Independence Day

(Roland Emmerich, USA, 1996)


At the risk of alienating, offending, or even losing a few members of my audience today, I want to take an odd little detour as a prelude to my review of a new blockbuster movie. This detour concerns, basically, the anus – or, more precisely, anal imagery in popular cinema, particularly science fiction (SF) or horror cinema. This topic has been on my mind lately because of a talk I recently heard, given by Australian critic/filmmaker Philip Brophy. He was reacting against the feverish eagerness to find evidence of phallic symbolism and imagery in all kinds of cultural products, from movies to architecture. Brophy argues that much of the most compelling imagery in popular culture right now is in fact anal, rather than phallic. More exactly, he sees the image of the colon everywhere around us.


The main illustration for this intriguing argument was a scene from the SF blockbuster Stargate (Roland Emmerich, 1994). The actual stargate, which allows the heroes to travel across galaxies, is a long, hollow passageway that sucks things in and spits them out, certainly more suggestive of a colon than a phallus (or a vagina, for that matter). In fact, there are odd, colon-like passageways all over outer space: the wormhole in Star Trek: Voyager, for example, or the alternate-universe passageway in the TV series Sliders.


I must admit (although perhaps I shouldn’t) that I have a long-standing interest in cinematic representations of the anus, and what comes out of it. One of the first articles that I wrote about movies, way back in 1981 for a music newspaper, was called “Tales From the Anus”. That title was probably my homage to a certain philosophical text that had a huge effect on me when I was a tender, young intellectual: Norman O. Brown’s brilliant Life Against Death, which contains a section sombrely titled “Studies in Anality”. I was inspired to write “Tales From the Anus” because, in the space of two days, I had seen two extremely anal films. The first was The Missing Link (Picha, 1979), an adults-only animated film, completely forgotten today, in which Adam, the first man, is born from the arse of a dinosaur. The next day, I saw S.O.B. (Blake Edwards, 1981), a black comedy with a long scene in which a gang of middle aged guys burp, fart and crap in their pants while they haul around a dead body. Around 1980: obviously a prized time for anality at the movies. However, the magazine to which I sent “Tales from the Anus” declined to publish it: I will now exact my revenge on that timid editor.


The idea that there is anal imagery in popular SF/horror movies should not be a shock to anyone’s sensibility, really. Dynamic sexual imagery and, more generally, body-related imagery, is absolutely everywhere in culture, whether its producers intend it or not. Such imagery is not always a so-called sub-text or hidden meaning consciously worked into films; usually, it is there unconsciously, or at least half-consciously. The Creature from the Black Lagoon, for instance – how much more fecal, or scatological, can you get? Anal preoccupations abound in art cinema, too: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (Peter Greenaway, 1989) is completely based on the bodily imagery of consumption and excretion. Anality is also present in a big way in the films of Jean-Luc Godard. In fact, he seems quite obsessed with the twin motifs of anal sex and defecation – a case of ‘in one rear and out the other’, you might say. Godard even made a grim film in 1975 all about anal rape and constipation called Number Two – and yes, that title does mean exactly what you think it means.


Anality is not always a repressed or shameful business in the arts. In Italo Calvino’s marvellous book Invisible Cities, there is a story about an above-ground world where everything is horribly clean, rigid and contained – because everyone is obsessed with toilet training – and an underground world where all manner of bodily wastes whizz around in the air, and everyone is free and happy. Good Morning (Ohayo, Yasujiro Ozu, 1959), one of the last films by the great Japanese master Ysujiro Ozu, is a sunny, side-splitting comedy about farting, and how a farting game goes wrong for one poor kid who craps in his underpants and then has to hide them from his mother. In that film, all the farting sounds are rendered by musical instruments of the brass family – the way Jacques Tati might have done it, if his films had more of a Benny Hill touch.


Then there is the enigmatic figure of ET, in E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982). In November 1983, Positif magazine (no. 273) published an article which carefully listed all the salient aspects of this other-worldly character: his physical appearance, his actions in the plot, and so on. The author Roland Benabou’s adroit conclusion was that E.T. is caca: a wise, friendly piece of caca. (The title of that piece is “Anal Eroticism in the Film E.T.”, by the way – this obsession is contagious.) Maybe that is why little kids like him so much. In fact, almost any film comedy which enacts a spirit of infantile regression usually has a strong and humorous anal aspect. Howard Hawks’ classic comedies from the 1930s to the ‘60s, for instance – Monkey Business (1952), Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Man’s Favourite Sport? (1964) – are full of outrageous comic business about exposed behinds, cars ramming each other up the rear, and so on. Chaplin was an anal obsessive to surpass even Godard, and I have already mentioned Blake Edwards: all his elaborate gags about arses are seldom far removed from obscure and confused depictions of homosexuality. But that leads into another realm altogether, so I will leave my personal, general study of anality right there for the moment.


Now let us take a long, hard look at the promotional image for Independence Day, currently to be seen on buildings, billboards, milk cartons and every possible picture surface. This extraordinary image shows the vast underside of an alien space craft, perched above some pitiful-looking, American city. In the centre of this underside there is an opening, from which something is pouring downward – some putrid, hellish beam or stream. If this is not an image of an alien race defecating on Sweet Mother Earth, then I do not know what is. Consciously or not, the image has been designed just that way. Having seen another contemporaneous release, Kevin Smith’s comedy Mallrats (1995), in which a grungy teenager demonstrates the art of sticking your hand up your own arse and then shaking the hands of your worst enemies, I would have to conclude that 1996 is, at long last, another prized year for anality at the movies.


My argument about Independence Day rests on more than just this single image. First, it is written by Dean Devlin and directed by Roland Emmerich – the team that brought you Stargate, with its super-colon in space. Second, there are many images throughout of the dark underside of the alien craft, with its sphincter-like openings and cavernous, anatomical, internal spaces: sometimes, from certain angles, the alien ship even looks like one monstrous turd, hanging there in the air. Third, we hear many times about how rotten these aliens smell to our sensitive human nostrils. Last, this film features some amazingly explicit talk about the anus and anal functions. It is not spoiling the plot to tell you that, at a high point of the action, a deranged pilot named Russell (Randy Quaid) attempts, with his tiny plane, to penetrate the huge, foreign body in space. En route to the enemy ship, he refers to his target as an “alien asshole”, and as he charges into its breach, he delivers the immortal line: “In the words of my generation, up yours!” Benny Hill himself could not have dreamt up a better war cry.


Independence Day is about an alien invasion – but we are not dealing with ambiguous aliens here, monstrous Others who show us our true human selves in some dark, distorted or possibly Utopian mirror. Many people keep comparing Independence Day to the B grade SF movies of the 1950s, but even some of those invested more compassion and fascination in their alien monstrosities than this film bothers to do. These aliens are not like King Kong or The Fly or the shopping-mall-mad zombies of George Romero’s films. They’re nothing like the simians on the Planet of the Apes, or the protagonist of John Sayles’ Brother From Another Planet (1984). The aliens in Independence Day are no-nonsense, straight-up-and-down, bad aliens, evil creatures out only to kill us – one legacy of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), with its sequels and many imitations, such as Species (Roger Donaldson, 1995). Nowadays, evil aliens always have one grand biological imperative: they are after minerals or blood or oxygen or some basic life-energy and, once they have it from us, they will throw our dead husks aside like trash.


They are not even colonisers anymore, like the nasty races on Star Trek or Earth 2; they are just wasters and destroyers, with a collective brain set to automatic plunder, and no apparent culture or civilisation of any kind. All they have is (insert drum roll) technology, of a kind far beyond anything possessed on Earth. I should add, however, that this huge technology gap does not actually stop the young hero of Independence Day (Will Smith) from jumping into the cockpit of an alien craft and flying it into deep space with scarcely a rear-end bump. “I gotta get me one of these!”, he yells gleefully as he barrels along, dexterously applying and adapting his all-American savoir-faire.


A moment like that gives you a clue as to the flagrantly improbable, Indiana Jones spirit that unfolds here. For example, it seems improbable that the aliens, having arrived and taken up their positions above the world’s capital cities, fire off a first, spectacular attack-blast, and then just sit silently in the sky – thus giving the poor human race time to regroup and plan retaliatory action. It is dumb in strict plot-logic terms; but such improbability is absolutely necessary to maintain the adventure fantasy that is shamelessly peddled.


Independence Day is unusual in that it has no central character but, rather, a wide range of key characters – including three heroes, all of them male. The first of these is the American President, played very uncomfortably and weakly by Bill Pullman. The second is an eccentric, brilliant scientist: that is Jeff Goldblum, very appealing here, if not as zany as usual. Third man up is Will Smith, the young, black, fighter pilot. One of my fellow-critics asked me, after the preview: why does it make such an effort to include a token black, a token Jew, a token gay … but still hold back on having a token female hero? Maybe the symbolic sight of a woman fighter pilot violating an alien anus in the sky is just too freaky for the collective unconscious of Hollywood to contemplate.


There are many problems with this movie. It is a story of global invasion, but can only be bothered showing the invasion of America . (This, I admit, is rather standard issue for USA disaster/apocalypse cinema.) It has an enormous number of characters, but too few plot moves or intrigues: a movie that just beats time as it counts down to the next action scene, like Twister (Jan de Bont, 1996). But Independence Day, I’m happy to report, is a much better film than Twister, and for the following reason. Usually, it is just a banal cop-out to say that a film ‘doesn’t take itself too seriously’ – but Independence Day is indeed a film that does not take itself too seriously, and makes an artful balancing trick out of that. It is not a Gothic horror film preying on fear and paranoia, or even a gung-ho patriotic drama: in fact, Independence Day is something resembling a comedy in disguise, and its fun comes from its play with the notions that a popular audience brings to its particular subject.


Throughout, there is a ceaseless string of gags about pop culture archetypes of alien invasion. This popular knowledge comes, of course, from SF movies and TV – above all, I guess, from The X-Files – and from proliferating, urban myths about alien abduction and secret, government conspiracies. A particular myth of this sort which is crucial to this story is the famous ‘Roswell UFO Incident’, the endless source for many elaborate speculations and ongoing fictions. Independence Day has a lot of fun with this body of urban legend, which it continually mocks as a popular madness or delusion. It puts before us a spectacle of alien invasion on a pop culture par with the myth of a reincarnated Elvis walking among us, or any other current topical tabloid obsession – all the while asking us not to believe any of it. This is alien invasion placed within postmodern quotation marks of irony or smirking disbelief: there is no sex, no tears, hardly even a trace of blood or injury or death in this weightless, unreal scenario. Yet, for it to work at all as thrilling entertainment – and it does – we do have to believe, in some eager, gullible, childlike part of ourselves, in the dramatic reality of aliens invading earth and destroying the human race.


One of the most remarkable tricks pulled off by Independence Day concerns the already mentioned character of Russell. When we first meet him, he is a burnt-out, alcoholic cropduster pilot, the loony laughing-stock of his tiny neighbourhood. As he tells anyone who will listen, what brought him to this pitiful state was an episode, years before, in which he was abducted and sexually abused by aliens. Every single time he repeats this story, the people in the film – plus the people watching the film – laugh their heads off. Almost two hours after the film has started showing us aliens unmistakably up there in the sky and up to no good, we are still laughing at the crazy, urban myth being spouted by this nut-case! So this is a strange, dissociated mental state that the film puts us into – not unlike Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) from The X-Files, a proud and splendid woman who remains defiantly sceptical of all supernatural and other-worldly hocus-pocus – even after she herself, it seems, has been abducted, examined and possibly impregnated by aliens.


Then again, that is the kind of freaky, close encounter which any rational person would want to repress. I know this, because I saw another movie on the subject, Communion (Philippe Mora, 1989); the aliens there were performing some pretty nasty and obsessive operations on Christopher Walken’s poor, unprotected anus. Ouch!


MORE Emmerich: Godzilla

© Adrian Martin August 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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