MOVIE PAGE PICK: V
by Kenneth Johnson. 1983. Running time: 205 Minutes.
starts with a black screen announcing that "this film is
dedicated to the heroism of all Resistance Fighters
present and future." Then, just to make sure that we get the
point it cuts to two American reporters covering guerrilla
fighting in the countryside of El Salvador. The guerrilla base
gets attacked by what the audience can only assume to be
government helicopters. The journalists get chased around by one
of the helicopters and just when they are cornered, the
helicopter unexpectedly leaves. The reason being an enormous UFO
that has mysteriously appeared out of nowhere.
how television audiences were introduced to V
reportedly one of the most expensive television shows ever
— back in 1983. For various reasons, this opening sequence
is important. It showed where the series' heart was
— as opposed
Day. Back in
1983, the El Salvadorian civil war were causing the Reagan
administration many a grey hair. After all, their puppet regime
headed by Duarte wasn't exactly upholding the sort of values the
United States pride themselves on. Its political landscape
included amongst others the mass graves of dissidents, the
assassination of an Archbishop, the brutal gang rape of a group
— events chronicled in films
such as Oliver Stone's Salvador
and Romero. Not that the Marxist-inspired band of
guerrilla fighters opposed to the government and hiding away in
the mountains were exactly a democratic bunch, but still.
However, with the opening shot of V it did something quite
radical for network television: it leaned definitely to the, um, left
by calling an organization which the Reagan administration
branded terrorists "resistance fighters." Obviously,
"past, present and future resistance fighters" does not
just include those brave French resistance fighters of the Second
World War we see so often in comics and movies with which
everybody felt comfortable with today. (Although, the Powers That
Be back then didn't. With the liberation of Europe the Allies at
times seemed more concerned with disarming these groups
almost always tended to be left-wing in nature
— than beating the
rest of V's plot is familiar: the UFOs contain the
so-called Visitors. They look like us, they are like us and they
come in peace. Or do they? In no time flat we are confronted with
an alien invasion tale featuring a cast of hundreds. Nothing new
there, but this is where the major differences between V
and Independence Day comes in
— the American experience of
the Gulf War. Whereas Independence Day dealt with the same
theme as V (and borrowed heavily from that series), their
ideological hearts beat to a different beat. The invaders in Independence
Day come with lasers a-blazing without warning.
in V pretend to be mankind's friends. All they want is
some raw chemicals to help their environmentally damaged planet.
In exchange they'll supply us with the technology that makes it
possible for them to zip around between star systems in what
looks like seriously 1950s UFOs. Nothing of the sort happens.
Soon they are "uncovering" a "plot" by
scientists to undermine their "benevolent" intentions.
(In case you're missing all the quotation marks
— they invent a
ruse to crack down on scientists.) Soon there are red uniformed
Visitors jack-booting around American suburbia aided by the
police, army and street gangs. Like Frank Zappa sang: "Take
a look around your suburbs/The Nazis have already taken
plot detail regarding scientists is important. If anybody could
see through the Visitors' scheme, it would be the scientists.
This is quite a departure from the old stock sci-fi cliché of
the mad scientist. And a nod at the assumption that applying
scientific skepticism serves as a good antidote to authoritarian
designs. (For an extended argument, read Carl Sagan's Demon
Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark, a book we
cannot recommend highly enough.)
Soon the cast of V is
split between those opposed to the Visitors and those
collaborating with them. The Visitors are, of course, just as
evil a lot as the invaders of Independence Day. They are a
reptilian species whose filthy dietary habits consist of
swallowing live rodents. Soon they are trashing all the democratic
institutions which the Free World cherish
— they stage show trials
replete with faked evidence and false confessions, impose martial
law, control the media, etc. In fact they seem to have taken a
leaf out of the book on Authoritarian Dictatorship written by
Josef Stalin! But they are also as "human" as we are: some
of them are opposed to what is happening and even join the
fledgling Earthling rebellion.
See if any of the viscous tykes in
Attacks! or Independence
Day do the same! And here, V is one step ahead of Independence
Day: there is some moral ambiguity to all this. Even not all
of the bad guys are bad! Things aren't simply black & white
"us and them". Some of "them" aren't too bad.
An essential truth in any conflict in which any group will do
their damnedest to demonise their opponent.
is colored by the collective memory of World War II. One of the
characters, a Jew who has survived the holocaust, likens the
Visitors to the Nazis. The analogy is unmistakable: the Visitors'
uniforms, insignia and methods are all fascist in nature. V
itself refers to the old V for Victory popularized during
the second World War by Winston Churchill. Back in 1983, still
tainted by the collective shame of what was the Vietnam War, the
Second World War was the last "good" fight the
Americans fought. By the time Independence Day was
released in 1995, the American guilt over Vietnam has been purged
by what a character in The Last Supper so memorably tagged
as "a commercial for the Republican Party", namely the
are several nasty subtexts running throughout Independence Day,
the nastiest is draping everything with the American flag. After
the devastating first attack by the alien invaders, a plan is
hatched by the American President's impromptu scientific
advisor played by Jeff Goldblum. It is relayed to the rest of the
world. "About time the Americans did something," a
British pilot remarks. The implication, of course, being that the
rest of the world were waiting for the Americans' leadership on
the issue. They will lead, and the rest of us will gladly follow.
This is the "New World Order" George Bush spoke about.
The new American Imperialism . . . All led by a handsome
ex-fighter pilot President, willing to die alongside his men,
leading the final Death Star-style attack against the
invaders. Yeah, right.
there's also the role of women. In Independence Day women
are subjugated to hanging around, waiting helplessly for their
warrior cigar-chewing husbands to return from the war. Unlike V, in which
the fledgling resistance is in fact led by a woman!
Day speaks with the confident and grating voice of a
Republican majority in the Senate voice. Which is all the more
surprising considering that Roland Emmerich, who directed the
film, is in fact German. But then again, Emmerich was never an
original filmmaker (although successful in box office terms: he
also directed Universal
Soldier and StarGate) knows
where the most money is to be made — the domestic
office . . .
tonight I'll be popping in the latest installment of V
instead of Independence Day into the VCR. Whereas both
have a lot in common despite their themes — plot holes large
enough to fit in the Grand Canyon, plastic special effects (no, I
don't really think the special effects in Independence Day were that
great), wooden acting, stereotyped characters,
predictable storyline, etc. — their hearts are in two different
places . . .
© June 1997 James O'Ehley/The
Sci-Fi Movie Page