Something old. Something new. Something 15 miles wide spouting city-scorching death rays!
Let me say up front, that I think this is one of the dumbest movies ever made. But, that's just my opinion, and it comes from the fact that I'm not a big fan of popcorn movies. If you are, then take that into account. And, to be fair, a big, clichéd popcorn movie is exactly what the creators were striving for, so its not like they failed to achieve their goals. They also made Godzilla, so obviously they are big fans of the genre.
But I figured, at the worst, it would be a very good DVD experience, and I have to say that it made a lot more sense on a big screen and in surround sound. When I saw it last, it was on a 32" 4:3 set via VHS. The DVD version, projected onto a large screen and played loud redeemed itself quite a bit, and I'm sure that's how it was intended to be experienced.
And don't think that it's not effective. The film medium is a powerful one, and even a completely formulaic flick like ID4 can make me laugh when I'm supposed to laugh and cry when I'm supposed to cry. And the makers of ID4 certainly understand their craft more than well enough. The only thing that bothers me is that I could have drawn a graph of these points before I even watched the film.
If you've not seen ID4 yet, the basic story is that earth is visited by a very large mother ship of very pissed off aliens. A Borg-like species, they drift through the universe, finding useful planets, sucking them dry of resources, and then moving on. In order to have their way with earth, they have to get rid of those pesky humans first.
The usual popcorn plot elements are present. There's the immensely decent leader who is finally responsible for the fight, the president in this case, played by Bill Pullman (Zero Effect, Sleepless in Seattle, While You Were Sleeping). There's the decent leader's faithful sidekick, in this case his long time friend General Gray, played by Robert Loggia (The Suburbans, Smilla's Sense of Snow, Big).
There are a couple couples that are brought back together by the imminent possibility of death. One pair is Capt. Hiller, played by Will Smith (Wild Wild West, Men In Black, Enemy of the State), and Jasmine Dubrow, played by Vivica A. Fox (Soul Food, Booty Call, The Tuskegee Airmen). Jasmine is the stripper with the heart of gold, and Hiller is the wide-open fighter pilot with the heart of gold. The other pair is David Levinson, an MIT genius who dropped out to work for a cable company because he's a lefty environmentalist but who in the end will save the world, played by Jeff Goldblum (Powder, Jurassic Park, The Fly), and Constance Spano, Levison's wife who left him to pursue a career as the personal assistant to the president, played by Margaret Colin (The Devil's Own, Swing Vote, The Butcher's Wife).
Just to completely cover the standard character portfolio, we also have a couple of extremely cute kids, required because the aliens aren't cute in this case and they couldn't work any robots into the script. And, of course, David's father, the always pithy Jewish Father, Marty the comic relief gay character, and Russell, the "movie-style funny alcoholic." Aaaaand, of course there's a bit with a dog. The Pirate King got left out somehow, but no one is perfect, right?
Of course the plot follows the classic popcorn ballistic arc, and in the end the humans triumph. Along the way there are about seventeen million special effects shots, with some acting thrown in once in a while, because computer time is really expensive, ya know? I'll allow that some of that acting is pretty good.
On the technical side of things, the picture brightens quite a bit. This DVD is a double disc package, and is labeled as a "Five Star Collection." This is to say that it has pretty elaborate packaging, a second disc of behind the scenes and "making of" stuff, and a couple of commentary tracks. It's a full-bore THX audio and video undertaking. It also has both the original theatrical version, plus an extended version that has some restored scenes.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic video transfer is not perfect but its danged good in most cases. The primary shortcoming is a little softness and noisiness in some spots. Mostly it comes in during the acting interludes, where the contrast seems cranked overly much. This creates slightly harsh, overexposed areas of light that most video scalers tend to turn into a blob of crawling noise. The darker scenes look quite good. Overall though, compared to something like The Fifth Element, which looks immaculate from start to end, ID4 falls short. Though I have absolutely no proof, its almost like they put too many bits into the effects scenes, and didn't have quite enough left over for the acting stuff.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is as bombastic as you'd imagine for this type of film. It really adds a lot to the experience of a popcorn flick to have a fully immersive soundtrack. Given the number of bits of alien hardware, death rays, F18 fighters, sidewinders, blast wave tossed vehicles, sub-sonic mother ship ambience, and atomic bombs, there is plenty of workout material for the entire speaker family.
The extra materials were more interesting to me than the film itself. There is an extensive documentary on the second disc, about all the special effects and how they were created. The two commentary tracks are well done and stick to the subject matter well. The 'making of' documentary is just the one that was shown on HBO prior to the HBO release, so I'd already seen that one. Like most such bits, it's pretty shallow.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One thing that really limited my appreciation of this one is that it completely freaked out my WinDVD software DVD player. The DVD specification supports "conditional branching," in which various bits of video can be woven together in different ways to create alternative versions. On this DVD, this branching capability was used to weave the extended scenes into the standard theatrical version. When watching the theatrical version, the DVD player is supposed to skip over these alternate scenes, and include them when watching the special version.
However, my ASUS OEM version of WinDVD got totally confused by these branches, tending to either go into an infinite loop and jump backwards over and over, or just jump forward too far and skip some parts of chapters, occasionally getting the audio out of sync with the video. There were only four or five such new woven-in sections, so it wasn't happening constantly, but it was a big pain.
Certainly this is not likely to be a problem with the DVD itself (though it could be), and I won't count this against it, but I mention it so that those using software players will be forewarned. Some other software player might hopefully handle it better than mine. Time will tell whether it freaks out any hardware players, which some DVDs occasionally do.
Otherwise, I pretty much have already said what I don't like about ID4. It is what it is, it just that it ain't what I prefer. It'll be a great family experience and I'm sure the kids will eat it up. It's important of course for kids to see plenty of funny alcoholics while they are still impressionable. As a system showoff disc, it will do well enough, though you'll have to pick the better-looking scenes and avoid others. If you are a real fan of this genre or of mondo-special edition DVDs, then by all means buy it. Otherwise, I'd rent it, have the popcorn, and then take it back.
To avoid death threats, I'll acquit this one. Otherwise, I would have locked them away and used the massive levied fine to finance a few more serious efforts. You could probably have made five independent films for the catering budget of ID4, and approximately five thousand for the effects budget.
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