne fighters are, finally, white men—young, middle-aged and old—no women or people of
16colour remain. Here we have a mirror image of the same inner circle of white men who decide policy. (They are all gathered together in the cockpit of Air Force One.)
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The film equates sex and reproduction with a fear of women‘s bodies and of the
alien—all are conflated as monstrously feminine. The first off-screen voice we hear (and the film‘s third line of dialogue) says ―come on, come on, come on baby,‖ as if someone were in the act of childbirth. The camera then dollies past the barrier to reveal a tall African-American male in white underwear. The camera finds a double for Connie, the president‘s wife and the governess, with tousled hair, body barely cloaked in a short kimono-like night-gown, and legs provocatively spread across a swivel chair before a Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute desk and monitor. The film works with bookends. At the end of the movie, David Levinson and Steven Hiller recall this early scene by calling each other ―girl,‖ the monster ―baby‖ and saying ―come on, come on, come on, we‘re in.‖
The first scenes conflate the alien invasion and men‘s interest in women not as co-
workers but as dames. Most of the first ten lines are pedestrian, but a man who is awakened in bed says: ―If this is not an insanely beautiful woman, I‘m hanging up.‖ The president tells his wife, referring to their daughter, ―I‘m sleeping next to a beautiful, young brunette.‖ In a later rhyme, both the president‘s wife and the alien nestled in its spaceship die of an internal haemorrhage. Even the daughter‘s depiction in regards to women‘s bodies and reproduction is perverse. She is called the munchkin and told to ―grow and grow.‖ Is she to help the human race outstrip the aliens‘ enormous population?
17ID4 frequently makes reference to a lack of manpower. In Area 51, Dr. Okun praises
the handsomeness of the found alien spacecraft, ―She‘s a beaut,‖ and the munchkin steps forward and gazes at it as if it were her own reflection. Perhaps the scene with father and daughter in bed is benign, or perhaps it carries a whiff of incest. Whitmore does taunt his
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