The Film: Independence Day (1996)

The Principals: Director: Roland Emmerich, Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Margaret Colin, Robert Loggia, Randy Quaid, James Duval, Judd Hirsch, Mary McDonnell, Vivica A. Fox, James Rebhorn, Harvey Fierstein, Adam Baldwin, Brent Spiner, Harry Connick, Jr., Kiersten Warren, Mae Whitman.

The Premise: Aliens in city-sized mother ships descend upon the major cities of Earth on the weekend of July 4th in a coordinated attack with only one purpose: to exterminate mankind so they can claim the resources of the planet for themselves.  The mother ships’ attacks completely destroy the cities above which they hover, including L.A., New York, and Washington, D.C.  Their mother ships and their fighters are protected by energy shields that are impervious to all of our weapons, including nukes; and the majority of the world’s military forces are destroyed when we attempt a counterattack.  As our fate looks increasingly grim, a small pocket of refugees holed up at Area 51, including President Whitmore (Pullman), Marine pilot, Captain Steven Hiller (Smith), and underachieving scientist, David Levinson (Goldblum), execute a risky plan devised by Levinson in order to level the playing field against the aliens and give us one last fighting chance to avoid complete annihilation.

Is It Good: Despite the fact that it borrowed the majority of its plot from such sci-fi classics as War of the Worlds and V, and the characters were as thin as a skin graft, to me it’s still a fun bit of escapism that has held up well over the years.  The Oscar-winning special effects were dazzling 15 years ago and still look good.  This is simply the best purely popcorn movie that I ever saw in a theatre.  Premiering right on the cusp of the internet boom, ID4 managed to remain largely unspoiled.  I had just moved to LA in 1996 and I remember that during the Super Bowl (you know, the one where Neil O’Donnell gift-wrapped the MVP to Larry Brown and the game to the Cowboys), the commercial came on and just floored everybody with the visual of exploding the shit out of the White House.

With Pullman giving one of the most straight-faced and cheese-filled inspirational film speeches ever, ID4 slathered on the Americana and for those who aren’t Yanks, it’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t at least something to come out of seeing the film liking.  Sure ID4 has its haters, but man, come on.  If you saw it that opening weekend, with a pumped up crowd as I did (I caught it in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre), you had to have walked out of that film jazzed .  Multiple repeat viewings haven’t dimmed my love for the film and it’s one I still like to revisit, if only to watch the destruction and the jet fighter vs. alien attacker battles.

Re: the writing and the acting…sure, yeah, they’re simplistic.  This isn’t a film to study for character depth.  And he feasibility of the PC interface with the alien computer system was laughably hamfisted, admittedly.  But what the hell did I know back then?  I’d never even had the dough to own a computer.   But give Emmerich and co-writer Dean Devlin a little credit, they did manage to juggle a gaggle of characters, even if their collective depth was somewhere around a dried up kiddie pool.  But the build up in the first act was great, the two major alien battles delivered in spades and the destruction of the cities was awesome.  Despite six years of Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Will Smith was still as green as the Hulk;  Goldblum was doing Smart Guy Character #3,147; and Pullman and his gravelly-voiced chief exec made you want to go out and kill some friggin’ aliens.  Throw in Harvey Fierstein (a real gravelly voice), Judd Hirsch kvetching all over the place, James Rebhorn’s sliminess, Brent Spiner finally letting his hair down, and Randy Quaid giving us a glimpse of his future self and what’s not to like?

ID4 was a great summer tentpole movie and, aside from Groundhog Day, I still don’t think I’ve ever seen a film (in a theatre mind you)  that was more appropriate for its holiday than this.  No horror movie during Halloween nor a feel-good Christmas movie delivered like ID4 did on July 4th.  But if The Happening had been released on Arbor Day, maybe…

Is It Worth A Look: Yep.

Random Anecdotes: Saw this on opening night, July 2, 1996, with my buddy at Grauman’s Chinese.  For some reason, he wanted to stop at the local Rocket Video and as a result we were running crazy late to the theatre.  There’s a parking garage a block south of the Chinese, but it was a given that that close to premiere time, it was going to be packed.  And street parking around the Chinese was a surer bet to be nonexistent.  But, in what will never be repeated as long as I live, we pulled up and found a spot right at the corner across from the street from the theatre and freaked at that bit of Providence.  We ran in and enjoyed the most pumped-up theatre crowd I’ve ever been a part of.  We were clapping and cheering at all the expected moments and a bunch of the unexpected.  The main alien ship got nuked and that place went completely apeshit.

Cinematic Soulmates: 2012,  Godzilla, War of the Worlds