Independence Day (1996)



Roland Emmerich

Bill Pullman (President Thomas J. Whitmore), Will Smith (Capt. Steve Hiller), Jeff Goldblum (David Levinson), Margaret Colin (Constance Spano), Vivica A. Fox (Jasmine Dubrow), James Rebhorn (Albert Nimziki), Robert Loggia (General William Gray), Judd Hirsch (Julius Levinson), Randy Quaid (Russell Casse)

Alien Invasion

“One of the biggest box-office hits of all time delivers the ultimate encounter when mysterious and powerful aliens launch an all-out invasion against the human race. The spectacle begins when massive spaceships appear in Earth’s skies. But wonder turns to terror as the ships blast destructive beams of fire down on cities all over the planet. Now the world’s only hope lies with a determined band of survivors, uniting for one last strikes against the invaders – before it’s the end of mankind.” – VHS box synopsis

Readers, do you ever feel cynical about the state of our film industry? Does the concept of studios churning out mediocre crap for millions of dollars to the delight of mouth-breathing idiots who gladly go watch them upset you? Do you feel it’s a recent trend? You’re wrong. Big stupid action blockbusters are as old as film itself, they just come in cycles where studios keep throwing money at increasingly bigger more nonsensical spectacle until the bubble bursts and they decide to be cautious again for a while.

But blockbusters do change over time, from the historic and bible epics of the classic era, the science fiction films of the fifties, the disaster movies of the 60s and 70s, new ideas get added to the great unconscious and blockbusters change into something different. The Paul W.S. Andersons and Michael Bays of today really get under peoples’ skin, but the pioneer of that type of explosion-fest cinema made his magnum opus in late 1996 and redefined the stupid blockbuster for decades to come.

The man was German director Roland Emmerich (famous for directing and writing the Jean-Claude Van Damme Terminator-lite action fest Universal Soldier and the movie that even James Spader and Kurt Russell couldn’t save, Stargate) and the movie was Independence Day; ground zero for the lazy-yet-convoluted storytelling, insipid action spectacle, and lame tropes you would come to hate in the Transformers series, Armageddon, Deep Impact, Volcano, and various other big disaster/alien invasion movies.  While Emmerich would spend the rest of his career proving to us all that he could do far worse, the movie was guilty of establishing a lot of what people hate about modern blockbusters, but was inspiration its only sin?

To inspire a trend of bad pop culture is infuriating but that’s not always a condemnation of the originator; Led Zeppelin was the inspiration for hair metal but it’s not generally hated because of it.  It’s always important to look at the cause rather than the effect and it’s very possible that Independence Day could be a perfectly good movie soured by all the imitators that followed.  It isn’t though, Independence Day is absolutely awful all by itself.

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We open as a signal comes in from outer space (the song End of the World by R.E.M. is playing in the background in the film’s most subtle moment) and we bounce around as a bunch of government people talk about how an object the size of the moon is approaching the Earth.  The moonship dislodges a bunch of giant compact discs which hover over every major city on earth.

President Bill Pullman advises people to stay in their homes.  Meanwhile in L.A. Will Smith, an airforce pilot on leave for the 4th of July, gets called in to deal with the potential threat of the aliens much to the chagrin of his stripper girlfriend Vivica A. Fox.  In New York, Jeff Goldblum comes into his job as a TV…  signal…  guy – it’s unimportant, he’s some big smart guy (you know because he’s good at Chess and rides a fixed-gear bike) and discovers that the aliens are using Earth’s satellite to beam a message to each other: a countdown.

Goldblum and his father Judd Hirsch (playing the patron saint of nagging Jewish fathers) drive to DC to warn the president through Goldblum’s ex-wife Margaret Colin.  Goldblum warns Pullman and they narrowly escape on Air Force One as the entire DC metro goes up in flames.  Back in L.A., Vivica A. Fox narrowly escapes a similar city-wide explosion by hiding with her son in the maintenance room of a highway tunnel.  Her dog nearly gets fried in the blastwave but escapes at the last second.

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Will Smith, his comedic sidekick Harry Connick Jr., and a squadron of pilots are going to take the fight back to the aliens but they find out that all the alien craft have impenetrable shields and are thus forced to retreat.  Smith and Connick Jr. escape but Connick Jr. dies and Smith has to crash his jet to get away, in the process causing one of the alien craft to crash too.  Smith approaches the alien ship, socks the extraterrestrial in the face, and drags it through the desert in his parachute.

Will Smith is picked up by Randy Quaid (Playing a paranoid-delusional drunken Vietnam veteran/alleged alien abductee; a role which was a lot funnier when it wasn’t a prophecy of the trajectory of his life) who takes him to a nearby military base which isn’t on the map.

Back on Air Force One, Judd Hirsch brings President Bill Pullman to task about this alien invasion thing saying he should have seen it coming because of the aliens in Area 51.  Pullman tells him, in as nice a way as possible, that he’s a complete fucking idiot only for Head of the CIA James Rebhorn to go “Well, actually…”

So now everyone’s at Area 51 where an excitable and delightfully weird Brent Spiner (the storied thespian responsible for playing Data in Star Trek the Next Generation, Data in Star Trek Generations, Data in Star Trek First Contact, Data in Star Trek Insurrection, and -in a change of pace- Data in Star Trek Nemesis) gives us some information on the aliens and their technology before Will Smith shows up with the unconscious alien.

Spiner leads an autopsy on the alien but it wakes up and murders everyone in the room, using Spiner’s lifeless corpse as a meat puppet to tell its demands to Bill Pullman.  It then attempts some sort of telepathic attack which fails to work when it gets shot to death, for some reason the attack lets Pullman in on their entire plan and so he decides to nuke the ships.

It turns out that nuclear missiles work about as well as regular missiles against the alien ships so Pullman changes his mind and calls off the rest of the bombers.  Humanity is doomed, but then suddenly Jeff Goldblum gets an idea: he wants to take the Roswell craft (which is operational now that the aliens’ power source is near) and fly it to the mothership, wherein he will use his 1996 Apple laptop to implant a virus into the aliens’ systems, crippling the fleet and lowering all their shields.  Will Smith volunteers to fly the craft and they take off to save the day while the rest of humanity scrapes together what pilots they can find (including Bill Pullman and Randy Quaid) to take the attack to one of the ships that’s approaching Area 51.

Surprisingly the plan works and the jet fighters can finally damage the ships, but their missiles can’t do enough damage to take the big one down.  They finally decide to fire missiles at the giant laser-sphincter at the center of the ship as it prepares to fire on the base below, unfortunately nobody has any missiles except Randy Quaid and his won’t fire.

In a moment of selflessness, Quaid says to tell his kids he loves them and flies into the mechanical butthole of doom just as the big glowly laser thingy is about to shoot off, causing the entire ship to blow up.  Instead of just falling out of the sky and crushing all the people that Quaid’s selfless act was meant to protect, the massive ship obligingly glides over into an apparently 15-mile round section of unoccupied desert and smolders triumphantly.

Goldblum and Smith are stuck in the alien spacecraft apparently about to die, but then they just… decide not to, I guess?  They get back up in their seats, fire the nuke, and then escape the alien craft (which you will recall is the size of the moon and its internal layout is entirely unknown to them) in 30 seconds.  The nuke explodes, causing the entire mother-ship to disintegrate into atoms but once again this has no impact on Earth’s atmosphere or oceans.

Everybody gets together and parties because the alien menace is destroyed and they’re now safe to eats barbeques, get drunk, and listen to Fortunate Son whilst celebrating patriotism unironically.  God bless America!  And Earth too, I guess.

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I know that coming out against Independence Day is not exactly a brave stance.  This movie is some of the most low-hanging fruit I can think of, but honestly a surprisingly large amount of this movie does work.

The entire premise is very old-Hollywood calling back to stuff like Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, War of the Worlds, and The Day the Earth Stood Still (which is playing on a TV at one point, reminding us of better movies we could be watching instead) just with a more H.R. Geiger-lite approach to the aliens and no theremin music stingers.  That aspect of this movie, at least, is quite alluring.  The whole idea of the aliens eliminating all our major cities in fiery explosions and then sending out ground troops to murder what’s left of us so that they can strip-mine our planet for natural resources is a pretty great hook.

The characters largely work too.  It’s kind of dumb how everyone pretty much knows each other, Judd Hirsch’s character is borderline offensive but Hirsch makes it work, Randy Quaid has been asked to just play Cousin Eddie as a drunk with a character arc so it’s very much in his wheelhouse, and Margaret Colin and Vivica A. Fox don’t get a lot to do but this is a big Hollywood movie and it was the late ’90s so they’re lucky to even have lines.

Bill Pullman’s president is a pretty great character with a good deal of humanity and he’s the anchor for the story, the closest thing we have to a main character.  He’s an ex fighter pilot and a very young president with something to prove, and he’s really trying to do what’s best for his country.  The moment when he loses his wife and has to deal with going out to face his daughter with the knowledge that her mother will die is genuinely powerful and as kitschy as it may be, I confess that I get a feeling of triumph when he says he’s going to jump back in the cockpit to take the fight to the aliens.

Will Smith is right on the fence between being Will Smith and being an actual actor.  He’s all one-liners but he’s got a few bits of gravitas to chew on when he’s finished with all that scenery.  Similarly, Jeff Goldblum isn’t quite the hero this movie needs, his dramatic scenes never quite land like they should, but his jittery nervous sarcasm is charming and it’s the buddy cop dynamic that he and Smith have in their brief scenes together which make for the movie’s most entertaining moments.

The special effects don’t look great now but they hold up better than a lot of CG from this era and you can tell there was some real work put into them.  This is especially true of the aliens themselves which look familiar yet very unique.  Their skeletal bio-mechanic suits, which contain squid-like tendrils that whip around them, is a chilling effect and the scene of the creature laying waste to the autopsy room is one of the better scenes in the movie, thanks in no small part to Brent Spiner’s delivery of the alien speaking through his character.  The man truly is one of the most underrated actors of our time.

Randy Quaid’s heroic sacrifice is kind of goofy but take heart in knowing that it’s not nearly as dumb as the original plan which had him drunkenly flying his crop-duster plane with an atom bomb attached to the bottom up into the alien death sphincter (a maneuver that would be literally impossible in that aircraft, especially with the added weight on the bottom) in the 11th hour to save the day.

The plot is relentlessly dumb but really no dumber than any other 1990s blockbuster; you can tell me that Terminator 2 or Jurassic Park are smarter movies but you’d be entirely wrong.  The only difference between those movies and this one is that they were directed by industry giants with a bunch of successful movies under their belts who were at the top of their game and this one was directed by the poor man’s Renny Harlin Roland Emmerich.

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As I said, the script is dumb but there are some great moments and I had a hard time figuring out exactly what I found so irksome about this movie until I reflected on it really hard.  The first problem is that there’s no danger: oh sure, a ton of people die in this movie but we never see a single body.  Harry Fierstein’s character dies but the scene is just shy of being played up for laughs, Vivica A. Fox’s coworker dies but I don’t even think she has a name, Will Smith’s comedy relief buddy Harry Connick Jr. dies but it’s pretty unceremonious just getting a “JIMMY NOOOOOOO!” from Smith before the character is never mentioned again.

But hey, the president’s wife dies!  Didn’t I just say that that scene was really powerful and worked well?  It does work, because Bill Pullman sells it so well that you don’t realize how manipulative it is.  You see, we’re lead to believe that the first lady dies in the explosion of Los Angeles, only to find out as Vivica A. Fox drives around the ruins of L.A. looking for survivors that she managed to live with some injuries.  It’s only when president and wife are reunited and the cute little girl celebrates her mother’s return that the first lady is dying of massive internal bleeding.  They bring a character back to life just to make it sadder when she dies for real.

The second problem is the scope of the movie.  Independence Day is a big movie full of explosions and exposition and one-liners and action set-pieces, it makes you not realize that its scope is actually really small.  The film takes place over the course of two days, dealing with aliens’ arrival on the 2nd of July and their defeat early on the 4th.  We only ever see one alien full and proper when it gets loose in Area 51, the rest of the time we’re dealing with the giant CDs and the little pew-pew attack fighters.  Goldblum and Smith notice a sizable infantry preparing to be deployed on the mothership but we never get to that point, and that’s a shame because that would have been a much more exciting movie.

As cool as it is to watch F-16s duking it out with star-fighters, I would much rather have watched ground troops fighting it out with exo-suited telepathic squid warriors.  I can only hope that there’s a lot more of that in the new sequel because if nothing else, the aliens look great and I feel they could be used to greater effect.

The third problem is the movie’s message.  Believe it or not, this movie does have its share of defenders even among fellow movie snobs.  The defense is pretty much only brought up in Bill Pullman’s rousing pre-battle speech where he says that the 4th of July will no longer be an American holiday and that it will be a celebration of Earth’s independence from the tyranny of the aliens.  See?  It’s about globalization!  That’s some beautiful Clinton-era dreaming right there, but here’s why that interpretation is bullshit.

Sure, it’s about the entire world fighting the aliens which is why the entire movie takes place in America (save some token shots of CD ships hovering over other countries), all the characters are American, the Americans move the entire plot along and are the only ones who figure out a solution to the problem, and it takes place on and is named after the most American holiday of them all.  This isn’t everyone banding together to stop the alien menace, this is America going “It’s okay bros, I got this!  Let’s be buddies, come on over and get in the hot tub!”  The message is not that we can work together, it’s that all you lesser countries can have some America too and we’ll tow you along on our coattails.

In many ways Independence Day has the same message as Red Dawn, and it’s not a whole lot more subtle in delivering it, it just hides it behind a vague cushy rallying cry that probably seems a lot more arrogant to people watching this movie from other countries.

Independence Day is both a slightly better and much worse movie than its reputation lets on.  It’s not the worst movie that Roland Emmerich would make (those lay ominously on the horizon for this column) but it is one of the first truly disastrous blockbusters of our era and it’s a shame that such a forgettable movie still remains in the public’s memory.

Independence Day is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Amazon Instant.

“What’s the matter, never seen a grown man naked?”

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