Friday, June 11, 2010

Independence Day and the dark side

Independence Day was a 1996 summer blockbuster popcorn flick, to be sure. However, there is a very interesting thematic development that goes largely unnoticed with all the action and corny screenplay.

The essential theme is "overcoming the dark side", and explorations have resulted in some significant films including Apocalypse Now, the Star Wars story (they shout it in your face throughout the trilogy), and Falling Down. The protagonist sees in the antagonist his own dark side. The decision to overcome the dark side usually means some form of destruction of the antagonist by the protagonist, whether in symbol or literal death, to confirm the rejection of temptation to give in to the dark side.

What? Independence Day being mentioned in the same paragraph with these great movies? Let's be clear - I'm not suggesting this is some kind of great movie. But look at its exploration of the dark side theme.

This film symbolizes the alien nature of humans in earth's history. How must animals here on earth feel when they are displaced by "creatures in flying machines destroying their homes to take away the resources"?

This movie is telling us to feel about ourselves the way we felt about the alien threat. Shucks, they came in the first place because they had consumed their planet's resources. Doesn't that sound like us?! (deforestation, water and air pollution, are we that oblivious to what's happening?) War has involved pillaging resources for thousands of years, from fighting over share of the hunted herds to fighting over the land to cultivate to fighting for the gold...And, let's not even begin to talk about colonialism and slavery...

There's a wacky character, played by Randy Quaid, who is a crop-duster by profession. He flies overhead spraying crops to kill lower creatures so his kind can cultivate the resources. Notice also that it is this crop-duster who ultimately delivers the death blow in the final battle. He is the one "worthy" to destroy the aliens and he's not judging them because he's the same as them. By sacrifice, he judges not them, but himself at the same time, and only by sacrifice is their destruction justified, because, unlike typical treatments of "the dark side", it is when the protagonist chooses to reject going down the dark side does the protagonist destroy the antagonist. Human beings aren't going to change, so defeating the antagonist requires acknowledging that, if they are given over to the dark side, so are we, and if by so aligning the antagonist must die, well, so should I. They are all just trying to take care of their own, there's no moral difference.

Whereas most explorations of the dark side theme pit one main character against another, in Independence Day, humanity is faced with an enemy who really just shows humans who we are. The key to defeating them is to come to terms with the fact that they are not much different than we are, which is to say, we are no better than they, nor are they any worse than we are. At that point that the crop-duster is at peace with sacrificing himself, it is because he recognizes, even subconsciously, that the human race is not to be saved because it is better, but just because any species seeks to prolong its existence if even at the expense of others - individual sacrifice means he tried, best he could, to pay a little bit of the price himself, on behalf of the rest of humanity.

One of our frequent visitors, Lancer, mentioned that Hollywood typically portrays "the West" as the bad guys, an idea that is not without merit. This movie came to mind because several of my friends back in the day took great umbrage with Independence Day's portrayal of the world waiting for the United States to tell them how to defeat the aliens, which made it appear that "only the good ol' USA is smart enough to figure it out."

So, in gross fashion, this movie does show the West as a leader in the global community. However, the commendable part of it is that it leads in a movie that portrays how ugly human beings can be, as we are revolted by the intentions of a hostile alien invasion whose actions mirror ours and judge us as equally evil.

If a North American bison could watch movies, it would probably give Independence Day two hooves up.


  1. In my personal opinion, if you could distill all the worst things from the human race, or particularly Western Civilization, then perhaps you might get something which resembles the adversary in Independence Day. It's believable, because we sometimes see it ourselves, but it's also simplistic. For a movie that's okay, since it's a plausible device to explain what the aliens are all about. I am troubled with really relating this to the real world though.

    Like I said, I yearn to see that kind of an adversary in a light that isn't too simplistic. In otherwords, not with all the good taken out. There is an Indy movie that I'd love to see called Terra, which as far as I gather is about a civilization about to be invaded by the human race, who are supposedly facing extinction if they can't find a habitable planet on which to live. If I'm correct in what I heard about this movie, then while the humans are doing a bad thing, at least the difficulty of their choice is presented.

    I believe such complexity is more typical of actual history than the merciless plunderer examples we're given in contemporary entertainment. Not always, but very usually the things that are decried of the West were already happening before anyone from the West got involved. They just made it worse.

    The Torchwood TV series showed this in at least one episode. In an alien invasion story, 10% of the world's children were demanded from the world. The world leaders conspired to protect themselves, the people they liked, and eventually ended up selling out the most disenfranchised. They even saw it as an opportunity to reduce certain socio-economic problems. This intended to portray Western leaders as sniveling cowards and to some extent even worse than the aliens.

    That imagery frankly works very well when compared to the abuses of the West in the Third world. It was often only made possible because someone was willing to sell-out their own people. For example: many, if not most, of the slaves from Africa were abducted by other Africans. The trade was already a thousand years old when Europeans became involved. The European market simply created increased demand, leading to more aggressive slaving practices that were also easier thanks to European goods. That is not to say that all of the Colonialist practices can be viewed this way, but usually it's just the Colonialists who get the blame. It's only part of the truth. People were getting sold-out by their own kin.

    I've read/heard some people say that without humans, life on Earth would flourish, suggesting the human race isn't really needed. Well, people work against things like forest fires, and other natural disasters. They also try to rescue beached whales, and inured animals. Sometimes animals face natural extinction, which humans may try to prevent. Perhaps some day, we will save the Earth from getting hit by a giant asteroid, or even protect it from Independence Day aliens or something? So in some ways we are a great benefit.

    The point is, yes the human race has a foot-print on the Earth, but since every other species leaves a foot-print how do we know when that foot-print is bad? Nature is indifferent to displacement, disaster, resource exhaustion, and extinction. Moral judgments are involved here, and that requires an authoritative personality. Who is that personality?

  2. Hey Lancer,

    Penetrating musings, mate.

    Regarding European Colonialism, one of the key differences was that ancient slavery recognizes some basic rights for the slaves, including cycles of freedom, personal and familial dignities, etc. The degree to which European Colonialism dehumanized Africans (breaking up the family unit, outlawing the right to learn, etc.) is largely without parallel. Scholars doubt those slave-trading Africans understood the plight to which their sold kinsmen were doomed to experience.

    However, yes, agreed, the West has also ushered a whole new level of "equal rights" thought and progress. Whether or to what extent the West can actually practice it is the remarkable thing - they've written things and taught things that were so ahead of their practice, it has changed their world, often against their preference (look at how France struggles with "accommodating" the growing Islamic demographic; or how American can't get its head around a female head of state while there are several elsewhere around the world; or whether we might ever expect to see a visible minority leader UK or Canada).

    Regarding humans vs the world, not only is it true that we do do some good in the world (although, more often than not it is simply attempting to fix something we broke or interfere with things we don't understand), there are thinkers out there (Gregory Stock, author of Metaman, for example) who think human beings are just as welcome on earth as any other creature, and the things we do are just as natural as what any other creature would do, endowed with our uniquenesses. He argues that what we do is just an expression of what we are, and that we are not morally "wrong" for doing what we do.

    Following your thought, Stock dismisses any such "authoritative personality". But making a judgment of the ethical accountability of humanity, endowed with singularly unique intelligence, becomes far too difficult without a conceptualization of an authoritative personality. Why do we consider Hitler to be a greater villain than Stalin? Is torture "ok" if we do it to support our security efforts? How does Equador suffer such destruction at the hands of Big Oil without nary a complaint from the world? Is "an apology" from the American government sufficient for the Native North Americans who held signed agreements breeched by those who prepared them, or the commonwealth of Hawaii that was duped into statehood in direct contravention of UN directives? Should we be in Afghanistan? Has human activity accelerated climate change? The list is endless of situations that we have a tendency to think has an obvious answer, yet remains befuddled and debated and with no clear agreed upon sense of direction.

    Nature does appear to be indifferent to all the things you mention, yet we are conflicted. Some humans think these things are real problems. Where does that come from? I personally think there is indeed an authoritative personality, and I call that personality God.

  3. Hi DA,

    I agree with you that what was noteworthy about European/Western slavery of Africans was more how they were treated, than the mere fact that they owned slaves. While slavery itself IMHO impugns the dignity of a human being who is made equal to his neighbours, the bigger problem with European slave-owners was how they casually disregarded their humanity. As we talked in the Avatar thread, it's the particular dehumanization that is the most troubling and is something for which we need to be alert. Just wanted to be clear about that.

    I'm not sure however that the truth about how slaves were treated by Europeans would have dramatically changed the minds of the slavers. These weren't people who were dealing in "indentured servitude", where someone who had encountered hard times sells themselves into slavery. They were going out and forcefully kidnapping people across the country-side. Some of the methods they used to drag people away were quite painful. They would also have been witness to the terrible conditions through which these people were shipped to Europe. The laws may have limited some practices, but I don't think there's any reason to believe the slavers weren't simply being restrained by them. If one's business is kidnapping and dragging people away for profit, one really does not have their best interests at heart. It ironically took the Abolition of slavery in the West to actually put it to a stop, so I find it hard to believe that the slavers were at all sympathetic (Note: I am speaking of the African slavers in particular, not particularly the African people who permitted the practice).

    While gross injustices have been perpetrated by Westerners against the peoples of Africa, I think it has become a scape-goat for the activities of petty tyrants today. I feel like the re-inforcing of this meme in the entertainment industry encourages people to only look for that kind of rich-vs-poor tyranny in the world. It certainly exists, but there is far more and far worse tyranny to be found elsewhere.

    You look at Dictators like in Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez has stamped out all media-outlets that say anything critical about him, and yet we get movie stars going there to say how great he is because of some social programs he started. You are right to bring up Stalin, who is responsible for obliterating 30 million of his own people at peace-time, and yet in his time people were criticizing the West and praising the USSR for its ideals and its regard for the working-class. It's just a distraction for evil.

    Anyways, we're pretty far off-track here. Obviously there are times when the meme of the noble but oppressed savage is truly applicable, but the poor can be greedy, too. Certainly the West faces more than a few ethical dilemmas, but when many of the West's accusers are themselves worse abusers, I think that demonstrates an imbalance in criticism. It is like the man pointing out someone else's sin, only to ignore his own. I actually think this is the real reason why many people can't escape their condition in the world.

    Finally, yes I have to agree that without positing God, you really can't look at all of this and come away with a moral judgment. To argue otherwise would trap oneself in the cage of subjectivity, since different people will have different opinions, and authoritativeness could only be judged based on the most recent survey. We care about people, because God cares. We care about the Earth because it is His, not ours, though it is made as a vehicle through which He provides for us. While that doesn't help us with all the questions, at least it gives us a consistent world-view through which to approach them.


  4. Hey Lancer,

    I love how far we've gone off-track! That's the beauty of musing, the freedom to wander the furthest reaches of implicit thoughts related to movies, especially as they test the boundaries of a God-centred world view.

    I'm really enjoying your contributions and our interaction. Please invite your friends, you've got good things to say and we welcome this level and tone of exploration here.

    Having said that, I embrace with you the conclusion that God becomes the foundation for moral direction. Indeed, being critical of the West may seem easy, yet if other societies open their closets, they are far from bare; we believe that there are skeletons in every closet a la "for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." As long as the world rejects the concept of sin, arguing over which side is "wronger" is a circular argument that each side is bent on outdoing both in goodness and evil.

    God, as it were, interjects into that endless spiral and himself becomes the alpha and omega - the starting reference point and the last word and final opinion - on the entire argument.

  5. Hmmm sorry for being tardy to the party, heh..but seems like you both have already stated what I was thinking...

    Lancer I did see that episiode of Torchwood (though didnt see how it ended) and yes, how they potrayed the politcal leaders in that, really made them look beyond dispicable. And the disturbing part of that episiode (or what I saw) should something to that degree (aliens aside and all) happen in real life, with the climate we are currently in worldwide, it wouldnt nearly be as suprising to me that a decision like that would take place. Yeah that does sound pretty morbid, but I feel its the sign of times.

    BTW its interesting you both mentioning about how we(mankind)care about the earth since its God's and not ours though he provides us with it. Theres a section in my 3rd post on Avatar that I wanted to adress regarding that...particuarly themes of pantheism vs. christianity. When I get it done, I'd like to hear your opinions on it..

    Oh and DA, Love these off-track/side tracked converstaions as well...just like chatting away in a cafe, after a good sermon, an informative class, or a good ol movie..:)

  6. M. Wanderer - Looking forward to your continued Avatar commentary. Yes, pantheism vs Christianity will be of keen interest.


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