October 9, 2012

Alien Surgery

by Brian Agler

Independence Day (1996) - dir. Roland Emmerich

Independence Day is jazz, a uniquely American piece of art. It is the genre exemplified; the 90s action film, complete with the large multi-ethnic cast, fantastic one-liners, jingoist thematics, and explosions (they blow up the goddamn White House!). Independence Day is many things, but what it is not is a horror movie. Yet it is still terrifying.

A little more than halfway through the film, a live alien is captured, and brought to Area 51 for study. As the alien-surgical team (evidently, that is a job one can have) preps, the leader, Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner), states, “Life support monitors recording,” to which an unnamed scientist responds, “So if we screw up, it’s all on tape.” What hubris! Tempt the fates more! Why not just say, “I’ll go alone into this dark basement/attic/cave/shower. Surely, nothing horrible can happen.” Start the tension clock now, the waiting game has begun.

Dr. Okun leads his team in cutting open the biomechanical alien-suit and BAM! It blasts open! Everyone jumps! And then, a sigh of relief. Nothing emerges from this extraterrestrial Pandora’s box. Our tension buildup was not long at all, and as the shocked faces and sharp music cue would attest, we’ve blown our horror load. Now, we can get on to the solemn business of alien dissection. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

“Now comes the really icky part,” says Dr. Okun. He is referring to the alien flesh he is now cutting through, but he may as well be referring to the alien’s hand. Against a bright, blown-out background (so we’re sure not to miss it), the hand creepily moves. When the scary object of the scene is lying down, unconscious on a table, this is the only way to have our “He’s right behind you!” moment.

We don’t get the chance to say anything though, because moments later, the unnamed scientist says it for us: “The arm is moving.” The alien’s eye slides open sideways (gross), to reveal mirrored eyeballs (grosser!). It sees us! It is alive! We hear a sound, like a swarm of locusts (as President Whitmore will describe the aliens later). The sound is piercing, all encompassing, and it lives in this room.

Okun grabs his head, and a terrifying, classic horror movie possession begins. It’s unsettling because until this moment, we have always thought of the aliens as technologically superior, but never occult. As we process the fact that we now have to deal with laser-toting aliens who are also magical, the alien crawls out of its suit. A hose is cut. Gas spews everywhere. Chaos! Alarms sound. Our senses are useless. We can’t see, we can’t hear, and all we know is that a demon-alien is loose.

The camera pushes in on our unnamed doctor as he slowly looks up. Something is in front of him, and it’s terrifying. All we can see is this man of science in horrified-awe. Then, the reverse shot: The alien towers over everyone. Besides space-weapons, and possessions, this alien is huge. Also it has tentacles. Did I mention the alien has tentacles? It has tentacles.

Cut to outside the lab. It’s quiet...too quiet. President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) steps up to the glass to see what is amiss. I’ve seen this movie probably two dozen times, and in a moment that scares me everytime I watch, Dr. Okun’s deadened face is thrown up against the wall, accompanied by a shriek of music. “Release me,” we hear him say. But it isn’t Dr. Okun, it is the shell of Dr. Okun. A close up confirms this. The alien has its tentacles wrapped around the scientist’s neck. Now the possession is physical, even more all encompassing than moments before.

Then we have the first (and only) communication between the humans and the aliens. Between the innocents and the demons; the only moment when motives can become clear. Why are these aliens so evil? What do they want with us?

WHITMORE: Can there be a peace between us?
ALIEN: Peace? No peace.
WHITMORE: What is it you want us to do?

The aliens are evil simply because they are evil! Despite President Whitmore’s best intentions, the aliens can’t be reasoned with. To wit, the alien begins to infect the President, through the glass no less! Whitmore’s eyes roll back. He grabs his head, and falls to the ground as that awful screeching locust sound emerges. The concerned General Grey (Robert Loggia) asks, “Is that glass bulletproof?” “No sir,” Major Mitchell (Adam Baldwin), Area 51’s steward, replies. He, along with others (apparently everyone but the President is packing), blast through the glass. The alien, now riddled with bullets, flies backwards. The President is safe.

As Whitmore explains that he saw the Alien’s thoughts, that they are planning to consume all of Earth’s resources and move on, Mitchell walks over to the alien, lying on the floor. He shoots it three more times. It screeches. It wasn’t dead! Had Mitchell not been so prescient, it could have arisen. It’s already a monster and a demon, why not a zombie as well?

Independence Day goes into full action-movie mode after this sequence. An air armada that spans nations (led by the Americans, of course) will defeat the aliens, but for these brief minutes, we were in a horror movie. An alien even busted out of a chest! Sure, the chest it busted out of was that of another alien...but who’s counting. The fact is: Independence Day needed this scene. The ships are so big. The aliens are so far away. The death is too vague, too spread out. This scene takes place in a closed room. The horror is close and personal. The death is real. The stakes are easy to grasp. In a movie where a computer virus delivered via a Mac can take down an alien mothership, a detour into occult horror actually helps ground the story. These aliens are here, they are real, and we have to kill them now, lest they take over our bodies and kill us too.

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