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A Hero's Journey Through Science Fiction

Great Moments in Tropes: Independence Day (1996)

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Did you know the 1996 alien film Independence Day is a reboot of the 1953 movie War of the Worlds? (Cold virus takes out the invading aliens in 1953; Computer virus takes out alien technology in 1996.) In many ways, ID4 is an homage to 1950s sci-fi films where bug and reptiles enlarged by radiation attack the general public and the buildings they eat, sleep and work in. The general charm of the film that endeared it to so many people to the tune of $800 million dollars of box office sales lies in the story’s characters, which at the time film critics generally loathed. The vast distance between critics and public opinion ignited a brief but substantial firestorm of controversy that called into question the validity of film criticism. Who was right? Was ID4 as terrible a film as critics decried it the summer of ’96? If so, this implies that audiences had grown more Neanderthal in their tastes. If not, film critics had lost their sense of direction as the intellectual skull jockeys of cinematic pop culture. I leave that debate up to you.

However, I contend that the mass appeal of the film rests in the screenplays classic approach to the story’s operatic alien mayhem upon half a dozen characters. Simply put (tongue in cheek) their story trajectories harken back to classic tropes of film narrative. If this terms sounds familiar but you can’t quite formulate a definition–well, here’s my attempt to define: Tropes are literary devices that transmit aspects of story telling. As literary devices go, certain tropes are so often used they resonate in us, like vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream ring our bells in a varied world of Americone Dream and Cherry Garcia. If mishandled, character tropes, such as those used in ID4, can come off as stale and predictable. This was the complaint critics leveled at the film during the summer of 1996. They were half right.

The original 1953 film of War of the Worlds relied on the stock characterizations and staid dialogue of its day by putting two scientists, Dr. Clayton Forrester and Dr. Sylvia Van Buren, up against the unstoppable alien war machine. Clayton took the lead in confronting the alien attack and made critical decisions, while Sylvia deferred to him, fetched him coffee and when appropriate screamed bloody murder. These were familiar character tropes of the day, as demonstrated in films such as Them!, Tarantula and 20 Million Miles From Earth. Due to the sophistication of the film’s special effects, cold war audiences rushed to emotionally defend and cheer on the characters. In 1996, these and other tropes were resurrected and updated for modern sensibilities. Under the horrify visage of our country laid waste, these tropes helped tie us emotionally to the countless plight of so many characters.

Never in a motion picture have so many tropes converged in one location. Here now are just 6 classic character tropes used in ID4. These are in no particular order, but they do contain major plot spoilers:

Trope: The Addled Hero, who overcomes his demons to save the day.

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Definition: The Addled Hero in this situation means the Town Drunk, Russell Casse, a local alcoholic cropduster whose glory days as a fighter pilot are now awash in booze over the death of his wife. Usually in this trope the character is well-intentioned, which actor Randy Quaid helps bring off with a deft comic touch, although for Mr. Casse, those well intentions are fermenting in grain alcohol. Besieged by his pickled demons, Casse’s character is a device through whom the audience watches redemption resurrect the damaged hero.

Here, Russell Casse comes to the aid of his children and leads survivors away from the violent alien attack to a remote military base. Emboldened with a newly discovered purpose, the Addled Hero embraces sobriety long enough to crawl behind the stick of a fighter jet to hand the human allies a victory in the face of their certain defeat. Armed with the remaining missile that will not fire, Casse must ram the alien’s primary weapon before it can fire down on Area 51 killing thousands of refugees, including his own children. To ensure a future free of alien marauders, Casse finalizes his tropic story arc by laying down his life, destroying himself and bringing down the alien ship in a glorious detonation that wins the day for Earth.

Trope: The Estranged Husband-Wife, who rekindle their love under life and death situations.

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Definition: The athletic bickering between Constance Spano and David Levinson is the rhythm of this marriage-gone-awry trope. Once a happy couple of promising young professionals, Constance’s upward climb as a political campaigner for a young presidential front-runner Tom Whitmore became a sore spot for her MIT graduate husband turned satellite-tech for a NYC cable company. David suspects his wife’s lengthy time on the campaign trail means only one thing: an affair with Whitmore. After punching the presidential candidate in the face, the couple goes their separate ways.

In a disaster film as this, the aforementioned backstory bursts to the narrative’s surface under mounting pressure of the alien invasion as the estranged couple reunites out of urgency to save Earth. Huddled together as refugees, Constance and David rehash their old issues, only to have their hardened hearts soften because the back and forth releases tension and allows for eventual reminiscing over the good times they enjoyed. However, this couple cannot return to its original matrimonial bliss until David happens upon the cure to ending the alien invasion. By the time the credits roll under the hail of alien debris, the two are back together.

Trope: The Disgruntled Curmudgeon, who finds Faith and Humanity.

Definition: This trope is the centerpiece of  2002’s M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. But this is 1996’s ID4. Julius Levinson has lost faith with a good many people and institutions, not the least of which was his son’s life choices that steered the MIT schooled man from the lovely Constance, a daughter-in-law Julius adored, and from a lucrative career commensurate of his education (Cable repair man?). Nonetheless Julius loves David and serves as his comedic sidekick while his son tries to save the world. Along the way the former rabbi harps on his son, dispensing motivation and advice as the two navigate their way to the White House and Area 51. However, it is the death of his own wife that has put enmity between Julius and God.

The tide then turns. Julius proudly watches his son use his gifted intellect to forge a weapon against the aliens. Next his son hands him a yarmulka and siddur, as one might reunite with an old warrior a sword and shield. Reembracing his faith Julius leads refugees in prayer. As mothership debris reigns down from space, he stands next to his son and daughter-in-law, who are reunited in love.

Trope: The Disenfranchised Hero finds his niche fulfilled by saving the day.

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Definition: James Thurber’s Walter Mitty is a meek and mild man who has an imaginative fantasy life to compensate for his inability to achieve a life he cannot manage to create for himself. Captain Steven Hiller is no Walter Mitty but Steven Hiller feels his job is not commensurate of his own longing for adventures in outer space. Be it known that Hiller is a Marine fighter pilot, but the captain longs to be an astronaut, and to drive the point home he receives a letter from NASA that rejects his application to the program. In the battle against the aliens Hiller loses all of his entire squadron and his best friend.

The trope is most apropos to the story. To defeat the aliens, the captain must take command of a captured alien spacecraft, fly it out of Earth’s orbit and stow it aboard the alien mothership with two nuclear weapons and a computer virus.  In one fell swoop Hiller does a ‘Luke Skywalker’, going from dusting womp rats to blowing up the Death Star. How much more can one fulfill their dreams of being an astronaut? (And then some.)

Trope: The Rich & Powerful, reconnects to his blue-collar days.

Definition: Thomas J. Whitmore is the beleaguered president of the United States. Once a revered fighter pilot during the Persian Gulf War (not to be confused with the oft maligned Iraq War), President Whitmore comes off as a junior politician, whose heart is in the right place but the mire of Washington politics paints him ineffective. His humiliation feeds the glee of his critics and beltway gossip mongers. Not the sort of moniker a former war hero needs have slung around his political neck.

Whitmore finds political satisfaction falling back on the skill that made him a decisive leader: soldiering. He leads his armed forces against the alien air force. This goes badly. After a captured alien attempts to telepathically crack his skull, Whitmore tells his secretary of defense, “Let’s nuke the bastards.” But these fiery weapons of mass destruction have no effect against their shields. When generals map out the final battle and experienced pilots are too low in numbers, POTUS does the unthinkable and dons a flight suit. “I’m a pilot,” he tells the dubious General Grey, admitting it’s the one thing he knows how to do. Herein he hops back into a fighter jet and leads the decisive assault on the city-sized alien ship, which sends it thundering to the ground.

TropeThe Eccentric Scientist, who solves the problem militaries and governments cannot.

Definition: We’ve established David Levinson is an MIT graduate. To understand his character trope, let’s redirect you to the 1986 film, Back to the Future. Dr. Emmett Brown is the quintessential mad scientist. This does not imply a Human Centipede-Joseph Mengele type madness but an eccentric personality marching to the beat of his own drummer, who of course invents a time machine…out of a car. Such is the case of David Levinson. Why else would a MIT graduate be schlepping as a satellite tech for a cable company. He wants to save the earth but the most he can do is harp on his co-workers to recycle their used soda cans.

That aside, David’s choice of profession is apropos because the marauding aliens have commandeered earth’s satellites to coordinate their attack. No one else notices this, but David quickly picks up on the distortion and determines that it is a countdown to an attack. Using his estranged wife as an access point to the President of the United States, his scientific revelation saves the Whitmore administration from destruction and allows America’s fighting force to find refuge in a remote desert base where David is tasked by POTUS to crack into the alien’s defense system. But how can such a schmoe bring a sophisticated war machine to its knees? David Levinson does this by hacking in their system using a computer virus and drops their impenetrable defense shields. Next, we kicked their asses off our planet.

Great job David. Great job everyone.

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2 thoughts on “Great Moments in Tropes: Independence Day (1996)

  1. Great analysis of the movie and the tropes, thanks. I think that you’re right on the money with what made this move successful and absolutely re-watchable. I’m a big believer in character and conflict driving stories.

    I’d be really interested in your take on District 9.

  2. Thanks for the read. It’s appreciated.

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