Friday, July 03, 2015

From the Archive: Independence Day (1996)


"In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind. "Mankind." That word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can't be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it's fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom. Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution, but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: "We will not go quietly into the night!" We will not vanish without a fight! We're going to live on! We're going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day! "

- President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) delivers an historic address in Independence Day (1996).


Independence Day (1996) remains one of the big “event” movies of the 1990s, a sci-fi blockbuster of monumental, almost unimaginable proportions.  The crowd-pleasing film successfully tapped into the decade’s unending fascination with aliens and UFOs (The X-Files, for example) and significantly augmented that interest too, resulting in a slew of further alien films and TV programs from Dark Skies (1996) to Men in Black (1997).

As an inside-the-industry cautionary tale, Independence Day also represented the (unfortunate) cementing of the Emmerich/Devlin blockbuster “formula” -- a revival of 1970s disaster film tropes.  This format would meet its Waterloo in 1998’s Godzilla, but nonetheless continues right into this decade with films such as the dreadful 2012 (2010).

Of all the Emmerich genre fare, I’m most fond of 1994’s Stargate, as it seems to strike the right balance between spectacle and intelligence.  After that film’s release, the scales in further efforts kept tipping towards spectacle and away from brains, and so the ensuing films suffer mightily for the imbalance. 

That established, I was certainly part of the enthusiastic audience for Independence Day upon its summer release, and I still remember how great the film looked on the big screen.  A recent re-watch confirms how terrific the miniature effects remain.  The scenes of awesome alien saucers lumbering to position over major world cities -- though obviously reminiscent of Kenneth Johnson’s V (1984) -- remain downright staggering.

What ages Independence Day most significantly, instead, is the pervasive shtick and the schmaltzy, sentimentality-drenched characters. At every step of the way during its narrative, Independence Day punctures its end-of-the-world majesty and gravitas with low humor and over-the-top sentimentality, qualities which today render the whole affair close to camp. 

Science fiction fans, of course, experienced conniption fits over Independence Day’s unlikely finale: a third act which sees an Earth-produced computer virus successfully uploaded to an alien computer aboard a mother-ship, thus giving humans the opportunity to strike back…on July 4th, no less. 

The movie doesn’t pay even lip service to the idea that aliens from another solar system might have developed anti-virus software (!), let alone computer systems totally incompatible with our 20th century Earth technology. 

Given how badly things go for Earth in the first hour of Independence Day, it’s difficult to countenance the film’s final veer into outright fantasy as every heroic campaign – with split-second timing – comes together perfectly.

Despite my misgivings about the film’s humor, sentimentality, and narrative resolution, however, I still find the grave, apocalyptic, anxiety-provoking tone of Independence Day’s first hour worthwhile, especially the President’s grim choice to deploy nuclear weapons in an American city to drive off the aliens.   

It would be absolutely foolish to deny, too, that some of Independence Day’s imagery has become iconic in the annals of cinema history.  We all remember that portentous shot of hovering saucer pulping the White House for instance.  Thus -- even while criticizing this over-sized beast -- I've got to give the Devil his due for getting matters right on a visual terms

In terms of theme, Independence Day works overtime to remind all of us that although we are separated by oceans and other Earthly partitions, we are all nonetheless citizens of the same planet. It’s a laudable message in an age of hyper-partisanship to be certain, even if delivered with little nuance or subtlety.  This through-line in the film is consistently and well-conveyed, both in terms of incident and in the make-up of the diverse dramatis personae.  Who would have imagined our precious Earth could be saved by a war veteran, a drunk crop-duster, a Jewish cable repairman and an African-American fighter pilot?

Movie critics were understandably divided on Independence Day.  At The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote: “Guess what: "Independence Day" lives up to expectations in a rush of gleeful, audience-friendly exhilaration, with inspiring notions of bravery that depart nicely from the macho cynicism of this movie season. Its innocence and enthusiasm are so welcome that this new spin on "Star Wars" is likely to wreak worldwide box-office havoc, the kind that will make the space aliens' onscreen antics look like small change.

Writing for The Washington Post, Rita Kempley opined: "Independence Day" is primarily a $70 million kid's toy, a star-spangled excess of Roman candles and commando games designed to draw repeat business from 9- to 12-year-old boys. Little girls won't find any role models among the barnstormers, though a plucky exotic dancer is featured among the heroines. Even with the end of the world in sight, she shakes her booty. It's for her kid. No, really.  Maybe the moviemakers' mission was to boldly go where everyone in Hollywood has gone before: the bank.

Honestly, I can see both sides of the critical equation in this case. Independence Day is such dumb fun, and yet fun nonetheless.

“A toast...to the end of the world.”


The people of planet Earth watch with anxiety and wonder as three-dozen alien saucers descend from orbital space to take up positions over cities around the globe.  President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), a former jet pilot in Desert Storm, advises calm, but new information from genius cable repair man David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) suggests the alien ships have initiated a countdown and are preparing a coordinated attack.

As the countdown ends, Levinson’s suspicions are confirmed, and the alien ships destroy Los Angeles, Washington D.C., New York and other population hubs. President Whitmore survives the attack on the Oval Office and escapes by Air Force One.  He promptly orders a retaliatory strike.  Pilot, top-gun, and would-be astronaut Steven Hiller (Will Smith) downs an alien ship during battle, and captures one of the fearsome aliens for study.  The rest of the fight, however, is a rout, and the U.S. jets are unable to penetrate alien shields.  Humanity stands upon the edge of extinction.

The President visits the secret military base at Area 51, and learns there that scientists there have been experimenting with an alien ship for close to fifty years.  When Hiller arrives, the President attempts to communicate with Hiller's captured alien, but finds the being implacably hostile.  The aliens, he soon learns, are like locusts.  They travel from solar system to solar system using up planetary systems and then moving on…leaving only carnage and waste in their wake.

After nuclear weapons prove ineffective against the aliens, President Whitmore is at a loss how to save the planet, or the human race.  But David comes through again.  He believes he can take the captured alien ship at Area 51 to the mother-ship and upload a computer virus there, thus bringing down alien shields…at least for a few minutes.  When Steven volunteers to fly that risky mission, it’s up to the President himself to coordinate and lead a huge aerial attack against the alien saucers, both in America, and world-wide…

It's a fine line between standing behind a principle and hiding behind one. You can tolerate a little compromise, if you're actually managing to get something accomplished.


For a film about such a terrifying topic – an alien invasion – Independence Day frequently plays thing...light.  At least a half-dozen major supporting characters in the film are defined by their shtick. Judd Hirsch plays a nagging Jewish Dad, Julius Levinson, and his lines and delivery are pure Borscht Belt ham-bone.   Harvey Fierstein plays another kitschy character, Marty, who hams it up and makes jokes about his therapist and his (presumably overbearing...) mother.  Harry Connick Jr. portrays a cocksure pilot who provides the film at least one dopey gay joke.

But the worst character is likely Randy Quaid’s Russell Casse, a drunken crop-duster (and alien abductee) who joins the air battle against the aliens during the film's denouement.  Quaid’s dialogue is so incredibly dreadful that it has become the stuff of legend and MST3K fodder.  “I picked the wrong day to stop drinking,” springs immediately to mind. 

Among all these actors hamming it up and stealing time, Brent Spiner likely fares the best as aging ex-hippie and scientist Dr. Okun. Spiner comes off as weird and eccentric, but not so dreadfully hammy that you want to turn away from the screen in shame for watching.  His last scene -- played with alien tentacles pressing against his larynx -- is also genuinely unsettling.

Why do I have a problem with the film's pervasive moments of low humor?  Well, Independence Day already boasts Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith continually cracking wise in leading roles.  Their dialogue is dreadful too, from "Welcome to Earth" to "Now that's what I call a close encounter!"  Given all this material from our leads, do we really need Judd Hirsch, Harvey Fierstein, Harry Connick Jr., Randy Quaid and even Brent Spiner dishing out lame one liners too?  The ubiquitous nature of these characters makes Independence Day, at times, resemble an overblown sitcom.  Maybe if the material were stronger, these characters would not seem so objectionable. I guess what I'm saying, is that these moments are rarely actually funny.

Another weak character is Secretary of Defense Nimzicki (James Rebhorn), a man who in one scene advises the full scale nuking of many American cities, but in a later scene argues against a “risky” maneuver to attack the alien mother-ship and upload the virus.  His objections to the (ultimately) successful plan make no sense, and aren’t consistent with the “war hawk” image he projects in the film all along; a guy who advises going to Def-Con 2 before the President has made his final decision.  Instead, Nimzicki is contradictory simply so the audience can boo at him, and the President can dress him down…thus appearing tough and resolute. 


While I have real disdain for much of the writing and characterization in Independence Day, I do feel that the film's visuals often still shock, and often still carry real emotional resonance.  One shot, set on July 3rd, reveals the Statue of Liberty toppled, face down in the harbor...a massive saucer hovering low in the sky.  Colored in autumnal browns,  this is a terrifying composition of American culture annihilated.  

It’s tough indeed to compete with the amazing Statue of Liberty imagery of Planet of the Apes, yet this moment in Independence Day remains quite upsetting.    The film is also anxiety-provoking in the way it reveals American military might crushed before a more technologically-advanced enemy.  The battle sequences, the nuclear option, and other heavy moments are all deeply scary because one realizes that if America can’t save the world…the world ain’t getting saved.  Indeed, Independence Day plays up the alien threat so successfully in terms of spectacular visuals and special effects that there’s almost no way the scripted, climactic victory can ring true.  It’s like we’ve slipped into an alternate movie or something.


The first half of Independence Day is undeniably the strongest, as alien saucers push through storm and cloud fronts, and emerge over our cities, casting dark shadows upon bewildered and amazed populations.  These moments continue to impress, and pack an almost visceral gut punch.  We’ve all wondered if, one day, we’ll wake up to something like this imagery…a new dawn in which we learn definitively we are no longer alone.   As much as I deride Independence Day’s silly humor and bad dialogue, I have no quibbles whatsoever with the way that these scenes of “arrival” are vetted.  As I said in my introduction, many of these scenes still carry a staggering punch.

From its first shots to its final ones, Independence Day also makes an interesting point about mankind being unified by a threat from the outside.  The film opens with imagery of a plaque on the moon which reads “We came in peace for all mankind.”  That’s a wonderful thought, the movie seems to suggest, but then the filmmakers set up a paradigm by which that hopeful expression of common cause is tested.  Suddenly, all mankind must work together to defeat the alien threat, putting competition and petty differences aside.  This idea is expressed through scenes set in Iraq, the location of America’s most recent war (Gulf War I).  There, in the desert, British and Iraqi soldiers join the battle against the mother ships.  The implication of such scenes is that mankind is indeed capable of working together.


The same idea is presented in the film in the (positive) character of President Whitmore.  Before the alien crisis, he is viewed not as a warrior, but as a “wimp.”  He can’t even get his Crime Bill passed by a hostile Congress.  Whitmore laments that “it’s just not simple, anymore” and that people don’t seem to understand that compromise is the only path towards moving everyone ahead, together.  He then works with the nations of the world to defeat the aliens, and in the process transforms an American holiday into an Earth holiday.   Again, the message implicit in Independence Day is that we can apply ourselves to solve big problems, not just alien invasions.  Why can’t we all band together to keep our neighbors and our neighbors' children from starving?  Or to eliminate poverty?  Once we acknowledge our common humanity, petty partisan differences shouldn’t really matter, should they?

In this sense, Independence Day -- set in part on July 4th -- acknowledges a new, evolved brand of patriotism.  It is a patriotism not merely to party or to one nation, but to all of humanity.  As a fan of Star Trek and a person who believes we can achieve great things if we sometimes accept compromise, I appreciate the film’s ultimate message of hope about human nature.  This consistently-applied theme almost mollifies my concerns about the film’s ridiculous and ill-conceived conclusion, and the surfeit of characters who spew cliché after cliché, bad joke after bad joke.  Almost, but not quite.    Still, I know I'm spitting in the wind against an 800 million dollar blockbuster, a veritable entertainment machine.

So am I a hopeless sentimental for recognizing Independence Day’s entertainment and social value, even amidst so many stupid groaners and moments of cynical, calculated humor?  

Or, like Randy Quaid's character...did I just pick the wrong day to stop drinking?

3 comments:

  1. John,
    I revisited this film about a week ago and enjoyed it immensely. I find that in spite of the camp and the kitsch, it still holds up. There are so many small moments in the movie, attention to character detail that simply aren't seen today. Characters are unapologetically who they are, not snark boxes we find on cinema screens today.
    Harvey Fierstein saying "Oh, crap!" or Judd Hirsch saying "Nobody's perfect" are perfectly in character and memorable. I cannot remember a single line of dialogue from Jurassic World, for instance. The problem with switching your brain off when seeing a movie is you may not be able to switch it back on if it's off for too long.
    Independence Day isn't trying to be profound or deep. It's pure fun. I can still remember seeing it in the theatre with a crowd that was shouting, clapping and enjoying every second. None of the deaths are gratuitous or disturbing (such as the British caretaker girl in Jurassic World - what on earth did she do to deserve a Bond villain's death?). It doesn't take itself too seriously, and I love it for that.
    I wish more summer blockbusters were as rousing as ID4. I'd take this over ten more movies featuring CGI people running for their lives as the world explodes around them. Any Independence Day of the week.
    Steve

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  2. I am happy see his posted if for nothing else to remind everyone just how successful this movie was back in '96, and yet nobody today will even admit to seeing it, let alone enjoying it. Like you said, the imagery remains haunting. But the thin/sitcom story approach has not aged well. When you have naturally funny actors the humor should flow out from the characters, No need for groaning shtick and cheesy one-liners. For me the Roland Emmerich disaster style hit its peak with "The Day After Tomorrow". Aside from the awful scene with the digital wolves aboard the ship, that movie really works for me in terms of the characters and the narrative resolution. A much more serious (and better) film than "Independence Day".

    Yeah, you are so right about the first hour if. I always thought you could have ended the movie somewhere right after that and made it a pilot/first episode of a TV series/mini series about the remaining survivors and how they cope, Kind of a V/Falling Skies type show.

    I fully admit to loving Bill Pullman's speech. It still gives me a thrill.

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  3. What's sad is the virus thing is completely doable given what the film provides. They had an alien ship for decades. Instead of having the research team be all, "duh we got nothin", at least have them running a model of the alien OS in a virtual machine. They know about the virus countermeasures, but can't find a way around it. Then it's Goldblum who come along and provides the final key to sneak a virus in. The MacBook is just carrying a copy of the virus running in the virtual machine with a jury rigged hardware interface into the ship's communication system. They just need to open a channel and the virus does what it's designed to do. Maybe... That would even lend to the whole Hail Mary feel of the effort.

    The problem is the pervasive Hollywood trope of everyone but "our heroes" having to have sub-80 IQs.

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