' ' Cinema Romantico: Welcome to Earth, a summertime blockbuster remix

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Welcome to Earth, a summertime blockbuster remix

“Independence Day”, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s grand summertime extravaganza of 1996, was nothing if not a pop culture mashup. It cribbed from all manner of places: the narrative structure of an Irwin Allen disaster epic, the looming spaceships of “V”, the landmark eradication of “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers”, the common cold corrective of “War of the Worlds”, the spaceship flyboys of “Star Wars”, even the aerial dogfights of “Top Gun” (or maybe “Into the Sun”). It gleefully stuck its hand in every conceivable cinematic cookie jar while adding Emmerich’s skillful propensity for set-ups and renderings of All-American archetypes. It was, and still is, a classic remix of so many of its summer blockbuster forefathers.

Chicago-based InGen Productions’ “Welcome to Earth”, which had a quick four day run a couple weeks back at The Charnel House, billed itself a “summer blockbuster remix” too, employing Emmerich’s 1996 box office champion and its narrative of an alien invasion of our blue planet the eventual human resistance from a motley American crew as its template. It would have been easy and enjoyable for InGen to simply replicate characters and mimic dialogue since most of us, I reckon, who gathered to see it were hardcore fans of the original and would have eaten up a mere lo-fi homage with an ice cream scoop. But “Welcome to Earth” doesn’t just duplicate, it expands, never more joyfully and acutely than through the use of time-specific music, as if DJ Shadow was mashing up a Hollywood blockbuster with the mid-90s Billboard charts.

The wedding of Captain Steven Hiller and Jasmine Dubrow, just a blip in the movie, is blown-out into a brilliant sing-along frenzy, set to All-4-One’s “I Swear”, and including not just the newlyweds and their witnesses but the President and First Lady too, rendered here as a lesbian couple. That last alteration speaks to how “Welcome to Earth” not only nods to the past but celebrates the progress we have managed to make, especially when considering the original ID4 was released only a couple years removed from Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

The music, however, is not only a supplement; sometimes it’s the work-around. How, do you figure, is the famous sequence of the White House being obliterated translated to the stage? By not even trying, by instead serving up Weezer’s mid-90s anthem “Say It Ain’t So” which improbably becomes the seamless accompaniment for national annihilation (“Flip on the tele / Wrestle with Jimmy / Something is bubbling / Behind my back / The bottle is ready to blow”), and then becomes “Welcome to Earth’s” most prominent leitmotif, as if the L.A. alt-rock band inadvertently found itself the musical documentarians of “The Battle of ’96.”

And because necessary limits given the theatrical environment mean an entire globe of humans and an entire fleet of aliens cannot line up across from one another, “Welcome to Earth” represents each species via one character. For the aliens, it is a woman shrouded in black billed as The Darkness; for us earthlings, it is Uncle Sam. This is funny all in its own, sure, but Uncle Sam also speaks to the movie’s own sense of American Exceptionalism. Because even if the whole planet eventually rallied together to bring down the aliens, it was the Americans who very explicitly concocted the plan and led the charge. And by having Uncle Sam act as Earthly representation, well, suffice to say, this will appeal to any Lee Greenwood acolytes in the audience.

At the same time, “Independence Day” was never an overtly political film. And that’s why Uncle Sam doesn’t take the stage as “Welcome to Earth” begins to recruit us; he takes the stage and does a song and dance. ID4, unlike some blockbusters, possessed less interest in allegory and logic than the simplicity of its own joyful silliness. It's why I found myself so mesmerized by how “Welcome to Earth” communicates the climactic aerial battle. There, the President and a quintet behind her stand in mock formation, swaying side to side, while holding toy airplanes, and when they “flew” away, across the wooden floor, through the curtain, I marveled at the equal absurdity and earnestness. I thought about that absurdity and earnestness again 48 hours later when I suffered through the ghastly “Independence Day Resurgence.” “Welcome to Earth”, it seems, knew what made the original so glorious better than its own sequel did.

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