The sequel to Roland Emmerich's 1996 alien invasion film INDEPENDENCE DAY will finally be reaching theatres this weekend, but while we've been waiting twenty years for the Earth vs. aliens rematch that INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE will be giving us, there have been many other cinematic alien invasions during the decades between those films. One of the most high profile was the Steven Spielberg-helmed 2005 adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells novel WAR OF THE WORLDS. So let's spend some of our last few hours before RESURGENCE hits screens taking a look at who did alien invasion better - Emmerich or Spielberg?
BUILD TO ATTACK
Three dozen large alien ships depart from a massive mothership in orbit around the Earth and hover over specific locations all over the globe. Big cities with ships over them descend into chaos, as many people are understandably scared by the presence of the ships and immediately try to get out of there. Others greet them with enthusiasm. There's a feeling of dread as characters wonder whether the aliens are dangerous or not - and they don't realize that this is a hostile invading force until it's too late. It's discovered that transmissions from the ships have been counting down to a specific time to attack, and when that countdown ends the alien ships open fire with devastating weaponry.
Things are much more low-key and focused in this film. At first the only hint that something might be going on is a TV news report about a lightning storm knocking out electricity in the Ukraine. Another report mentions an EMP going off in Japan. Then the TV is turned off. We witness the initial attack through the eyes of characters who live in Bayonne, New Jersey. Storm clouds gather over Bayonne, the wind picks up but it's going toward the storm, not coming from it. Lightning strikes the same spot over two dozen times, creating a crater from which a towering tripod alien war machine rises and starts blasting. This same thing happens in cities all around the world.
INDEPENDENCE DAY was sold on a promise of featuring destruction on a massive scale, and it delivers on that promise. Entire cities are wiped out in expanding rings of flame. Buildings crumble, landmarks fall, cars are tossed through the air. More destruction follows when smaller alien aircraft come pouring out of the hovering ships to participate in aerial dogfights with military aircraft and fire at targets on the ground. A nuke is fired on the ship over Houston, accomplishing nothing more than irradiating the remains of the city.
The destruction is seen from the perspective of one group of characters, the movie doesn't cut away to show what's happening elsewhere, so it's often the aftermath of disasters that we're seeing. There are lots of explosions, burning vehicles, and the sinking of a ferry, as well as the wrecking of Bayonne. It's a smaller city than many of those destroyed in ID4, but its buildings are blasted apart, neighborhoods are crushed and blown up, a bridge is knocked over, and residents are reduced to dust by the energy blasts fired by the tripod.
These alien attackers have come to Earth simply because that's what they do. They travel from planet to planet, draining the place of its resources, and then move on to the next conquest. They're big and hideous, with large heads and eyes and lots of whipping tentacles. The most interesting thing about them is the fact they're telepathic, able to speak through a captive human or put images and information into someone's mind.
These aliens have been plotting an invasion for a long time, having buried their war machines on Earth and waited for the moment to strike. They look rather similar to the ID4 aliens, just smaller and without tentacles. Exactly why they're here isn't clear, as there is no way to communicate with them, but their presence is accompanied by the rapid growth of a red weed that they fertilize with the blood of captured humans.
ID4 has an overabundance of characters, with some adding nothing but minutes to the bloated running time. Between viewings, I had forgotten that several of them even existed. The standouts are Bill Pullman as an unpopular president who really steps up in this time of crisis, Randy Quaid in a role that predicts his future, Jeff Goldblum as a satellite technician who figures the aliens out quite easily, Judd Hirsch as his rambling father, Vivica A. Fox as an erotic dancer turned wasteland survivor, and of course Will Smith as a heroic fighter pilot. I know Smith's character is very popular, but I find him very annoying. Rarely does he seem to be emotionally invested in what's happening, he's just constantly making jokes. Some of these characters are entertaining, but I don't connect with them.
Spielberg shows his alien invasion through the eyes of Tom Cruise as Ray Ferrier, a regular, flawed, working class guy. WAR OF THE WORLDS instantly gains extra points for Cruise. He's a divisive figure, but I'm on the positive side of the divide, he's one of my favorite actors. Divorced, Ray has a rocky relationship with his children, 10-year-old Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and teenage Robbie (Justin Chatwin). They're a relatable, everyday fractured family and each of the actors do well in their roles. Robbie, however, is an incredibly annoying person. At first it's his attitude toward his father, later it's how he's constantly trying to run off into the action. The best moment is when Ray finally lets him go his own way. Late in the film, Tim Robbins shows up to do a great job playing crazy for a few scenes.
The way the alien threat is taken down has been getting mocked ever since this movie first reached theatres. Goldblum's character continues to figure out the aliens way too easily and comes up with a plan to infect the mothership's computer system with a virus, taking down the force fields around their crafts and making them vulnerable to our attacks. Apparently these creatures run the same sort of operating systems we do.
The film retains the ending that Wells wrote in 1897 - the aliens just weren't cut out for life on Earth. They don't have our immune systems, and end up dying from microbial infection. It's not the most exciting way to end things, but it's clever. Spielberg does his best to get it across that the aliens are sick, but to make sure the viewer understands what happened he brings in Morgan Freeman to explain things with a voice-over.
This was an extremely close one, so much so that the result was initially a tie. The decision came down to the Destruction category, where I had at first given the point to both films - INDEPENDENCE DAY for its citywide fireballs and WAR OF THE WORLDS for its presentation of its lesser amount of destruction. After waffling a bit, I decided to give that category to ID4, because those fireballs are damn impressive, and with that it took the win.
Do you agree with ID4 winning? Should it have remained a tie? Or should WAR OF THE WORLDS have been the clear winner? Let your thoughts on these films be known by leaving a comment. My inbox is always open to Face-Off suggestions, you can send them to CodyHamman@joblo.com.