Is there anything sadder than watching a summer special-effects extravaganza on a dinky TV screen in the chilly heart of November? From a technical point of view, both the megahit Independence Day and the commercial flop Dragonheart are state-of-the-art rides that require a 50-foot screen and a mob of popcorn-scarfing revelers. Consequently, both suffer terribly on home video: These movies stand revealed as collections of stock characters, moldy plots, and received notions. The only difference seems to be that ID‘s clichés are … newer.
Yes, yes, summer movies are supposed to be Twinkies. But those that remain fresh after Labor Day feature characters who zig and plots that zag in unexpected directions. One-word wonders like Jaws, Aliens, and Speed attend as much to sense as sensation; the great exception — Star Wars — works because it worships myths that resonate beneath the clichés. Dragonheart just huffs and puffs after a fairy-tale idealism that it never achieves.
It opens with a precision worthy of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the comparisons don’t stop there (the actor playing the young prince is a ringer for Grail‘s imprisoned stage-musical wannabe). The Pythons, I guess, forever ruined the medieval genre for filmmakers who take things too seriously, and Dragonheart‘s vapidly earnest tone is set by Randy Edelman’s score, which rubs your face in orchestral smarm. Then there’s the problematic casting of Dennis Quaid as Bowen, an errant knight who turns against his onetime ward, the king (nasty David Thewlis), with the help of the sole surviving dragon and a comely peasant rebel (Dina Meyer). Quaid’s in a bind: He can’t indulge his gift for pretension popping without trashing the sense of period. So mostly he plays it straight.
But, face it, you’re renting Dragonheart for the dragon, aren’t you? And, truth be told, Industrial Light & Magic’s computerized creation called Draco is a sinuous marvel that suggests a cross between a griffin, a dinosaur, and a bored cat. It makes sense, too, that this dragon speaks with the royal burr of Sean Connery. On video, however, Draco seems but a spectacular toy; minus the massiveness a big screen imparts, his tinny dialogue seems beneath character and actor.
At least the dialogue matches the characters in ID: Both are enjoyably shallow. Independence Day may be the epitome of the modern blockbuster in that the hype was the event rather than the movie. The excitement was about getting in line early, about saying you had seen it, rather than whether you actually liked it. In that respect, I suppose, ID should be congratulated for being watchable in the bargain. Yet the movie still has a curious weightlessness — it evaporates from your consciousness a half hour after it’s over.
So, fine, the pleasures here are strictly present tense. And, as such, ID offers a handy snapshot of the pop clichés of the mid-1990s: a no-problem flyboy hero (Will Smith), his noble stripper girlfriend (Vivica Fox), a hip, resourceful President (Bill Pullman) and his doomed wife (Mary McDonnell) — these last standing as a wish-fulfillment Bill and Hillary. There’s even a geek who saves the world (Jeff Goldblum) — shades of Bill Gates, even if this guy uses a Mac.
So, apparently, do the squiddly aliens intent on destroying the earth, and that spaceship-size plot hole indicates how little attention ID pays to Screenwriting 101 principles (even if it swipes much of its plot from 1953’s War of the Worlds — rent ’em both and see for yourself). More disturbing is how light the movie’s tone remains after graphically depicting the incineration of millions. Where’s the horror? Oh, right, that would spoil the fun of watching an Irwin Allen disaster movie retrofitted for the age of high-tech F/X. Unfortunately, ID‘s entire selling point is its size — the sprawling cast, the global conceit, the hugeness of the alien craft — and that’s the quality home video subverts. Behind the gigantism lies the soul of a diverting made-for-TV movie — and on tape, that’s exactly what it has become. Independence Day: B Dragonheart: C-