A film review by Craig J. Koban




10th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1996, PG-13, 145 mins.


Capt. Steven Hiller: Will Smith / The President: Bill Pullman / David: Jeff Goldblum / Marilyn: Mary McDonnell / Julius: Judd Hirsch / Russell: Randy Quaid

Directed By Roland Emmerich / Written By Emmerich and Dean Devlin

The marketing behind the 1996 sci-fi, popcorn thriller INDEPENDENCE DAY should have received some sort of special Academy Award for Best Achievement in "Instantly Hooking a Viewer’s Interest."  

As far back as Christmas of 1995 filmgoers all over North America got a small teaser of the film, which culminated in two potent and memorable shots; both of them were real humdingers, for lack of a better phrase.  The first showed an incalculably large alien spacecraft destroying New York’s Empire States Building with one blast of a laser beam.  The other – and perhaps the most unforgettable – was a shocking clip of a similar extraterrestrial craft blowing the White House to kingdom come.

Now, who the hell would not want to see more of that?

If anything, 20th Century Fox really knew the strength of advertising when it came time to touting their next bankable blockbuster, and INDEPENDENCE DAY was no exception.  A few months later the film had an extended teaser that again showcased the most famous political home in the world easily being destroyed, except this time the venue was the Super Bowl.  Once those ads hit America was sold on ID4 as being the eminent big budget, science fiction blockbuster to see.  Like the STAR WARS and JURASSIC PARKS that preceded it, ID4’s summer success really hinged on audience anticipation.  With wall-to-wall advance press spouting that this science fiction, special effects heavy epic would dwarf anything else that the summer had to offer, there were few that were unaware that ID4 was coming.

The trailers themselves knew that the best way to get people in the cinemas was by wetting their appetites to want to see more.  Unlike modern day previews for epic escapist entertainments that are too revealing for their own good (like Peter Jackson’s recent remake of  KING KONG), the makers of ID4 knew that the most crucial element to their film being a huge success was to not show too much ahead of time.  Those trailers for the film, in retrospect, were expertly handled.  You got glimpses of the ships here and there, a basic understanding of the overall story, not one shot of an alien entity at all, a few scattered shots of the big celebs, and finally the prerequisite “money shots” of those famous landmarks being wasted.  Quite frankly, the film may not be a masterpiece of the genre, but it certainly was a masterstroke work of pre-release hype.

The film has been compared (both favorably and unfavorably) to STAR WARS.  Some of that holds water.  ID4 has some not-so-subtle references to Lucas’s space series.  For instance, just look at the opening sequence, where the alien mother ship flies overhead of the camera, almost identically to similar space vessels in the landmark opening shot of A NEW HOPE from 1977.    ID4 also is special effects heavy, like the STAR WARS films, and the aerial dogfights between the humans (in their F16’s) and the aliens in their own attackers has even more distinctive echoes of similar scenes in any of the STAR WARS films.  The third act of ID4, which involves the heroes commandeering an alien craft to dock with the mother ship in hopes to blow it up, will have many people hiccupping “Death Star.”

Yet, most of those comparisons are somewhat superficial.  More than anything, ID4 is a film that owes more to the 1950’s flying saucer invasion flicks than it does to the fantasy works of Lucas.  There is a small scene in the film where the 1951 film THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is shown on a nearby TV.  Now, ID4 doesn't have nearly any of the compelling allegorical element’s of that Robert Wise film (there’s not much of a brain in ID4’s head), but the homage and reference here is apt.  ID4 remembers a more innocent time where end of the world stories were crafted to include aliens, not some man made calamity like nuclear armageddon.  That’s why I think those B-grade 50’s films were – despite their often crude production values – fun for what they were.  In an age of heightened Cold War tension, it was comforting to know that damn dirty aliens would annihilate us all instead of super powerful weapons of mass destruction.

ID4 does have all of the standard elements that the flying saucer/invasion genre had, like the initial alien visitation where everyone hopelessly thinks that the visitors are benign.  Furthermore, it has the scenes where the aliens demonstrate their malevolence and destructive power, which is followed by even more scenes of the US government deciding what their next move will be.  Hell, to be even more slavish to genre conventions, the president in ID4 even attempts to use “the bomb” on the pesky aliens (he obviously didn't watch the original WAR OF THE WORLDS, because he would have known that advanced alien technology would have found a way to deflect A-bomb attacks).  Sure, ID4 is not in the grand tradition of thought-provoking sci-fi (for that, consult Verne, Bradbury, or Kubrick).  It’s more in the tradition of big, sprawling, and goofy escapism where things are blown up really well, so much to the point that the only human survivors around want to retaliate and blow up alien things really well.  Beyond that, the film owes a lot of its inspiration to the disaster films of the 1970’s that were all but extinct in the mid-1990’s.  Those films managed to throw in just about every stock and stereotypical character type out of the cliché factory, and in the process involved them in woefully disposable subplots amidst the mayhem.

ID4 is no exception to this rule.  Between all of the alien invasions and destruction we get stories involving the US President (a Persian Gulf War air pilot veteran, whose services may…just may…prove to be useful in a counterattack); a homosexual;  various black characters, one being a pilot and his girlfriend being a stripper; a Jewish man that is incredibly resourceful and ingenious with a laptop; his very devout Jewish father; various Pentagon stooges who seem tight lipped about everything; one cute, but very sick, child; and finally we have a subplot that involves a very alcoholic crop duster that may…just may…become a full-fledged hero before the end credits roll by and the curtain roles up.

The film’s story starts out fairly promising.  A vast and gigantic mother ship (one fourth the size of our moon, as one scientist tells us from satellite images) makes its way across the lunar surface and on a course for Earth.  Hmmm…that is one big ship and, judging by the size of the moon, that would make it about 4-500km in diameter, which would further make one think that it would be visible from the ground on a good clear day if in a low orbit, but never mind.  Soon, the mother ship sends out dozens of other smaller crafts (these ones are only 15 miles in diameter) to several of the largest cities in the world.  As far as the film shows us, most of the places fall in Europe and the US, with Canada apparently being saved.  Chalk up another point for us Canucks.  

Anyhoo’, the Pentagon gets wind of these alien craft that are coming and they got very itchy bomb-trigger fingers.  However, the humongous spaceships, initially at least, don’t directly attack the world’s cities, but they sure do cast mighty big shadows and instill widespread panic.  As one humorous TV broadcast states, the coming of the ships causes over 10,000 fender benders in minutes in the Big Apple, where another from California pleads with Los Angelinos to “not fire their handguns at the ships so they do not provoke an inner stellar war.”  US President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) fears that ordering evacuations could cause even more panic.  He’s got his head well on his shoulders considering his youthful age.  As a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, and judging by his modest GQ looks, Whitmore would have to be the youngest man ever in the White House, but never mind.  He has a plucky press secretary that is supportive of him, but she is also separated from her husband, David (Jeff Goldblum), a broadcast technician and computer hack genius that once believed that the president and his wife were having an affair.  Ouch. 

Needless to say, while other people are pondering what the aliens want, David uses his incredible computer skills to discover the shocking truth: the aliens are using their own satellites against the Earth by coordinating a widespread attack.  How does he know this?  Well, with several scenes of technological mumbo jumbo flying by, he's able to get this information from his PC.  Oh, his PC also knows that the aliens will attack at one precise time, which is laughably revealed by a timer he has on its monitor.  Gee, it sure is nice that both he and his computer understand the intricacies of both alien language, technology, and war strategies.  David’s very Jewish dad (played well by TV vet Judd Hirsch) thinks his son is a bit nutty.  He dryly tells him at one point, “If the president wanted HBO, then he could call you.”

During these opening scenes we are also given a few superfluous subplots involving a crusty old drunkard named Russell (Randy Quaid) who is a crop duster that claims to have been kidnapped by aliens in the past.  Well, maybe he’s not so crazy after all.  Furthermore, we are briefly introduced to the First Lady (the usually dependable Mary McDonnell) as well as a pilot named Stephen (Will Smith, in one of his first major summer blockbuster roles), who has been recalled from his summer leave to potentially engage the enemy and kick some E.T. ass.  Well, after the aliens proceed with their plan with lightening precision (they all attack as soon as David’s PC countdowns to zero...how convenient) and destroy all of the world's cities, Stephen gets his chance.

Most of the Earth is in ruins, but the human survivors launch a counter attack, which epitomizes hopelessness.  Why?  Maybe because the aliens have invisible shields over their hulls that can stop everything, even nukes (damn them!).  The president starts to realize the futility of his country's situation, that is until he discovers that there is – in fact – a real AREA 51 that actually has one of the alien spacecrafts that crash-landed on Earth in 1948.  The whole clan heads their way to the secret underground facility where they are greeted by the very weird and kooky Dr. Okun (in one of the film’s more inspired and wacky performances by STAR TREK’S Brent Spiner).  He definitely looks the mad scientist part, and manages to complain slightly about his job (“They don’t let us out much.).  That goes without saying.

The spaceship and alien cadavers are housed in the compound, which allows the President and company to discover some of their weaknesses (they are as fragile as humans, only their technology is more advanced).  David seems very interested in all of the details of Area 51, so much so that he has an ultimate epiphany and decrees that he has the secret that will destroy all of the aliens, not to mention their mother ship.  He concocts a dangerous plan that involves the piloting services of Stephen and their commandeering of the 60 year-old alien vessel.  I will not reveal how they plan to destroy the mother ship, other than to say that they have obviously seen WAR OF THE WORLDS and that David’s little laptop is the most powerful device on the planet, able to even tap into alien PCs.  Eat your heart out, Bill Gates. 

While the two launch their plan, President Whitmore…you guessed it…gives an impassioned motivational speech to the survivors that is pure, delightful cornball.  He, if you ever doubted it, plans to lead another squadron of planes in a daring attack while David and Stephen try to take out the mother ship.  If my history degree tells me anything, this would make him the first president since 1812 to lead troops into battle.  James Madison took control of an artillery battery during the War of 1812 to assist his soldiers in retreat.  Gee, where was Whitmore during "Operation Iraqi Freedom"?

Now, it may sound thus far that I have regarded ID4 with a large degree of spiteful incredulity.  The film is preposterous and silly, but on a level of summer escapism it still holds up fairly well overall.  Anyone who watched those Super Bowl ads knew they were not getting introspective sci-fi like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.  Nope, ID4 is more concerned with large-scale spectacle and action.  No other film of recent memory has had such fun destroying the world than this one.  If anything, the film harkens back to a simpler time when it was not offensive or politically incorrect to see our nations be blown off the map.  In our superhumanly sensitive, post-9/11 world, I highly doubt that a film would be released today with images of the White House being blown up or a shot of the Twin Towers in flames and half destroyed.  ID4 reminds us of the carefree ambiance of an apocalyptic yarn without any geo-political subtext or analogies.  Plus, it's an alien invasion, for cryin' out loud.

The film may have the sensibilities of a cheesy 1950’s alien flick, but it sure does not have the technical limitations of those films.  ID4 – to this day – is an impressive tour de force of visual effects wizardry.  The shots of those vast spaceships inspires decent awe and the moments of citywide destruction are expertly handled.  ID4 used just about every sleight of hand trick in the book to sell its disastrous images.  It utilized the oldest of the old tricks (it has the record for most model shots in film history) and the then-latest advances in CG technology.  Make no mistake about it; ID4 is an audio-visual nirvana that is enjoyable to experience.  It goes on a short list of modern films that actually is better viewed on a big screen with booming digital sound.  ID4 would have had a field day in the more modern 3D-Imax format.

To no one’s surprise, the film became the biggest hit of its year, grossing over $300 million domestically.  It was the first major blockbuster smash of Will Smith’s career, which helped catapult him into the limelight.  On a negative side, the film ushered in a small resurgence of the disaster genre (subsequent films, like the witless VOLCANO and the sluggish DANTE’S PEAK would come out in ID4’s successful wake).  The film’s director – Roland Emmerich – and writer/producer – Dean Devil – were no strangers to sci-fi before it came out, having made earlier forays into the genre, like the wretched UNIVERSAL SOLDIER and the passably entertaining (and unfairly chastised) STARGATE.  ID4 gave the duo a considerable amount of creative clout, and their next big feature, a glossy remake of GODZILLA, hit the screens a few years later with the same level of ID4 buzz.  GODZILLA was, unfortunately, a surprising bomb and a mediocre effort, but Emmerich would go on to make some decent films, like the revolutionary war picture THE PATRIOT with Mel Gibson, not to mention a successful return to the disaster genre with his well made 2004 thriller THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW.

Ten years after its release, INDEPENDENCE DAY still remains a derivative, highly predictable, and contrived sci-fi film that reeks of familiarity.  However, the film still commands a modest level of silly, irreverent respect for its otherwise outlandish elements.  The characters are fairly one note and superficially drawn out, the story itself is ham-infested and routine, and some of the big reveals and dramatic payoffs induce more slight giggles than rousing cheers.  Yet, ID4 still succeeds beyond its lackluster ingredients as an entertaining and exciting spectacle.  It's the kind of brainless, but exuberant and energized, summer popcorn filmmaking that takes great pride in showing us lots of flashy alien invasion and battle scenes, huge segments of the world being decimated, and many things blowing up to chaotic perfection.  Seeing the decimation of the world has rarely been so enjoyable and fun as presented in ID4, which knows the virtues of making a feel-good action thriller about millions of people dying at the expense of an other-worldly menace.  ID4 is tedious moviemaking, but it remains a film that is never lifeless and inert.  And any film that has the US president utter the line “Let’s nuke the alien bastards” in a Clint Eastwoodian manner has to be watched with your tongue firmly in your cheek.  I mean, if they blew up your Oval Office, wouldn't you think that they deserved some serious comeuppance.

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