The Essentials- #49 and #50
Sadly, a few days ago actor James Rebhorn died, he was 65 years old. To honor his death (and to catch up on my weekly columns), I have decided to write about two of my favorite James Rebhorn movies. Rebhorn was a great character actor, on both film and television. In both "Independence Day" and "The Game," the characters he plays could not be more different from each other. His range was deep and full of tremendous power. It is quite the shame he died so soon.
"Independence Day" was a simple story taken to the epic extreme. A huge alien spacecraft hovers in our atmosphere, then breaks off into dozens of slightly smaller ships that begin to descend into our ozone. The aliens begin attacking our cities all over the world, until the world responds. "Independence Day" works as a homage of the B-Movie alien movies of the 1950's as well as a clever action movie. Some parts are silly yes, but that is all part of the fun. "Independence Day" was easily one of the most popular blockbusters of the 1990's, but I firmly believe it earned everything it gained that summer.
Despite seeing our world get blown to bits, there is some fun humor sprinkled into this spectacle. Much of that is due to Will Smith and Randy Quaid. Will Smith plays Captain Steven Hiller, a USA fighter pilot who gets sucked into the war against the invading aliens. There was a time when Smith's inclusion in a film meant something. When he was still a supporting actor and his ego didn't overtake every aspect of his life. Hiller is a man full of honor and on the brink of becoming a family man. Smith allows to feel each of these emotions and creates a memorable character. Quaid plays Russell Case, a crop-duster and former pilot during The Vietnam War. Quaid has plenty of funny stuff to play with, but he's got some grounded dramatic scenes that he nails as well.
The rest of the cast includes Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Adam Baldwin, Vivica A. Fox, Harry Connick Jr. and Brent Spiner (Data from Star Trek). Everybody has wonderful moments to shine. "Independence Day" is a great example of a huge cast being able to really let loose in the script. Nobody's actions never seem false, or sappy, or overdone. Everything feels as real as it could possibly get. James Rebhorn plays the snarky Secretary of Defense. He believes in the mission to defeat the invaders, but he's stern and somewhat cold about his proceedings. Rebhorn showcased a great antagonist.
Actor performances aside, "Independence Day" had some of the best visuals of any blockbuster in the 1990's. Those are some of the most realistic alien spacecrafts ever committed to film. Sure, they are clunky ripoffs of flying saucers, but they looked magnificent. The aerial space battles are visual feasts, and I love how everything was easy to follow. I also liked the alien design in the film, and the brief but effective spooky scenes that included them. All in all, there is a lot to love about "Independence Day" and there is not another alien invasion movie like it.
David Fincher is a above-average director. The first Fincher movie I ever saw was "Fight Club," and that is mostly what he is famous for. Yet, he made "The Game" first, and when I look back now, "The Game" was a great precursor for "Fight Club." Had I seen "The Game" first and had I read the book Fight Club, I would have easily felt Fincher was the perfect director for the adaptation. There is a darkening, unique style that sets Fincher movies in a different category. There is also a mysterious cool factor hidden in each of Fincher's films as well. Throughout all the style and darkness, Fincher always has something specific to say, he always has a story worth telling.
Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is a wealthy investment banker, whose glamorous life has come with a cost. When he was young, he witnessed his father commit suicide on his 48th birthday. Van Orton is also incredibly estranged from his only brother Conrad (Sean Penn). On Nicholas's own 48th birthday, Conrad gives a voucher for a "game" to Nicholas, claiming that the game will change his life.
And changing Nicholas' life it does. From the moment Nicholas accepts the game, the game itself starts. The game quickly affects every aspect of Nicholas' life. He goes from wealthy banker with a nice home, to a homeless drone with nothing to his name. It also seems that everybody in Nicholas' orbit are all part of the game. Fincher's film really ramps up the suspense and intensity. The film feels disorienting at certain moments, as if all hope will be lost and we'll never find out who or what is doing this to Nicholas. But that's the supreme lesson the film. "The Game" is a fable about how we are judged, how our pasts come back to haunt us and how we can change as a result. When we first meet Nicholas, he's a snoot and kind of a jerk. When the game breaks him down, he feels more like a human. Which is the point of the entire game, to teach you something about your life and find something that may have been missing.
Michael Douglas really keeps things moving forward. There is a good reason he was a great lead in throughout the 1990's. Douglas' range is brought forth in a way that I don't think we ever saw again. His personality and mannerisms made us believe that he could be an investment banker as well as a man trying to find himself. Its great character work. The work done by Rebhorn is also quite different from "Independence Day." He plays an associate of Consumer Recreation Services, the company that created the game. At first, his character seems cut from the same cloth as his character in "Independence Day," but as the movie wears on, Rebhorn's character unlocks vast surprises. I think Rebhorn really nails it too.
I think you owe it to yourself to see both of these movies, for big reasons and little reasons. I will truly miss Rebhorn and his work and these movies sum up what made him great in the first place.