The aliens in disguise are at it again this weekend, insidiously driving our same roads and flying our same airways until they see the best opportunity to bare their true forms and fulfill their calling to destroy everything in sight. Before the robots in disguise infiltrated our theaters, though, there were the Martians in disguise, cloaking their nefarious purposes in an oath that “we come in peace”.
Of the two cornball alien invasion movies to defile our cinemas the year of 1996, one grossed enough money to firmly cement its legacy in American pop culture and acquire a sequel nearly twenty years after the unfortunate day it reared its head; the other, alack and alas, was sentenced to wistful anonymity for much of the same period, baring eking out its monumental production costs by the end of its run and attaining only a narrow following in the more intellectual circles of film critics. The former unpatriotic disgrace, ironically known as Independence Day (I recoil at italicizing it) or ID4 and brought to us courtesy of director Roland Emmerich, Will Smith, and Jeff Goldblum in a role he should regret to the grave, is unquestionably one of the stupidest movies I’ve ever seen and, by the same token, one of the most uproarious. The emotional peak of the sci-fi film, which would eventually become a staple of the genre as highlighted in recent endeavors like Avatar and Pacific Rim, is defined by a rousing and poetic call to battle delivered by President Bill Pullman, an exhortation for “mankind – that word should have new meaning for all of us today –” to lay aside their “petty differences” and “unite in our common interest” to defeat an enemy of life itself, “to fight for our freedom… from annihilation, for our right to live, to exist”. “Should we win this fight,” Pullman speaks, “The Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: ‘We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive!’” ID4 is all too frequently mistaken as some kind of right-wing, jingoistic ode to American nationalism, when in fact it’s just the opposite, loudly trumpeting a laughable message of multiculturalism and an idealistic philosophy that human beings, when subjected to extraordinary pressure and trying circumstances, naturally rally to effect cooperative solutions rather than naturally splinter and mobilize to devour one another out of self-preservation. A fantasy of liberal foreign policy distinguished by a glowing optimism in the durability of the human spirit, it shows us humanity not as it is but as the director imagines it to be, and does so convincingly enough that its tomfoolery has even reeled “Progressive” icons like Hillary Clinton into citing its fictionalized events as scientific proof of their Pacifism.
Undoubtedly the finest fake presidential speech of all time.
Why are you doing this? Why? Isn’t the universe big enough for both of us? Why be enemies? Because we’re different? Is that why? We could work together. Think of the things that we could do; think how strong we would be. Earth… and Mars, together! There is nothing that we cannot accomplish. Think about it… think about it. Why destroy… when you can create? We can have it all… or we can smash it all. Why can’t we forget our differences; why can’t we work things out? Little people… why can’t we all just get along?
Naturally enough, this dazzling oratory – this extemporaneous entreaty for togetherness and teamwork – reduces the foreign dignitaries to tears, prompting their leader to offer his right hand in peace, a gesture Nicholson proudly reciprocates, deeming this groundbreaking diplomatic settlement yet another victory for his administration. But lo, the alien’s arm breaks away and scuttles around the unsuspecting president’s body like a spider, plunging its barbed tail straight through his back and raising a flag from his chest where he lies sprawled on the office floor. All his efforts to negotiate with and appease the sworn enemies of his nation only result in his shockingly brutal and darkly comical demise.
Whereas most alien invasion saga assume an us-vs.-them backdrop where humans and aliens alike are fully committed to the extinction of the other, Mars Attacks! postulates a scenario where intellectuals, journalists, and officials are less concerned with finding and enacting the best strategy of repelling invasion than with proving their own culpability in the aliens’ violence. Pierce Brosnan plays a professor (read “scientist” or “expert”) Donald Kessler who refuses to entertain the racist notion that such a technologically advanced, well organized, and visibly brainy people as the Martians could possibly have come with malign intent. “Logic dictates that, given their extremely high level of technical development, they are an advanced culture, therefore peaceful and enlightened,” he lectures Nicholson in a White House conference. “The human race, on the other hand, is an aggressively dangerous species. I suspect they have more to fear from us than we from them.” Even after the Martians decimate the American welcoming committee, he urges the President to withhold from striking back, babbling that the invaders’ decision to fire their laser beams on U.S. soldiers was probably motivated by a “cultural misunderstanding” over a hippie who released a dove into the air, to which 15-year-old First Daughter Natalie Portman (in one of her first and, fittingly for this project, worst performances) helpfully pipes up, “Yeah, maybe to them doves mean war.” Up until the moment they bear him away for experimental purposes, the Professor retains an unwavering trust in the Martians’ rationality and good will, believing to the end that he and his countrymen, not the bloodthirsty, lawless marauders, are the source of all the world’s problems.