Marc Singer
Faye Grant
Michael Durrell
Peter Nelson
Jane Badler
Neva Patterson
Andrew Prine
Robert Englund
Richard Herd
Penelope Windust
Rafael Campos

Directed by Kenneth Johnson. 1983. Running time: 205 Minutes.

It starts with a black screen announcing that "this film is dedicated to the heroism of all Resistance Fighters past, 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.

And that's how television audiences were introduced to V reportedly one of the most expensive television shows ever made back in 1983. For various reasons, this opening sequence is important. It showed where the series' heart was as opposed to Independence 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 of nuns 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 who almost always tended to be left-wing in nature than beating the Nazis.)

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.

The invaders 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 over."

Even the 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 Mars 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.

V 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 Gulf War.

There 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.

Then 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!

Independence 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 U.S. box office . . .

No, 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 . . .

Copyright © June 1997 James O'Ehley/The Sci-Fi Movie Page



blog comments powered by Disqus

Latest Headlines

Most Popular

Copyright © 1997-forward James O'Ehley/The Sci-Fi Movie Page (unless where indicated otherwise).