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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.