Independence Day (1996)

Director: Roland Emmerich

Starring: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Margaret Colin, Randy Quaid, Robert Loggia, James Rebhorn, Harvey Fierstein

It was twenty years ago today that I sat down inside of an absolutely packed movie theater for my first look at that summer’s big blockbuster hit, the alien invasion film “Independence Day.” That I should revisit it on this day has more to do with that anniversary, my acknowledgement that I’m that much older now, and my nostalgia for the film than it does with the franchise’s recent ‘resurgence.’ The term ‘blockbuster’ doesn’t mean near as much now as it did back in 1996. The hype surrounding this movie was beyond ridiculous. We’d all seen the image of the White House being blown to smithereens dozens of times over before the movie was even released, and this was a full decade before the invention of YouTube. With few exceptions, I don’t know of too many movies being released today that have been capable of provoking the same level of anticipation.

The movie takes place over the course of three days… which, if you’re keeping score, means that the war between mankind and a space-faring alien race takes ends far more quickly than any wars we fight among ourselves. Like a scene right out of the “V” miniseries, the alien spacecraft enter our atmosphere without much warning, scaring the bejesus out of most while fascinating the rest. “Independence Day” features what may be the most honest response to discovering that we are not alone which I have ever seen on film. Sure, you have the typical “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” crowd who stand around with both their jaws and their arms wide open, but there’s also the panicked masses who are in such a hurry to get the heck out of town that they will toss their belongings out the window toward their waiting cars, while subsequently crashing into other vehicles due either to being unable to see the obstruction or just because they’re in so much of a hurry that they won’t wait for traffic. Add to that one particular news report discouraging viewers from firing their guns at the alien ships. If this were going on for real, I’d expect all of this behavior.

David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) believes he knows the cause of all the satellite disruption: The aliens are on a countdown to an attack. He gets his father to drive him to the White House (since David, the health nut, only has a much slower bicycle to get from point A to point B ), and convinces his ex-wife Connie (Margaret Colin), the White House Press Secretary, to allow him to talk with President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) about what he thinks he knows. The President doesn’t act on David’s advice immediately; it’s only after three helicopter pilots have died that Whitmore decides to evacuate the city. It’s about this time that the alien spaceships all begin to open simultaneously. Any remaining idiots… I mean bystanders… are treated to a fancy blue light show and then… BOOM!!! One shot immediately obliterates the national landmarks that each craft is parked over, and the resulting fiery shock wave takes care of the rest. It’s by some great bloody miracle (and a poor display of the laws of physics) that Air Force One escapes unharmed. Perhaps the creepiest image of the entire film comes when we are shown the aftermath of the attack in New York City: the Statue of Liberty is seen toppled over in the foreground, while the World Trade Center towers are in flames in the background. Yeesh…

The next day, we don’t fare much better. An entire squadron of Marine Corps pilots is taken down easily by the heavily-shielded aliens. The only surviving pilot, Capt. Steven Hiller (Will Smith), manages to bring one of his enemies down with him and drags the alien through the burning desert until he’s met by a caravan of survivors led by former alien abductee Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), who give him a ride to Area 51. Air Force One heads there, too and, once all are there, they meet with Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner). The doctor is pleased as punch that they’ve brought a live specimen for him to examine. Pity the doctor neglected to sedate the creature. You can guess what happens next. When our heroes arrive on the scene of the carnage, the alien speaks to them through Dr. Okun (who is quite clearly already dead) through some form of telepathy. When President Whitmore attempts to negotiate, he is told in no uncertain terms that what the aliens want us to do nothing more than just die.

On July 4th, after what has to be the winner for the most mind-blowing instance of a random idea hatching from an unrelated comment, David come up with a plan to plant a computer virus into the alien mother ship, in the hopes that it will give everyone down on Earth time enough to take down the city-leveling monstrosities hovering overhead. The President gathers all the survivors with piloting experience and gives them an uplifting speech. David and Capt. Hiller, the would-be NASA astronaut who is finally living his dream of going into space, volunteer to upload the computer virus. The upload is successful, though I’m not sure quite how. It’s hard enough trying to get Macs and PCs to talk to each other!

An alien ship approaches Area 51, and so the President and his pilots go in for the kill. Their missiles don’t do near enough damage, though, and they find it difficult to hit the aliens’ primary weapon, which has been engaged. Eventually, the only man left with a missile is Russell Casse. The missile won’t fire, however, and so Russell opts for a heroic suicide flight directly into a collision course with the aliens’ weapon, causing a chain reaction that completely destroys the alien ship. I’ve heard a lot of people compare this scene to that of Bugs Bunny plugging up the barrel of Elmer Fudd’s gun with his fingers. I get why, but I have to say I’ve never had a problem with it. I’ve always seen it as just a matter of the weapon ironically being the aliens’ Achilles heel. David and Capt. Hiller also manage to destroy the mother ship, and we’ve finally won the day.

“Independence Day” is a tribute not only to the flying saucer films of the 1950’s, but also the star-studded disaster films of the 1970’s. It owes so much to “War of the Worlds” that it may be the reason why Steven Spielberg waited until 2005 to do his own remake of the H.G. Wells classic. An admittedly flawed movie, “Independence Day” nevertheless rises above its silly plot thanks its terrific ensemble cast, in particular Jeff Goldblum and the scenery-chewing Will Smith. The score by David Arnold is as genuinely uplifting as it is memorable. Like any decent alien invasion/disaster popcorn flick, “Independence Day” is also really good at building tension, piling adversity on top of adversity for our heroes to dig themselves out from underneath. I’ve seen this movie more times in the last two decades than I can personally count, but I always have fun with it. If it shows up on television, I’m compelled to watch. Though the event movie is slowly going out of style, this one’s still guaranteed to raise a smile.

  1. Sylvia williams says:

    Excellent review that points out why we still look back fondly at this movie in spite if a few flaws!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s