Trading Card Set of the Week – Independence Day (1996, Topps Widevision)
Ah, Independence Day. We recall it now as a harbinger of Tinseltown doom, ushering in as it did the era of vapid blockbusters with scales tilted heavily towards special effects. It was the first big summer hit to put more emphasis on the level of blowuppableness it could achieve, at the expense of everything else that anyone more intelligent than plankton would be able to grasp. In those pre-Internet days (or pre-widespread-use-of-the-Internet days) of 1996, what’s the first any of us ever heard of it? That blisteringly effective Super Bowl commercial, which told us all we needed to know: that the White House was going to get barbecued real spicy-like by a giant hovering UFO. Effects, FX — however you style it, that’s what you were going to get.
We’ve seen the White House blown up, frozen and submerged about a thousand times since then. Indeed, its destruction became somewhat of a trademark for ID4 guiding hands Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, so much so that the former made a whole damn dopey movie about it this past year. Independence Day was a forerunner in another specific way, too: it got the ball rolling on the beam-of-light-from-the-sky-that-destroys-everything trope, which has come to full fruition in the last decade. Thanks, movie. Thanks a lot. Lost in all this flotsam and jetsam, though, is that Independence Day wasn’t all that bad. It really wasn’t. It was by no means great, but the effects serviced the story, thin as it was, and the cast was on average not as offensive as it could have been. Will Smith was an up and coming star, not the paterfamilias of a clan lost in its own Hollywood megalomania. Bill Pullman channeled his lunky Lone Starr from Spaceballs as the equally lunky President of the United States. Jeff Goldblum was at the peak of his stuttering powers. Hell, it even had T.H.E. Cat in it. For every Mac virus bringing down an alien fleet and Randy Quaid line there was something almost decent to hang your hat on, unlike recent dreck, which makes you want to skinny dip in a vat of acid.
All this is a roundabout way of getting to this: Independence Day trading cards! They exist! And they’re in widescreen! Which is really, really stupid for trading cards!
In the mid-1990s, the card collecting world was suffering a post-boom contraction not unlike the one that laid low the once bustling comic book market. Companies tried anything they could do to reignite interest, including experimenting with different sizes for cards. (This was nothing new — witness the teeny tiny 1970s Kojak cards once profiled here.) A longer style card was one of the things that was designed in this dark era to help a product stand out. Enter Topps, with its Widevision cards — or Tallvision, depending on whether they’re horizontal or vertical. The format was often used for licensed movie tie-ins, and you might think that the format would go well with good old 16:9 or wider films. Not necessarily. Beyond that the cards are a pain in the ass to store, as they don’t fit in standard boxes or pages, there’s the fact that the format feels worthwhile only when the card subject is deserving of the panoramic vista.
These aren’t. For several reasons.
The cards were distributed in boxes of 36 packs, with six cards per. Here’s the very first of the 72 base cards, featuring Vivica A. Fox, Goldblum, Smith and Pullman:
And here’s the back of it, which gives us a handy-dandy breakdown of the set’s content:
The Cast of Characters cards are formatted just like the first one, with narrow profile shots squeezed together. Then the bulk of the set consists of action stills from the movie — what, you were expecting bits from the taut emotional drama? — with the backs featuring a dab of text and photos or storyboards. Some of these cards turn out rather well, like this one of the alien saucers gliding into position over DC:
Of course there’s a card of the White House getting demolished — in fact, there are four of them, so that you can almost make a trading card flip book. They knew what the money shot was. Here’s one:
The biggest problem with the cards is the quality of the photography. You come in expecting that the Widevision format is going to be like putting on glasses for the first time, opening up a whole new world of clarity and scope. Instead, you find that most of the images are grainy and blurry, almost as if instead of using stills from the movie, Topps took pictures of a TV while a tape of it was rolling in the VCR. We all remember the scene where the dog leapt to safety to escape the Los Angeles holocaust, right? Here’s its blurry reproduction:
If there’s a highlight to the set, it’s the production art cards. Production art more often than not trumps what you wind up seeing onscreen, with a certain flavor of unfiltered imagination. Look no further than Ralph McQuarrie’s Star Wars work, which feels like it comes from a slightly different — and somehow better — movie still, forty years on. Doubly true here — no Quaid quips about anal probes in pre-production conceptualization. Anyway, here’s one of the cards, showing man’s first attempt to talk to the aliens via helicopters and flashing lights:
There are six chase cards, one in every nine packs and thus four to a box. They’re therefore not the hardest chase cards to accumulate, which is good, since they’re just as pointless as the Widevision format itself. They’re “holo-foil,” which is an amalgam of a hologram and foil which is neither a hologram nor foil. The best way to describe the effect is that it looks like that sheen that develops on red meat when it’s been left in the fridge for too long. Here’s one of them, showing the giant discs descending towards Earth (and looking a bit like the humpback whales from Star Trek IV):
Like the movie itself, the cards aren’t atrocious, and they aren’t as offensive as other dopey products that card companies churned out in the same time period. The stock is quality, and the graphic design is acceptable. But the Widevision format is a pointless exercise, one doubled down upon with a number of card images that have the crispness of photocopied photocopies. They printed a gazillion of these, so you can find them relatively cheap out there, including on eBay, which is where I bought a couple of boxes last year. Go ahead and get yourself some, if you’re in the mood for a middling set for a passable movie that ushered in a whole lot of garbage.