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Conquered

Film: 'Independence Day' captures money, crowds and American psyche.

July 07, 1996|ELAINE DUTKA and JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

On the first day, they arrived. On the second day, they attacked. And on the sixth day? Well, that's today, when "Independence Day" probably will break the record, earning more money in its first week than any other movie in history.

The science fiction disaster flick has exploded across the nation like no other, grossing an estimated $63 million in just 3 1/2 days, positioning it to reach the magic $100-million mark in record time, industry experts said.

Lines snaked endlessly as theaters across the country sold out, starting with Tuesday night's sneak previews. In Westwood, pumped-up audiences applauded the movie's trailers. In Santa Monica, one man called police when he felt cheated out of his place at the front of an "Independence Day" line. At Mann's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood and at Washington, D.C.'s Cineplex Odeon Uptown Theater, operators said scalpers were getting up to $20 a ticket.

Even before the weekend, some fans were queuing up for their second and third screenings.

How did an action movie in a summer jammed with action movies become such a phenomenon, foisting itself on the American psyche with familiar, even hackneyed, sci-fi and disaster picture themes (think "Close Encounters" meets "The Poseidon Adventure")?

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 9, 1996 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 15 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie rating--"Independence Day" is rated PG-13. A story in Sunday's Times included an incorrect rating.

According to the movie's makers, psychologists, marketing czars and just plain fans, "Independence Day" has hit the jackpot with a combination of zealous and well-positioned advertising, a critical mass of unpaid publicity (including the simultaneous covers of Time and Newsweek) and capitalization on the public's deeply rooted desire to unite against a common enemy.

In a summer that dawned with terrorist bombings and will end with the partisan histrionics of the Olympic Games and the presidential conventions, why not pull together with your fellow human beings for 2 hours and 25 minutes? In "Independence Day" that means rooting for a Jewish computer wizard (played by Jeff Goldblum), a black fighter pilot (Will Smith), a WASPish president (Bill Pullman) and assorted Russians, Iraqis and other earthlings--all to kick the tails of a zillion slimy, bloodthirsty aliens.

"This movie delves into some very archetypal needs and myths," said Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at Cal State L.A. "There is an idea that we, as people, have been fragmented since a primordial time. Anything that can provide us with the illusion of oneness and unity will have an appeal."

As fan Chris McCann, 25, of Cypress, described the feel-good sentiment: "No more races, no more colors, no more creeds. Let's get together and get these guys [alien invaders] out of here."

It's campy. It's over the top. And it also can be a lot of fun.

"What saves "Independence Day' is that it's knowingly tacky," said Newsweek film critic David Ansen. "It has a sense of humor about itself. How else could we buy into a stripper asking how she looks in her new wedding dress when three major cities have just been wiped out? Or an ending in which nobody notices that everyone they knew is no more?"

Dean Devlin, who produced the film and wrote the screenplay with director Roland Emmerich, said the creators intentionally spiced a dark stew with plenty of light and romantic moments. "Because a film about the end of the world can be pretty depressing, we made hokum, comedy and the human spirit a part of the mix," he said.

The movie makers also showed little of the gore that resulted from the barrage of explosions and fires, unlike other summer action hits such as "Twister," "Mission: Impossible" and "Eraser."

And they edited out all but one four-letter word, which helped the film earn an audience-expanding PG rating and had many parents praising the movie as relatively benign in an era of computer-enhanced on-screen bloodletting.

Long before the final cut of the film was screened late in June, the creators had begun to seize the public's imagination. A teaser-trailer in December showed the provocative image of 15-mile-wide space-ships casting shadows over the Statue of Liberty and downtown Los Angeles, then obliterating the White House.

A $1-million, 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl intoned: "Enjoy the Super Bowl . . . It may be your last."

Images of annihilation were delivered with a wink. "The campaign, like the movie, was done tongue-in-cheek," said Bob Harper, president of marketing at 20th Century Fox. "The intent was always to provide a fun ride."

By this summer, the movie hype was ubiquitous. Ominous black helicopters cruised the Southern California coastline on Memorial Day, towing a foreboding series of banners: The first, "No warning." The second, "No negotiation." The third, "No L.A." Even the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra chimed in this past week, as principal conductor John Mauceri made the "Independence Day" theme a centerpiece of the annual Fourth of July extravaganza.

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