Released: 3 July 1996
Director: Roland Emmerich
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $75 million
Stars: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, Margaret Colin, and Randy Quaid
When a series of flying saucers suddenly appear over and attack every major city across the world, United States President Thomas Whitmore (Pullman) is forced to mount a desperate counterattack alongside a rag-tag resistance, including ungainly MIT-educated satellite engineer David Levison (Goldblum) and gung-ho Marine F/A-18 pilot and aspiring astronaut Captain Steven Hiller (Smith).
It’s easy to forget now but, back in the late-nineties, the writer/producer/director team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin were a hot commodity in Hollywood, especially after the box office success of Stargate (ibid, 1994); in fact, it was during the promotion of Stargate that the two came up with the concept for Independence Day, an alien invasion movie that they intended to be based more around a large-scale, co-ordinated attack rather than subterfuge. Featuring cutting edge special effects to render the aliens’ devastating attack upon numerous iconic American landmarks, Independence Day (confusingly saddled with the subtitle ID4) was the highest-grossing film of 1996 and made nearly $820 million at the box office. Although receiving some criticisms, the film was generally well-received, won numerous awards, and kicked off a resurgence in blockbuster disaster movies, which quickly became the trademark of Emmerich and Devlin, before finally getting a long-awaited sequel some twenty years later.
If there’s one thing Independence Day does really well, especially for its first half or so, it’s build up a great deal of tension regarding the alien invaders; we get a sense of the size of the alien mothership right away when it passes by the Moon and causes ripples on the surface. Almost immediately, the alien signal is picked up by the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (S.E.T.I.) and the American military begins to mobilise (more like scramble) to figure out what, exactly, is about to enter Earth’s orbit. Though the alien mothership, and the subsequent city-sized saucers, are somewhat simplistic and cliché in their “flying saucer” design, there’s a foreboding, ominous nature to their construction and you can tell, even before they start blasting away at major American landmarks and cities, that these E.T.’s are not here to make peace.
Naturally, the U.S. President is the figurehead for trying to calm the nation and sort out first a plan of communication and then, later, a plan of attack. At the start of the film, Whitmore is facing political backlash since he’s been forced to make a lot of compromises since being elected to office; with many in even his cabinet believing him to be a weak and ineffectual leader, Whitmore is eager to keep the peace and to not set off an interstellar war but finds himself caught completely off-guard when the aliens unleash their devastating attack. It’s an interesting leading role for Pullman, one that sees him having to juggle a myriad of conflicting emotions as Whitmore struggles to find a way to please everyone and hold together himself, his family, and the nation in the threat of global annihilation. It also, of course, results in one of the most iconic rousing speeches in all of cinema as Whitmore inspires the last remnants of humanity to strike back against their aggressors in a last-ditch attempt at survival.
Compounding matters is the personal animosity between him and David; some time prior to the film, David punched Whitmore after suspecting him of having an affair with his then-wife, Constance “Connie” Spano (Colin). David, who is something of a technological prodigy, is able to decode the alien signal and determine that they are planning a co-ordinated attack but, while he is able to ensure that Whitmore, the Joint Chiefs, and Connie are evacuated safely, his warnings come too late to actually stop the initial attack. David, despite being little more than a cable repair man, is constantly portrayed as the smartest person in the room; a committed environmentalist, David is driven to help others and to save the world despite his emotional attachment to Connie and his frosty relationship with Whitmore and, although he’s not a member of the Presidential cabinet, he quickly becomes an instrumental figure in figuring out how to outsmart and outgun the invaders.
When the aliens arrive, the U.S. military is, understandably, put on high alert; as a direct result, Hiller finds his leave cancelled and he begrudgingly returns to his regiment; in many ways, the aliens’ arrival means big things for Hiller, who wishes to become an astronaut but had his application rejected, potentially because of his relationship with stripper Jasmine Dubrow (Vivica A. Fox). Hiller enthusiastically joins the first counterattack against the aliens and is left the sole survivor from the campaign, which is doomed to fail thanks to the aliens’ superior technology and firepower. It’s important to remember that, at this point, Smith was still largely known for being the goofball Will from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990 to 1996) but Independence Day really helped to cement him as a charismatic leading man, especially in action vehicles such as this film. Though much of his gung-ho character is ripped from the likes of Top Gun (Scott, 1986), Smith brings a magnetism and down-to-earth likability to the role and his sass is, as always, especially on point to deliver some of the more entertaining, and quotable, moments of the film.
While there are a number of female characters including in Independence Day, they are all largely there to simply support, and worry for, the men in their lives; even Jasmine, who is briefly seen as being a proactive and adaptable character, is quickly side-lined once the men of the film put aside their issues to formulate a viable counterattack. Compounding this is the fact that Independence Day is also bolstered by several additional characters, chief among them is Russell Casse (Quaid), a drunkard who claims to have been abducted by aliens some years prior. Russell, and his trailer park family, represent the normal, everyday people in a film largely made up of governmental, military, or other specialists but their story is perhaps the least compelling of all the characters in the film since, while it has a redemptive arc to it, they lack the magnetism and presence of the likes of Goldblum and Smith.
Other supporting characters include General William Grey (Robert Loggia), Whitmore’s chief supporter after Connie, Secretary of Defence Albert Nimzicki (James Rebhorn), the cliché pushy politician who continually clashes with Whitmore and the others and advocates first for an immediate military response to the invaders and for the deployment of nuclear weapons, and Julius Levinson (Hirsch), David’s overbearing and pragmatic father and one of the standout supporting characters for his characteristic Jewish twang, the entertaining banter between him and David, and the brief injection of uncompromising faith he brings to the proceedings amidst all the chaos and technobabble. One of the more emotional sub-plots in the film involves the tragic death of Whitmore’s wife, Marilyn Whitmore (Mary McDonnell), which is one of the few named character deaths that is actually acknowledged and has a lasting impact since the film is full of mass death and destruction and the focus is generally more on soldiering through the tragedy rather than dwelling upon it.
Naturally, an important part of Independence Day is patriotism and duty; although other countries are briefly mentioned and even seen much later in the film, it is the U.S. who lead the fight against the aliens and the closest it gets to being any kind of diverse or multinational effort is the inclusion of a couple of Jewish and Mexican characters. Instead, the focus is solely on America and how they deal with the crisis; we only see American cities being attacked and other countries appear to be both clueless and leaderless until David is able to present a viable counterattack option and the U.S. rallies the remnants of humanity across the world into action.
Still, if you’re not American or much of a patriot, like me, there’s one main appealing factor to Independence Day that, even now, continues to impress and that is the depiction of wide scale destruction and devastation. As if having gigantic, city-sized spaceships wasn’t bad enough, the invaders also have impenetrable energy shields, massive Death Star-like cannons mounted beneath their crafts that can obliterate entire city blocks in a single blast, and a seemingly endless supply of smaller attack ships that are faster, heavily armed, and also sport their own energy shields. Thanks to a combination of miniatures, cutting edge CGI, and some clever camera tricks, Independence Day delivers some of the most devastating scenes of widespread destruction ever put to cinema, especially at the time; even now, the shot of the White House being blown to smithereens is an effective and iconic effect that every subsequent disaster movie since has attempted to out-do or replicate in some way.
Additionally, Independence Day features one of the most unique alien designs in all of cinema; far from the stereotypical “Grey Aliens”, these invaders are large, biomechanical warriors intent solely on conquering the world through brute force. For most of the film, the aliens’ appearance is, smartly, left a mystery; when they are first seen, they are a horrific mess of tentacles and sport a gruesome, skull-like visage. After the story moves to Area 51, we learn more about the alien’s physiology from Doctor Brackish Okun (Brent Spiner in a memorable, scenery-chewing role) and that they are, actually, just as vulnerable and fragile as we are but are heavily protected by their advanced technology. The aliens also exhibit incredible physical strength, durability, and a degree of psychic ability since they can speak through Okun and project images of their intended plans for the Earth into Whitmore’s head.
So great is the alien threat that they are able to decimate a large majority of the United States (and, presumably, the world) in just a couple of days, reducing humanity to a rag-tag group of survivors with few resources and even fewer chances of survival. Thankfully, the survivors cobble together one of the most ridiculous and convenient plans in all of cinema history when Hiller volunteers to pilot a crashed alien spacecraft (the one from Roswell, of course!) up to the alien mothership so that David can upload a computer virus (using an Apple PowerBook, naturally!) to momentarily disable the otherwise-impenetrable alien shields. Even now, it’s absolutely bonkers and shifts the film from a desperate scramble for survival and into a massive military counterattack but it works purely because Smith and Goldblum have undeniable chemistry together; in fact, their characters are so enjoyable that it’s a shame they weren’t paired up sooner (though, having said that, it almost feels like the two should have given their lives to destroy the mothership as the film suggests purely because their scene in this moment is so poignant and it would have greatly added to the emotional impact of the finale).
Independence Day was a massive deal back in the day; the teasers and trailers alone were enough to hype it as the must-see blockbuster event of the year, to say nothing of the toys and various other merchandise made to promote the film. For my generation, especially, there had never really been a film like it; The War of the Worlds (Haskin, 1953) was a bit before our time and disaster movies had pretty much died out by the end of the seventies. Than, all at once, both of these genres came together in an exhilarating way; bolstered by charismatic performances by the likes of Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum (always a personal favourite of mine), Independence Day may seem quite dated and trivial now but it was the real deal at the time and has easily become one of the most influential and memorable alien invasion movies in all of cinema thanks to it kick-starting a resurgence in disaster and alien invasion movies. Obviously, it’s a preposterous, almost nonsensical movie at times that asks for some pretty big leaps in logic and is far more about spectacle than substance but it’s still an impressive and entertaining film in its own right and easily the best production from the Emmerich/Devlin team even today.
What are your thoughts on Independence Day? Did you get caught up in the hype back in the day? Did you enjoy the mindless destruction and overly patriotic undertones or were you, perhaps, put off by the cliché characters and more questionable plot holes? What did you think to the performances of the lead actors and the depiction of wide-scale destruction? What are your thoughts on the aliens, their design and technology, and the way the film handled the invasion? What are your plans for Independence Day today? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to leave a comment down below.