Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Why #GamerGate Matters

Punching Glass Joe has come a long way. (Image via IGN)

A common refrain in response to discussions of #GamerGate goes something like this: “ISIS is overrunning Iraq, Russia has invaded Ukraine, there’s rioting in Ferguson, the economy still sucks, there are scandals all over the place, and you want to talk about a bunch of man-children who are angry that girls are getting to play with their toys? Who cares!?”

Firstly, human beings are fully capable of expressing interest in more than one topic at a time, and so too can the media report on more than one news event in a day. Discussing #GamerGate does not invalidate the seriousness of any of those other issues, nor does it indicate that someone lacks understanding of those other events. Frankly, there’s little that can be done about them by the average Joe anyway, so it is not as if turning our attention for a moment to discuss something over which we have slightly more direct control will result in catastrophe.

Secondly, those “toys” are a $100 billion industry that cuts across all age groups and spans most of the globe. In fact, 59% of all Americans play video games of some sort, and the average gamer has been doing so for 14 years. So what once might have been a novelty for children now functions as a central component of the cultural identity for anyone in the Western world under the age of 35. It’s also an industry on the leading edge of our technological development, so it’s highly likely that the media of the future will follow in the footsteps of today’s gaming media as this younger generation that grew up with its particular form of content delivery comes to power.

Moreover, video games have evolved as an art form to one whose stories and cinematics can rival the best Hollywood has to offer and where gamers even get paid to practice and compete in tournaments like their brethren in professional athletics. As the industry grows, so too will its influence on the culture at large, and that culture will in turn govern the politics and policies that come into play with things like ISIS, the economy, and health care. Thus what happens in this industry can very easily have a wide and lasting impact, certainly at least as much as a riot in Missouri.

Finally, that framing of #GamerGate is precisely the kind of journalistic malpractice that created the firestorm in the first place. Gamers do not think girls are taking away their toys nor are they angry about women increasingly entering the industry, but they are tired of watching people who claim to be journalists pushing their particular social agenda, smearing people with the actions of the few trolls that exist in every community, and getting into bed with the subjects they cover.

Yes, the spark that ignited this firestorm involved the personal sexual activities of a female developer, but even then gamers were hardly concerned with her sexual proclivities, only the resultant conflict of interest her choice of partners had created. Rather than investigating if the accusations of malfeasance leveled against her and her partners had any merit, the games media sought to suppress any discussion of the issue at all. Were it not for that attempted censorship, the simmering pool of discontentment that had been building for so long within the community likely would not have been set ablaze. Then, rather than squelching that fire by admitting their mistakes and addressing gamers’ concerns, the gaming media effectively soaked themselves in gasoline and took a run through the flames by turning on their readers and maligning them as hateful misogynists.

As a result, we have people of all genders, races, and political persuasions banding together to demand objectivity and transparency in journalism, while pushing efforts that promote actual equality rather than the faux equality of outcomes and quotas. And despite the vehement attacks upon them, they have already succeeded in forcing several major outlets to re-examine their policies and in funding the efforts of a group the social justice crowd attempted to destroy.

Why would we not want to celebrate that and hold it up as an example to all the other media that has long since abandoned the pursuit of objectivity to the pressures of greed and political correctness? In what way does it help us with any of those other ostensibly more important issues to look at this established beachhead against corruption in journalism and the misery that political correctness brings to simply shrug and say “meh, nerds”?

We may not have the capability to change the President’s mind on deployment of troops or ensure justice is carried out either in Washington or Ferguson, but gamers have shown us we can affect an industry poised to substantially influence the culture of the future. Right now we can help nudge it in the direction of objective journalism and free expression such that when we log on to view the regular news version of the Kotakus and IGNs that will likely be the future of the rest of our media, we might be able to rest assured they’re not hyping a shooting for ratings or skunking scandals as some racist witch hunt. Let’s not waste that opportunity.

*this post cross-posted at http://theirfinesthour.net/

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Cataclysmic Clash: Gamers vs. Journalists

Glass Joe was never a match for Little Mac
(Image: Charles Williams (CC))
A ton of things have happened since my last post on what is now known as Gamer Gate. Some hours after it went live several gaming websites, who won’t be named and won’t be linked because they don’t deserve the traffic, posted articles all containing the same theme: “Gamers” are dead, they don’t have to be our audience, and this controversy is little more than the death rattle of a white male misogynistic culture. One of these articles even went so far as to decry “fun” being the primary criteria by which we determine how good a game is.

The blowback from gamers accelerated to form two hashtags, #GamerGate and #NotYourShield, as people of various colors, genders, and sexualities came out to prove gamers were not dead and that they were, in fact, a diverse audience that didn’t appreciate being spoken for by their opponents. Despite learning that Quinn had done more than simply lie and cheat on her boyfriend (she had wrecked the efforts of another group to promote women in the industry), gamers sought to push on from that initial spark of controversy to talk about the real underlying problems in the industry and its media. Their opponents continued to insist that was a lie and all these diverse voices were either fake or brainwashed. Finally, gamers found another outlet for their voices, as Adam Baldwin and Internet Aristocrat showed up on my friend Ed Morrissey's show along with several thousand viewers and chatters to hash out the issue, and now we all take a breath and wait for the next turn in the road.

Meanwhile, gamers continue to demand that they be treated as individuals and allowed to criticize others as individuals. They laugh at the notion that the “gamer” identity is dead seeing as they're all still playing games and the term never reflected some particular demographic in the first place. They proclaim unabashedly that it’s unjust and unfair for them to be tarred by the actions of the various assholes of the Internet because their inability to Care Bear Stare these trolls into good people does not signify approval of said trolls. Similarly, just because they happen to disagree with an interpretation of a particular trope (or even agree but enjoy the game despite it) that does not mean they should be declared dead to everyone and tossed out of the community. They likewise note individuality comes with the price of being responsible for one’s actions, and therefore it is not only ok but also just to criticize those persons who act in an unethical manner and expect them to rectify their behavior.

This has been fascinating to watch since for once the forces of political correctness and collectivism seem to have met their match in a group of people that simply refuses to bend to their will. Gamers will not be shamed into accepting the victimhood of the Quinns and Sarkeesians of the world, nor will they be lectured to by the journalists that happily parrot that narrative or be silenced by the forum moderators who seek to censor any opposition. Since every other aspect of Western Civilization has buckled and cowed before the various –isms that sprang forth over the last half century or so, one must wonder what it is, exactly, about this particular community that allows it to fight back with such ferocity.

No doubt one possibility is that video games have always been a great equalizer. Bosses, puzzles, finish lines, match results, and scoreboards do not care what gender, race, or sexual orientation the player is, so there’s little room for blaming oppression for failure. In multiplayer games, it’s unlikely that one player can even tell what gender, race, sexual orientation, social status, etc. another player is. Most of the time another player exists as merely stream of text and/or a digital avatar that in no way reflects their real life image such that hated rivals can end up forming bonds without even knowing it.

Thus when games do afford players the opportunity to form groups, such as squads in FPSes or guilds in MMOs, their primary concerns are a person’s skill level, their willingness to improve that skill, and their general attitude rather than their superficial characteristics or political ideology. After all, the most politically correct person in the world is of no help to the team if they can’t shoot straight, and they’ll be incredibly distracting if they won’t shut up about how a particular character model is degrading to women. They definitely won’t improve the team’s odds if every time they screw up they blame some troll for harassing them rather than reflect upon what they did wrong and try to do better next time.

Hannah Wallen argues that the resistance stems from the fact that most gamers gave up on the social ladder long ago, and so threats to cast them down it and incentives to raise them up it mean nothing to them, thereby making them immune to the favorite shaming tactics of social justice warriors. Certainly this situation resembles the high school cliques of cheerleaders and athletes staring down their noses at the gross nerds who are so weak and pathetic they have to play games on the Internet, so she may not be too far off.

Ultimately, I wonder if it’s not something much simpler. Perhaps it’s just that gamers remember what it was like before their hobby became cool, and they’ll be damned if they’ll be driven out by the very people who used to deride them for enjoying it.

*this post cross-posted at http://theirfinesthour.net


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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Zoe Quinn Scandal: Nepotism and Censorship in Gaming

A firestorm has erupted in the video game community this past week, and before I get started on talking about that, let me offer this blanket warning that all the links and videos in this post may contain strong language and thus are probably NSFW.

The controversy centers on independent game developer Zoe Quinn, and it began with her submission of her game, Depression Quest, to the Steam Greenlight program that allows the Steam community to select games for distribution on that service. Since Depression Quest is a simple text-based game designed to get players to understand depression, it was widely panned by that community.

However, Quinn gained enormous sympathy from the video game industry, particularly among gaming journalists, following an incident with the image forum Wizardchan. After some uncouth posts criticizing her and her game appeared on their site, Quinn took to social media to accuse the self-described virgin adult male community at Wizardchan of harassing her both online and via telephone. Despite their assertions they had nothing to do with the attacks on Quinn, the Wizardchan guys were lambasted for being sexists and misogynists by her supporters and the gaming press, and there were accusations on both sides of people’s personal information being leaked and websites being hacked.

Ultimately, the game was green-lit over the objections of the larger gaming community, and in light of the Wizardchan incident, many suspected it was due to the influence of industry members sympathetic to Quinn’s arguments that the attacks and the criticism were just another attempt to keep a woman down.

Fast forward to a few days ago when Quinn’s ex-boyfriend put up an extremely long blogpost that lists his grievances with her and the reasons for their relationship failing. His post includes multiple screen grabs of their private conversations that demonstrate her being a serial liar who cheated on him with at least five other men, one of whom is her married boss and another of whom works for the prominent gaming journalism site Kotaku.

Now for some time gamers have been complaining about the nepotism and corruption within the industry, with gaming journalists and game developers frequently being caught in bed with each other. Since the “in bed” in this case was quite literal, all manner of Youtube videos and forum posts on the issue began to appear analyzing the post by Quinn’s ex and the positive coverage Quinn has received by sites like Kotaku.

The response to these commentaries has been a vehement attempt to censor any discussion of this issue, with moderators at gaming sites and sites like reddit.com pulling down any posts that had to do with this incident. Quinn herself directly targeted one Youtube channel called MundaneMatt with a bogus copyright claim in attempt to get his video on the subject killed. That resulted in many more angry videos, such as this excellent analysis of the entire sequence of events by a guy called InternetAristocrat.

And of course, Quinn and her allies have tried to frame the entire controversy as a bunch of angry white males out to slut shame a woman for sleeping around because gamers are misogynists etc.

This conflict has played itself out over and over again over the past few years as the social justice people have gone full court press on the video game industry, complaining that they cater to young white males and don’t highlight or hire women, gays, or minorities with enough frequency. When gamers push back on these notions, they are met with outright censorship and accusations of misogyny, sexism, homophobia, and racism just like we see with conservatives and the War on Women.

If conservatives and libertarians were smart, they’d get into the gaming arena and help gamers who don't yet realize they're conservatives fight off the forces of so-called "social justice" that have invaded that arena of entertainment. Otherwise it will soon join the educational system, the news media, movies, and television shows as just another conduit for progressives to shove their ideology down people's throats.

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net and http://realraw.us

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Not Quite Expendable Yet

Sometimes more is better.

I miss the days of the classic action movie, where one or two manly men fought their way through a small army of goofy henchmen and sub bosses to an ultimate showdown with a charismatic villain, all the while dropping one liners dripping with gloriously awful puns. The explosions were real and if somebody so much as bumped the camera, much less shook it, they’d be lucky to keep their job.  Yep, those were the days.  So when Sylvester Stallone sought to rekindle that spirit with the action hero team-ups we always wanted and never got, you can bet I was on board with this Expendables thing.

Thus far, the Expendables movies have been fun little romps, though not without their flaws.  The first one started beautifully but unfortunately transitioned into a more modern style of filmmaking that obscured a great finale with darkness, shakycam, fast cutting, and lame CG effects.  The second one did a better job on that front, but it also had a much less coherent plot. Then again, the Chuck Norris cameo alone made that film worth the price of admission, so now we've got The Expendables 3 with even more 80s and 90s action stars filing into the ranks.

Like the first two, this one is quite a mixed bag. The action choreography is great once again, but it’s also heavily obscured by the camera work and editing. Some of the sequences look almost like they have unfinished effects in them, and as many people have noted in their complaints about the movie, it’s only PG-13 which somewhat undercuts the whole gratuitous violence thing for which these kinds of films are known.

Of course, these movies operate primarily on the nostalgia of seeing old stars back in action, and on that front it delivers quite well with a bunch of classic faces that oddly enough includes Kesley Grammer.  Fortunately though Grammer is not an action star, he’s always dependable in almost any capacity. In this case, he’s the recruiter friend of Stallone’s Barney Ross tasked with finding some new blood that’s more expendable than usual.

Given Jason Statham is the closest thing we have to a modern day Stallone/Schwarzenegger and he’s already a member of the team, it’s a foregone conclusion the newbies are a group we've all barely heard of and thus have a hard time taking seriously when compared to the star power of their elder compatriots. That has raised some hackles since most everyone came to this movie to see our favorite sexagenarian action heroes blowing stuff up and aping their old one-liners, not a bunch of 20-somethings who have yet to make a mark on the world. On the off chance you might recognize their names, that group is made up of Kellan Lutz, Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz, and Ronda Rousey.

Personally, I thought they handled the sequence with the “kids” rather well.  The setup for it is certainly abrupt, but the recruitment and the subsequent mission not only were enjoyable, but a good way to keep from overusing the in-jokes from all the classic actors.  And frankly, at some point these old guys will, in fact, be “too old for this shit” as evidenced by the fact that the climactic showdown between Stallone and Mel Gibson is shot a mile away from both men so that you might not notice their stunt doubles.  (You’ll notice.)  So at some point somebody has to take over, and why not see if you can’t create a new crop of action stars that are not comic book characters?

The young guns portion also introduces Antonio Banderas’ character, who you will either find terribly hilarious or totally insufferable.  I fell into the former category, which made the very pointed reference in his back story to the attacks on our consulate in Benghazi all the more poignant.  It’s perhaps the only real world call out that doesn't rely on some form of self-deprecation.

Of the remaining new old faces, Wesley Snipes’ character is pretty funny too, but he fades into the background early on. Harrison Ford pops in and out randomly, and he’s clearly just there to replace Bruce Willis, who bailed over a financial dispute, so there’s very little in the way of references to his movies. As I alluded to earlier, Mel Gibson handles the head villain duties and although there isn’t much to his character, he sells it incredibly well anyway which makes his return to the big screen quite welcome.

The Governator returns for a bit more screen time this go round, now that he’s back making movies again, but poor Jet Li could've stayed home and nobody would've noticed.  Sadly, Jason Statham gets horribly short-changed by being the middle child caught between the classics and the newbs.

An early leak of the full movie online combined with some bad word of mouth crushed this film at the box office, so who knows if The Expendables 4 will make it to the screen, but I still think this idea has some gas in the tank so long as Sly can decide what kind of movie he really wants to make.  Watering it down to PG-13 and turning the old guys into obligatory cameos just won’t cut it, but an over the top classic action movie where the students become the masters? That could be worth seeing.

*This post cross-posted at http://theirfinesthour.net/


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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Comedians of the Galaxy

I'm high on believin' that you're in love with me.


Of all the trailers I've seen this year, the one for Guardians of the Galaxy was by far the most intriguing. It had an incredibly irreverent tone that’s sorely lacking around Hollywood lately and used a clever bit of self-deprecation to introduce a group of Marvel characters about which I knew very little. I couldn't help but wonder whether or not the entire movie would be as amusing as the trailer or if that was just a really great bit of marketing.

I was pleased to discover that irreverence permeates the entire movie, and it’s the comedic flair that saves it from being another Green Lantern. Like that film, Guardians seeks to establish too much too quickly, and so it’s stuffed to the gills with exposition, much of which is incredibly redundant. I don’t think I heard the name "Gamora" come up without a reminder that she is the “adopted daughter” of Thanos, for example. It also changes locations so frequently that it’s hard to ever get a feel for any one place, and the lack of travel time makes the galaxy seem considerably smaller than it should.

The group’s assembly is similarly rushed and kind of clumsy, but once they get together everything becomes much more entertaining. I wish the movie had started right at the lineup scene from the trailer and just cut out all of the unnecessary exposition at the beginning. It would've lent some mystery to how long these characters knew each other and that in turn could've obscured the fact that they’re willing to call each other family even though we've only seen them together as a group for like a half hour.

In any event, their banter is fast, furious, and terribly amusing. Each one has their own particular quirks, and those quirks are used to great effect in the group dynamic, such as Drax the Destroyer's (Dave Bautista) inability to grasp most metaphors. Still, the show really belongs to Chris Pratt's Peter Quill and Bradley Cooper's Rocket Raccoon. They’re the perfect kind of snarky anti-heroes, and without them, the rest of the characters would fall flat. Zoe Saldana's Gamora gets the worst of it, seeing as she’s a walking cliché without much else to her, but even the pretty wonderfully realized Groot needed Rocket to handle some of the thoughts that Vin Diesel and the animators couldn't convey with the words “I am Groot.”

One of my fears for this movie was that Rocket and Groot would look completely out of place given they are computer generated and the rest of the cast is not. Every so often the Uncanny Valley would appear, but for the most part they look like they are in fact there beside the actors.

Alas, the same can’t be said of the story, since there isn't much of one at all. There’s a MacGuffin everyone wants, and a super strong baddie who wants to use it to kill a planet full of innocent civilians. Since the Guardians are a group of misfits who aren't particularly super and don’t really care about being heroes, they’re at least interesting, but the villains are so unbelievably boring and cliché that they might as well not even be there. In fact I think you could replace Lee Pace with the MacGuffin itself and nobody would realize something changed.

And while it's nice Earth isn't in the crossfire for once, they do end up having a climatic battle above a city on a very Earth-like planet that we know so little about it might as well be Earth anyway. Not sure about you, but I feel like the whole “giant aerial battle to defend the major city from alien invaders” thing has been thoroughly played out at this point.

That said, that battle does include one of the single most out-there tactics a hero has ever tried on a villain. For all the movie's faults, it's things like that which make it so much fun that it's easy to let the other stuff slide. That and the incredible soundtrack rocking in the background, which consists in large part of awesome 70s and 80s tunes that come from Quill's cassette tape. There may come a day when I'll get Hooked On a Feeling out of my head, but it is not this day.

Marvel clearly gets that their audience came to have a good time, not to see a bunch of superheroes suffer through “real world” issues, which makes even these otherwise less than stellar assemblies an enjoyable experience. They're also willing to take a risk on a bunch of wacky characters like these to branch off from churning out sequels all the time, and for that I'm happy to say go ahead and see Guardians of the Galaxy. It might not be the best story you've ever seen, but it’ll make you laugh.

(It has a bit more profanity than any of the other Marvel movies though, so you might want to leave the youngsters at home.)

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net


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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Blue Shell Solutions

Don't mess with Luigi in Mario Kart


A couple months back Mario Kart 8 came out to give the Wii U a good paddle-shocking back from the edge of death, and with it returns one of the most infamous items in all of gaming: the Spiny Shell. Also known more commonly as the Blue Shell, it’s appeared in many iterations of the Mario Kart franchise over the years, and its notoriety comes from how infuriating it is to be on the receiving end of it.

For the uninitiated, Mario Kart is a deviously addictive little party game from Nintendo wherein players control their favorite Mario characters and their souped-up gokarts in a race across whimsical landscapes. It has created and destroyed more friendships than perhaps any other thing invented by man, due in no small part to the abundance of crazy items the racers can use to harass their fellow players. One such item is the aforementioned Spiny Shell, which when fired promptly homes in on the first place player and blasts them into the sky. Virtually unavoidable, that little blue turtle shell with the spikes coming out of it is a stream of vulgarities just waiting to happen.

Ostensibly the Spiny Shell exists to balance out a first-place player’s ability to open up an insurmountable lead over the other racers. Not only will the person out front likely have more skill than the others, they don’t face many of the hazards of riding in the middle of the pack such as other racers ramming them. In addition, they get first crack at any boosts or items on the track. Thus we have the Spiny Shell, which in theory would allow the players to slow down the top racer just enough to catch up.

In practice, the Spiny Shell serves mainly as a means for lower ranked players (and especially the AI racers) to troll the better ones. Now don’t get me wrong, that can make for some incredible entertainment, particularly if you’re not the person in first, but it’s certainly not terribly effective at bridging the skill gap that put the players in their relative positions in the first place. It merely gives one group a means to lash out at another in a futile attempt to feel better when they come up short by comparison. It neither imparts skill to them nor encourages them to improve. It can’t take away the drive, skill, luck or natural talent of the winner either, but it can frustrate them enough to stop playing.

This holds true for all schemes that seek to impose equality of outcome by attempting to redistribute success. Progressive tax systems that take money from the rich and give it to the poor never succeed in creating rich people out of the poor, nor have they turned the Warren Buffets of the world into paupers. Obamacare hasn’t made the poor healthier and the wealthy sicker. EPA regulations and fines haven’t stopped oil and gas companies from dominating the energy market, nor have the subsidies to solar companies made green energy more financially viable. Or to pick an example in the news today, giving Gaza to the Palestinians didn’t make them freer and the Israelis less democratic.

When the frustration of being harassed for their success grows large enough, people just leave the game. In the Mario Kart world, that takes the form of incredibly creative uses of profanity, flying controllers, and someone stomping out of the room ne’er to return. In the real world, it involves hiding money, skirting regulations, buying exemptions, or straight up moving out of the jurisdiction of those who would seek to use these Blue Shells.

So the next time a politician comes to you with a magic bullet that will make the less fortunate, less skillful, less talented, and/or less hard working get to a better place by shooting it at the folks who have succeeded due to their ability, effort, or dumb luck, just remember that like that spiny blue shell, it'll change very little beyond making someone else’s life miserable.

Also, Luigi will drive by your house and give you the death stare for it.


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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Retro Review: Independence Day

In 1996, that would've been a tragedy.


Whether it’s A Nightmare Before Christmas on Halloween, Saving Private Ryan on Memorial Day, or Die Hard at Christmas, we've all got our favorite holiday movie traditions. For the 4th of July, there’s no better movie to watch than the aptly titled Independence Day. Conveniently abbreviated “ID4” by an incredible marketing campaign that helped push it to the top of the 1996 box office, it’s a funny, exciting, patriotic disaster romp that I love to watch every time America’s birthday rolls around and one of my top 10 all time favorite movies.

Looking back at it, Independence Day is remarkably tame compared to the destruction porn of today, as well as writer/director Roland Emmerich's later efforts. Instead of two hours of loosely connected edifice obliteration like we see nowadays, ID4 wraps up most of the disaster stuff by the end of the first act. By changing it up like that, the action doesn't get overwhelming to the point of monotony and we get to see actors doing stuff other than running and shouting.

That first forty-five minutes or so doesn't overdo it either. It plays out exactly like a good disaster film should: quietly introducing a looming threat and then teasing it just long enough to make the reveal satisfying. The new Godzilla did that using smoke, debris, and other scenery, but ID4 does it by introducing us to its characters. Just as the full alien menace might be revealed, it cuts away to meet a new group of people, and each group features secondary and tertiary characters who actually stick around for more than five minutes. That not only fleshes out the movie world, but also obscures who’s disposable since there are so many from which to choose.

When we finally get around to the city-sized alien spaceships, they don’t come out guns blazing; they settle in to a sinister hover above national landmarks. No swarm of alien fighters for some foreplay demolition either, just an eerie green spotlight on the target below. In LA, the spotlight shines in the face of Will Smith’s girlfriend’s stripper pal standing on the roof and mumbling “it’s so pretty.” Since we met her earlier, the knowledge of how utterly screwed she is builds tension in a way some random extra can’t.

Tension also builds from what doesn't happen at this point. Nobody shouts about rising percentages or counts the seconds to total annihilation. Even the ticking clock in the movie only appears a couple of times, but characters rush, drop things in haste, honk horns in frustration, bail from stopped vehicles, and anxiously check their watches in mid stride. When Jeff Goldblum finally shows us the clock hitting zero and ominously announces “time’s up”, we all hold our collective breath.

At last the special effects begin, which still look convincing today because they’re real explosions destroying scale models. CGI had just come on the scene, so it was only good enough to enhance a movie but not good enough to fully take over. That had two advantages. One, the best CGI today still can’t mimic reality perfectly, and two, spending all that time building a model and setting up a multitude of cameras to get that one shot right means nobody is going to obscure the final result. Thus it’s with a steady, distant camera we watch a wall of fire brutally smash its way through major cities.

And then, silence.

No slow motion pan of characters mutedly screaming in terror and grief while the sad music plays in the background, just the “July 3rd” title card and a lingering shot of destroyed New York City. That way everything gets a moment to sink in, and the date card gives our subconscious a frame of reference that adds a sense of scale newer movies undermine by jumping right off to the next action scene without rhyme or reason.

In the second act, ID4 shifts from a disaster film to more of a science fiction thriller, wherein a disparate band of characters come together as they try to figure out how to deal with an unstoppable killing machine. Since it avoids stacking coincidences as much as possible, the cast assembles with enough plausibility that we can focus our suspension of disbelief on the big things, like telepathic aliens. A lesser movie would've had Vivica Fox emerge from the rubble right next to the missing First Lady, run into Will Smith and the convoy in the desert, and then miraculously drive them all to Area 51 by random chance.

Meanwhile, the film builds on the despair created by the destruction in the first act. Our heroic Will Smith fueled counterattack turns into a desperate attempt to escape, and probably the only time in movie history the white guy gets killed off instead of the black guy. The alien prisoner intones that peace between us is impossible; they just want us to die. Nuclear weapons do nothing, the rescued First Lady dies anyway, and the optimistic environmentalist goes on a bender.

Were it Transformers: Age of Extinction, the goofy subplot about Randy Quaid's kid being sick would have appeared at this point to ruin all the other drama with its blatant attempt to generate sympathy. Instead, it’s cut in favor of better material. Unfortunately, so too are the scenes that explain how a Mac can hack an alien mothership, but you can’t have everything.

Once everyone is sufficiently depressed, we launch into the action-comedy finale. It’s also the part that aggravated tons of non-Americans. How deliciously ironic it is for people to complain about patriotism/jingoism in a movie that features an epic speech about humanity putting aside petty differences and uniting in common interest. I guess that line from the British guy about it being about bloody time somebody (America) came up with a counter-offensive was a bridge too far. Not that Hollywood is known for realism, but considering America’s military and economic might dominated the globe in the 90s, who else exactly would they expect to organize a worldwide counter-strike against an alien threat?

Anyway, ID4 sidesteps another action overdose by splitting up the cast so that Smith and Goldblum's characters embark on the quieter mission to the mothership while Bill Pullman and co. conduct the big aerial battle below. That makes both sequences feel longer without having to show a bunch of repetitive shots of F-18s blowing up and such. Plus there’s more room to insert comedy that would otherwise feel out of place.

Fortunately the filmmakers had the presence of mind to swap out the ridiculous ending where Randy Quaid randomly shows up in his biplane to sacrifice himself. Such edits seem to be infrequent of late. If somebody thinks something looks cool, it ends up in the final product no matter how much it ruins the flow, tone, or general consistency of the movie, if for no other reason than it usually cost a fortune to produce with CGI.

But even that silly ending could probably work with ID4’s superb soundtrack behind it. Whether it’s the terrifying alien attack, the quiet romantic moments, or the thrilling bombast of victory, David Arnold’s score sells every minute of screen time. Indeed, the hopeful little piccolo that kicks off President Whitmore's speech may be the only reason it comes across as fantastically rousing rather than pathetically cornball.

I could go on for pages more, but ultimately what we’re talking about here is fun. This movie is fun. It’s not bogged down with attempts to “ground it in reality.” It doesn't have all the color sucked out and replaced with muted grays and browns for the same. It has nods to similar past movies, but it’s not another rebooted retread of somebody else’s story. It doesn't rely on any one big star to carry the cast, though it did have the man they call Jayne in it, and the actors look like they’re genuinely into their roles. Despite the marketing campaign’s focus, the action doesn't overstay its welcome and therefore remains wonderfully exciting. It even makes you laugh from time to time to break up the tension. All in all, Independence Day is a textbook example of how to do the big summer blockbuster right.

So grab some popcorn and enjoy it again before they ruin it with a sequel.


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