Independence Day (UK - BD RB)
Chris takes a look at this big-budget 90s sci-fi movie starring the Fresh Prince...
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Recently, as I looked back over the site archives, I discovered a glaring omission in our review section: 1996's big-budget sci-fi blockbuster, Independence Day. I'm not quite sure how the film has gone without review in DVDActive's seven-year history, but I've always had a soft spot for the admittedly over-the-top, flag-waving cheesiness of it all. Now, thanks to new site sponsors The Hut, I have a chance to take a look at Twentieth Century Fox’s Blu-ray release.
On the 2nd of July 1996, a gargantuan alien mothership arrives in our solar system and deploys dozens of fifteen-mile-wide saucer-shaped spacecraft over key cities around the world. David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), an MIT-graduate inexplicably slumming it working for a cable company in New York City, discovers a hidden transmission being relayed by Earth's own satellite network—a signal he believes to be a countdown to an all-out attack by the aliens.
With the help of his ex-wife and White House advisor Constance Spano (Margaret Colin), David and his father Julius (Judd Hirsch) gain entrance to the Oval Office to warn President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) about the impending attack. Although the President orders an evacuation of all targeted areas, it comes too late to save the millions of lives ended as the aliens lay waste to the Earth with their advanced weapons. With the White House is destroyed, the President and the Levinsons narrowly manage to escape aboard Air Force One.
The US launches an aerial counter-attack against the aliens, but this proves futile on account of their advanced shield technology. However, the sole survivor of the disastrous offensive, Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith), manages to down one of the smaller alien craft and capture its pilot. He soon joins up with a rag-tag group of refugees led by Russell Case, a Vietnam vet who is convinced he was once abducted by aliens. Together they head for Area 51, where they meet up with Whitmore, Levinson and the last remaining military forces and attempt to strike back at the marauding extra-terrestrials.
It’s hard to believe, but I didn’t actually see Independence Day during its initial theatrical run. A group of us tried, but we couldn’t get in due to the huge amount of people queuing (even the multiplex car park was rammed). I think I eventually caught it on VHS in all of its pan and scan glory, but even so I was impressed by the visual effects and entertained by the light-hearted comic relief. Okay, so I originally found the ‘America single-handedly saves the day’ routine a little hard to swallow, but looking back I’m sure that if the film had been made in Japan the Japanese would have found a solution to the crisis entirely unaided.
I think the reason I really like the film, apart from the great special effects (which still hold up fairly well today), is the presence of Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith. Goldblum puts in a performance that isn’t entirely dissimilar to his turn as Seth Brundle (and, let’s be fair, almost every other character he’s ever played) and brings just the right amount of eccentricity to the part. Smith, who was just starting to break into feature films, is in fine form as the wise-cracking fighter pilot, and has charisma to spare. There are also memorable performances from Judd Hirsch, Randy Quaid and a certain Brent Spiner, playing David’s father, an alcoholic ‘Nam veteran and a mad scientist respectively. The filmmakers also manage to get the pacing spot on, something that many ‘alien invasion’ (or action films in general) struggle with. Clocking in at over two hours, I never once felt like I was waiting for something to happen.
Okay, so the final act stretches the realms of believability even for a science fiction picture, and the President’s rallying speech, coupled with the almost constant saluting and flag-waving patriotism starts to wear a little thin, but the film is such an impressive spectacle little niggles like these can be overlooked. Paying ‘homage’ to a variety of books, films and TV shows, from Star Wars and War of the Worlds, to V and Contact, Independence Day gets the tone just right and delivers exactly what viewers want—massive destruction, huge battles, pithy one-liners and an eleventh-hour victory for the underdogs. It’s big, dumb popcorn movie-making, but it’s big, dumb popcorn movie-making at its best.
Independence Day is presented at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (1080p/AVC) and for the most part looks just about as good as you could hope for short of a full restoration. The film is now twelve years old (which makes me feel really old), but the image is extremely pleasing given the constraints of the cinematographic process (Super 35) and the huge amounts of effects work. Super 35 usually produces films with a grainier look than films shot in anamorphic widescreen, which is the case with Independence Day. Prior to receiving this disc I had read a number of reviews of the US release, most of which made mention of the ‘excessive’ grain, but after watching the film for myself I have to say that it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I was expecting. Sure, it’s noticeable, but this is film, not video, and it’s to be expected. In fact, it’s nice that it hasn’t been digitally blurred out of existence with DNR.
Elsewhere the positives continue, with excellent colour rendition (especially the bright primaries) and decent black levels. Contrast fluctuates in a couple of scenes, mostly on brighter areas of solid colour like the sky, but it’s not hugely distracting. The transfer is exceptionally clean, with very few film artefacts and not a bit of edge enhancement in sight. Even so, the image is pleasingly detailed, although as is to be expected it’s not as sharp as many of today’s releases, but this in itself could be a blessing in disguise. High-definition 1080p is far less forgiving of effects shots than either VHS or DVD ever were, and some of them are starting to show their age. It’s nothing too damaging, but one or two of the model shots looked like just that, models, and a few of the optical shots appeared slightly questionable.
For me, one of the hardest parts of any review is awarding the final scores, but I always try to factor all of the variables into the equation. In this case it’s unfair to expect Independence Day to measure up to the very latest movies given the numerous advances made in filmmaking over the last decade (this film predates watershed movies like The Matrix and Star Wars prequels). If it had been made last year my video score would most definitely be lower, but given the film’s age I feel it deserves its final mark. In fact, if we awarded half marks it would probably have earned an 8.5.
As is customary for Fox Blu-ray releases, we get a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. Once again I have to point out that I'm still only equipped to listen to the DTS 5.1 Core part of the track (I need a new player—hint, hint, oh Lords of DVDActive), but that's pretty darn impressive by itself. You'd expect a big-budget sci-fi extravaganza to be packed with explosions and over the top effects, and Independence Day doesn't disappoint. The first thing that struck me was the sheer ferocity of the bass, which is perhaps more aggressive here than any other track I've heard on the format. Even the smallest bang is accompanied by a satisfyingly deep growl from the sub, while some of the more explosive moments had my chest rattling.
Of course it's not the only thing the mix has going for it, as the discrete channels are utilised to put the viewer in the middle of the action right from the outset. There's plenty of surround action and some great panning from the front to the rear of the soundstage, especially during the aerial dogfights when jets and alien fighters fly overhead, all while David Arnold's bombastic score fills the air and conjures images of patriotic flag-waving. If I had to nitpick I’d say that the subtleties aren’t as well-catered for as the rest of the track and the dialogue needed a stronger presence in the mix, although it remains clear on all but one or two occasions. However, Independence Day isn’t a subtle movie, so it’s hard to criticise it for having a ‘balls to the wall’ soundtrack.
The disc features two commentary tracks, the first from Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, the second from effects gurus Volker Engel and Doug Smith. Emmerich and Devlin's track is the more entertaining of the two, as the pair have a good rapport due to their long working relationship. The discuss topics from the origin of the film, to the various other movies it pays homage to (think Star Wars). There are a few periods of dead-air and Emmerich's voice is a little monotonous, but there's some interesting stuff on offer. Volker and Smith's track is really only for hardcore tech-heads. They discuss the creation of the effects and their incorporation into the completed film.
There's also a Java-based 'Scavenger Hunt' game that asks you to click your cursor on certain objects throughout the film, the reward being a special video clip. I played it for a bit and got about half of the items before I became bored, but I guess it's better than some of the interactive games I've seen on the hi-def formats. Still, content makers really need to find something less tedious to showcase the technology.
Some HD trailers and teasers for the film come next, along with a 'Fox on Blu-ray' HD trailer for Fantastic Four. An 'ID4 Datastream Trivia Track' is also available, offering up titbits of information as you watch the film. As an example, we get to learn a lot more about SETI during the opening scenes. The text is a bit on the small side, but it wasn't too bad on my 42" screen.
A rather nifty, if ultimately gimmicky, feature is the keyword search. This displays and alphabetised list of hundreds of words that, when clicked, offer up a sub-menu displaying all the scenes relevant to the selection. You want to see all the scenes involving Will Smith? No problem. Do you fancy picking out Brent Spiner being treated like a marionette by an alien? You got it!
Independence Day is a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure all the same. Unfortunately, the relatively strong audio-visual elements of the disc are tainted by the fairly pedestrian set of extras. Fox continue to be one of the worst studios when it comes to catalogue titles, ignoring the wealth of material available from previous releases. Why back Blu-ray if you're not going to use the technology to its full extent (perhaps by offering both the theatrical and special editions of the film on the same disc)? However, as there is currently no superior release on offer, I would still wholeheartedly recommend this title to fans of the film and cheesy action in general. The fat lady has sung!
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* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 12 years and over
Release Date: 24th December 2007
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, English HoH
Extras: Audio Commentaries, Trivia Track, Scavenger Hunt Game, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Roland Emmerich
Cast: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Margaret Colin, Robert Loggia, Randy Quaid, Vivica A. Fox, Brent Spiner, Lisa Jakub, James Duval
Length: 145 minutes
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