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Searching the Battle-Torn Universe for Jewish Values

Elliot Gertel
July 21, 2016


by Elliot B. Gertel

326937id1_IDR_PARIS_Camp_B_Intl_BusShelter_48x70.inddNEVER KEEP an old space ship around for twenty years after an epic battle to save Earth from space aliens. You never know when its distress signal system will be reactivated, drawing horrible insect-like creatures from a technologically-formidable beyond, especially their ruthless, powerful queen bee leader.

That is the message of Independence Day: Resurgence, sequel to the 1996 film, Independence Day.

While the success of Earthlings in the first (as in the second) film was multicultural, the first movie did glorify “M.I.T. underachiever” (no such designation in #2) David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) for his proverbial yidisher kop (“Jewish head” or Jewish brains), his success in breaking the alien code, his physical courage and prowess, and his getting the President’s attention with a good punch. (In #2, the one good punch is given to another character.) The other Jewish characters, including Levinson’s father Julius (Judd Hirsch), were caricatures -- but Julius was a yodea sefer (“knower of the book”), knowledgeable in Hebrew and in Jewish prayer, with which he tried to help out.

What a difference twenty years make! In the 2016 installment, Julius has thrown over his prayerbook Hebrew and taken to muttering off-color Yiddish words and fishing on a boat as a substitute for religious practice of any kind. Julius has also, rather immodestly, been hawking a bestseller he wrote on How I Saved the World. While fleeing the quickly mounting fallout debris barreling toward his boat, he does regain some sense of reverence, exclaiming, “O sweet Moses” (perhaps to parallel Madame President’s response to the alien bombardment: “Christ Almighty).”

In the 1996 film, Julius was both a davener and kibitzer from the sidelines, leaving the valiant acts to his son. Now he’s a full-blown hero, saving a busload of children for the future of humanity. He helps a couple of probably orphaned children and their dog, taking over the driving for them after his boat is almost crushed by intergalactic devastation and the kids graciously stop to see if anything can be done for him. True, Julius tries to comfort them with some talk of faith, but the older sister silences him by observing: “My parents are probably dead by now.” Though Julius does assume a Noah-like role, substituting the boat for a bus, he is now a religion-neutral character.

As Julius and the kids are about to run out of gas, they come upon a bus with a full tank and a pack of schoolchildren abandoned by the driver. Julius turns this into a teachable moment, telling his first passengers not to be “shmucks” when they resist leaving the car, and referring to the father of a new kid passenger as a “putz” when the kid reports that his father regards Julius’s claims in the book about alien attack as a “conspiracy.”

Julius still kibitzes his son a bit, even in absentia. Early on he says of his book, “It makes a great gift for your grandchildren if you’re lucky enough to have any.” And in another allusion to his son he complains, “These days we only see each other at Thanksgiving.” Jewish holidays are not mentioned.

Fortunately, David Levinson is at the right place at the right time to meet the current onslaught of alien fury. Fortunately, he is not alone in Africa exploring the old downed spaceship; local warlord Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei) is on hand with his lion heart, combat expertise, and own insightful research into alien technology, warfare, and vulnerabilities.

It seems that both of them are blessed with a new Jewish sidekick, one Fred Rosenberg (Nicolas Wright), a “government-appointed comptroller,” who gushes before his hero, “Dr. Levinson, I’m going to talk to my supervisor to see that you get all the money you need.” More than a pencil-pusher, Fred shows courage in battle, asking the warlord to show him how to kill aliens. At one point the warlord will tell Fred, “You talk too much.” But ultimately he praises him, “You have the heart of a warrior.” Fred replies, “That’s the nicest thing anyone ever said to me.”

THERE ARE, I suppose, Jewish values in this newest screenplay, even if buried. The film is hopeful about the future of humanity (Jeremiah’s “there is hope for your future,” Jeremiah 31:16), both to withstand alien attack and to remain united for twenty years after the first attack. The suggestion here, however, is that humanity has stuck it out not because of the wisdom of ancient prophets and seers, but because the alien attack was their wake-up call.

The movie is somewhat respectful of elders and of their continuing contributions to society; Julius, after all, gets to be a latter-day Noah, despite his vanity and vulgarity, and the former U.S. President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), although infirm and frail-looking, is still conversant enough with history to have at his bedside a copy of a book on the Luftwaffe (an allusion, perhaps, to the lessons of the Holocaust). He quickly perks up in face of the new challenge, still inspiring in his speeches, and assumes a warrior status, making the ultimate sacrifice for humanity.

Jewish values may also be reflected in the message that as long as there is life there is hope, and that life preserved may one day be redemptive to the world. After all, a key problem-solver remains in a coma for twenty years only to awaken when he is needed again. Do the writers realize how much this scenario flies in the face of some current directions in medical ethics?

Independence Day #2 does make a point of saying that not all aliens are bad. We learn through a sphere-like drone sent by the alien underground of a hidden planet where refugees from various planets are trained in how to defend themselves against the seemingly undefeated interplanetary insect-like queen. Her strategy, we are told, is to steal the molten cores of planets (an interesting concept) to fuel her army ships, thus destroying all inhabitants of the targeted planets.

Our heroes bait the queen and are baited by her, but in the end David Levinson comes up with a plan, describing it as “a hail Mary but it can work.” At such a critical moment he has no Jewish vocabulary that his father might have used in the first film before “putz” became Dad’s most profound Jewish term.

Interestingly, the alien underground or resistance is able to help the Earthlings because Jewish accountant Fred Rosenberg puts his hands on the smooth circular surface of the drone-like object, which can thereby tell that he is not one of the queen’s army. No one seems to know or care that such placement of hands (semikhah) is a biblical practice used to dedicate priestly families and, later, to ordain rabbis. The absence of classic Jewish vocabulary and practice is conspicuous in this film, which would have been far more interesting had it even attempted to offer an explanation for Julius’s new-found secularism.

So Independence Day: Resurgence comes across as a “Where Are They Now” commentary on, and exploitation of, the 1996 movie, with a lot of (but far from total) emphasis on the Jewish characters and with zero substance to their Jewish vocabulary. It is, therefore, no different from the first film in its implications regarding Jewish filmmakers. It is a pity that the Jewish gesticulations so conspicuously highlighted here yield no real perspective -- and certainly no Jewish take -- on human unity and national integrity. Are both films evidence that talented people who wanted to make a “Jewish” statement, first in the late 1990s, and now in 2016, just didn’t know how to do so?

Elliot B. Gertel is a retired pulpit rabbi who has been film and TV critic for the National Jewish Post and Opinion for 35 years. He is the author of Over the Top Judaism and What Jews Know About Salvation.