Five years after release, how well does Academy Award winner The Artist stand up?
On first viewing I greatly enjoyed its sly humour and novelty. There are some beautifully crafted scenes such as the dream sequence below.
The sudden intrusion of sound in a previously silent film is far more effective when seen in context. The scene doesn't just serve as foreshadowing of George's struggles in a world of talkies, it captures the inner turmoil that any life-changing event can provoke - a death, redundancy, the end of a relationship...
Cinema isn't all pyrotechnics, a few deft touches can enrich it - George's wife doodling on his photo, his reaction, and the expressions of the extras in the scene below:
Ultimately though, I found it a little disappointing to revisit. Its novelty allowed me to watch a melodrama uncritically and cynically on first viewing, something that wouldn't normally be possible. (This is interesting of itself, and gives me a better understanding of why people respond to the genre.) I was expecting some kind of darker twist, a some acknowledgement of the people chewed up by the Hollywood dream factory. Instead it plays the myth straight. It's the story of a privileged man who wallows in self-pity after his world is upturned, who doesn't change or adapt. The status-quo is restored when his paramour rescues him, much like an inverted damsel-in-distress. However, the final twist of the film, where we finally hear George speak, does redeem this lack of development - another artful moment that forces the audience to re-interpret the entire movie.
So, after 20 years Independence Day is getting a sequel. As you can probably tell from the image above I'm not a big fan of the original. I can't claim the high ground here, there are films in the same ballpark of dumb that I like, but I found ID4's blend of the improbable turns, jingoism and utter disregard for physics particularly irritating. If a good film is all about immersion and suspension of disbelief my inner Thomas started climbing the walls in a bid to grab my attention. When watching a movie for the first time I prefer to turn off my critical faculties, to experience rather than appraise it, but this isn’t something I can control.
Alarm bells started clanging when, with gigantic saucers poised over population centres, we’re told that the aliens have hijacked our communications satellites and embedded a secret countdown. You have to wonder why they bothered to do this, when exactly the same effect could have been obtained by equipping each ship with an egg-timer.
(Think about this for a moment, why a countdown? Hacking our satellites and leaving a communications channel open I can just about buy, it could be useful for synchronising an attack. Although given the aliens’ resources – they turn up in a mothership a quarter the size of the Moon – it seems a bit unnecessary. Why take the risk of tipping us off?)
The actual assault, when it comes, is surprisingly puny. We’ve had far more devastating weapons since 1945, capable of producing fireballs that no dog can outrun, and which aren’t defeated by corners. (Very few films would be improved by cooking a dog, ID4 is one of them.)
This approach gives us plenty of time to goggle and gloat over the destruction at hand. (Oh no, the White House has been destroyed! Who will ratify the amendment to the bill proposed by the under-secretary to the sub-committee?) It’s nothing compared to the devastation that a 15 mile wide flying saucers would cause at a sedate 300 miles-per-hour, any structure would be flattened by the shockwave. Either the driver isn’t on the same page or the aliens are playing with us, as a cat does with a mouse.
The reality of an alien invasion would be simply this – anyone who could get here could wipe us out for little additional effort. The Chelyabinsk meteor was about 65 feet across and the energy released was comparable to a large nuclear warhead, fortunately dispersed over a wide area and at a high altitude. Anything coming in from interstellar space would be travelling much faster and with a considerably more energy. In the case of the ID4 mothership just tossing out their garbage as they scudded past would be more than enough to do us in.
As for the finale of the film, with its famous hack to disable the force fields of the alien ships, I concede that that it makes a grand public service announcement about the importance of proper computer security. One that’s too often ignored, our race’s most common passwords being “123456” and the ever reliable “password”. In the ID4 universe a quick read of this xkcd cartoon would have been enough to doom humanity. We don’t win because we’re smart, or brave, or plucky; we win because our adversaries are irredeemably dumb. In the entire 145 minute runtime they aren’t permitted to show the slightest hint of intelligence or personality.
Unsurprisingly, my expectations for the sequel aren’t terribly high. What do I expect? Spectacular CGI, wooden acting, derring-do, iPhone product placement and obliterated monuments. (With Hollywood working its way down the UNESCO world heritage list and ISIS working its way up it I wouldn’t like to speculate where the two will meet.)