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Friday, February 3, 2012

Double Feature Friday: Alien Edition

Double Feature Friday is a weekly post curating two films based on a given theme.

If you remember the 90's (and I hope that you do), you should recall America's obsession with extraterrestrials. From The X-Files to Fire in the Sky, Americans wanted to believe in aliens more than ever before. This double feature is a salute to that special paranoid time.

1996 was a great year for America. With a strong economy and political stability, the country was at its peak. It is from this position that they felt threatened by outsiders who could disrupt American domination. Aliens, of course, are the perfect culprit: amorphous, unknown beings that pose a risk from every direction. It is at the height of the alien obsession that big budgets and famous stars combined to create Independence Day (Roland Emmerich). The movie poster's famous image of the White House exploding was enough to make even the most neutral American bleed stars and stripes. (Sure, the film destroys countless other global landmarks, but that doesn't hit home quite so much.)

Independence Day

But for Americans to truly love the movie, they need to rally behind an American hero. Enter Will Smith. At only 28 years old, Smith was beloved as a comic actor and sometimes recording artist. Independence Day was his first shot at a large, serious role. Despite the film's incredibly standard plot, Smith managed to combine his classic humorous hubris with the Air Force of Tom Cruise a la Top Gun to create a character that we truly want to kick alien ass, win the girl, fly really fast planes, and get an award from the president.

And speaking of the president, Bill Pullman gives an amazing performance as President of the United States. Perhaps it's his vulnerability, perhaps it's his everyman quality, but it's almost certainly due to his highly presidential mane of hair. (Sidebar: Every so-called film writer has a certain obsession. Mine's Bill Pullman's hair. Deal with it.)

Bill Pullman's hair

So after you've enjoyed the high budget special effects of Independence Day, Mars Attacks! (Tim Burton) will seem downright hokey. That's because it really is. Released in the same year, this film takes a decidedly more humorous approach to fears of alien invasion. Burton's references are one part 1960's drive-in monster flick, one part Star Trek, one part Ed Wood, and a heaping portion of comic books. To his credit, Burton had not yet become completely obsessed with Johnny Depp; instead, he had a phenomenal cast including Glenn Close, Annette Benning, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, exploitation queen Pam Greer, and the President of the United States himself, Jack Nicholson.

Mars Attacks!

The true brilliance of the film was that it showed the absurdity of an alien invasion. Do we really think that aliens will be terrifying (like in Independence Day) or nearly humanoid (like in pop culture)? It's just as likely that they'll have humorously grotesque exposed brains, isn't it? And in such a critical global crisis, do we really think that the president or some cigar-smoking pilot will be able to stop the invasion? Is it any less likely that yodeling will kill the aliens? Okay, Burton really takes the genre to the extremes, but it's all for fun. After all, what good is an alien movie if it doesn't have Sarah Jessica Parker's head surgically attached to a chihuahua's body?

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