The Syfy Channel movie strategy of slamming two unrelated nouns into each other and cobbling together a film from the debris, having moved on from improbable animal hybrids (Sharktopus, Piranhaconda) to an even more unwieldy amalgamation of “holiday plus synonym for something bad,” brings us Independence Day-saster.
Just in time for the (almost) titular holiday, and perhaps desperately hoping to benefit from recent Independence Day II casting news, the film posits, strangely enough, an alien invasion that must be thwarted by a gaggle of regular joes and a can-do action president using cobbled-together technology. (That they do not use an Apple laptop to get the job done is perhaps less attributable to any sort of abatement in the film’s blatant rip-offery than to the fact that the meager budget just couldn’t afford the clearance.)
When a Wayne Knight-manqué has his un-branded cheese curls and whiskey drink snack interrupted by signals from outer space that just don’t make sense!, the American president’s visit to his suspiciously Canadian home town is quickly disrupted when massively computer-generated, multi-toothed drills emerge from the ground and start grinding up the bunting and flags and so forth. (Luckily, a presidential homecoming only managed to draw about 35 people to the town square.)
With the Prez’s trio of suspiciously smooth and identical choppers grounded by the aliens’ air force (big, grindy flying spheres looking like a cross between yo-yos and the balls from Phantasm), his son and brother (on hand for the ceremony) and a handful of love interests and comic relief speed willy nilly away from the doomed town in the company of a pretty UFO scientist with a homemade alien gun. Meanwhile Tom Everett Scott’s president limps away from his crashed chopper and seeks the conveniently overqualified help from a pair of hackers in a well-equipped barn.
Will they all meet up and find a way to defeat the invasion which, from both above and below, has decimated all the major cities of the world using only generic laptops, a trunk full of 4th of July fireworks, and the UFO scientist’s unexplainedly effective alien gun (which looks a lot like a hat box attached to a megaphone)? Look for the full discussion in the AV Club’s Spoiler Space review of Independence Day-saster! (Note: There will not be a Spoiler Space review of Independence Day-saster.)
Reviewing one of these Syfy originals presents a conundrum: Pointing out the failures in special effects, screenwriting acumen, or competent performances invites criticism that the reviewer is simply taking cheap shots at the scrappy, low-budget movie that could. But my object here is not to mock this film for having a low budget—there are plenty of outstanding movies made for less than Independence Day-saster’s nearly $2 million. What’s disappointing about the Syfy formula is its cynical lack of ambition regarding what to do with 2 million bucks: Hire one (maybe one and a half) recognizable but inexpensive C-listers, throw together a script from the most predictable, well-trod genre elements, give it a deliberately ridiculous title to draw in those looking for an ironic viewing experience, and CGI the hell out of the rest.
Look, for example, at an early, would-be big action scene, where a squadron of identical, sparsely-detailed CGI fighter jets engage the yo-yo balls. Cue quick shots of fake jets firing missiles intercut with control room animation of cartoon jets crashing into orange blobs, and much less expensive shots of our heroes shading their eyes and reacting appropriately. The purported big swerve when the aliens, after suffering a few losses on an initial pass, blow the bejeezus out of our GCI Top Gunners makes no dramatic sense: We see that there are still a jillion or so yo-yos left after the first attack, so why exactly are the onlookers so shocked out of their premature victory whooping when the yo-yos actually, you know, fight back? It’s a pre-fab emotional appeal without dramatic foundation, the sloppy screenwriting illustrating the film’s lack of imagination far more than its lack of budget.
Throughout the film, the Phantasm yo-yos are shown as relentless in their attacks—except when its time for a requisite snatch of exposition. Then they’re either conveniently absent or inexplicably hovering in the near distance while the nondescript cast emotes for a bit. As the President, reasonably priced Tom Everett Scott, while technically of age, can’t shed his attendant boyishness, with his idea of presidential gravitas consisting of lowering his voice a bit and hunching his shoulders. His big moments (“Hi. I’m President Sam Garcette. And I need your help to save the world,” and “I need you to launch some missiles for me,” are so underplayed that it seems the people involved are complying just to be polite.) As his fireman brother (who’s allowed one mild revelation about the brothers’ estrangement), Pretty Little Liars’ Ryan Merriman supplies much of the foolhardy, dashing heroics, most of which consist of him yelling “run!” or “get in the car!” at his nephew and the female characters, and occasionally firing off a roman candle.
Add to all that some uninspired direction from Syfy vet W.D. Hogan (tense dialogue scenes equal handheld; heroic sacrifices call for slow-mo), a nondescript, over-emphatic score, and the fact that a series of alien drill bits have no dramatic presence as adversaries, and Independence Day-saster is easily one of the more generic entries in this decidedly unenterprising subgenre.
At least the Sharktopus had a little personality.
- I was all set to make reference to the film’s $1,800,000 budget being a tiny fraction of Will Smith’s Independence Day salary, but when I looked it up, it turns out Smith only made $5 million a movie back in 1996! Independence Day-saster could have afforded almost half a 1996 Will Smith!
- No Apple products, but the film makes frequent use of multiple computers so secure in their market share that they don’t feel the need to put their company name anywhere on them.
- Naming the Prez’s hometown Moose Ridge isn’t the most effective Canadian camouflage.
- I know he’s a hunky fireman and all, but when the time comes to fire the zap gun at an approaching yo-yo, why does Pete get to fire it while the scientist lady who invented the damned thing stands aside and tells him how to work it?
- The scientific explanation of the ray gun: “It’s like standing next to the speaker at a heavy metal concert!” Thanks movie.
- Our heroes identify a “signal from another military base” emanating from my 8th grade boom box. And the base they’re in looks like—shocker—an abandoned warehouse.
- Pete’s would-be stirring “America is under attack! On the fourth of July!” halts a babble of dissent so ill-directed that the survivors might as well be shouting “rhubarb” at each other.
- The government’s command center seems to house six people. I mean, why call in everyone for just a single alien invasion?
- Repeatedly typing the title Independence Day-saster put me in mind of the Simpsons’ Be-Sharps. “We need a name that’s witty at first, but that seems less funny each time you hear it.”
- Reading the title Independence Day-saster inevitably sends the mind on a journey to predict the next Syfy title of the same formula. My picks: Kwanzaageddon, Crash Hashanah, Slash Wednesday, Hanukkapocalypse, Cataclys-mas, and, of course, Beaster.