Every year on the Fourth of July, I rewatch ‘Independence Day,’ and every year I re-post this summary of why it’s among my personal favorites.
When Independence Day came out, it was a huge hit, but ever since then it’s kind of become the poster-child for the big, dumb, CGI-fueled blockbusters of the late 90s. And, yes, in a way it is, but…well, that’s kind of beside the point.
The Story: On July 2nd, a massive alien craft appears in orbit around the earth and sends out an armada of city-sized flying saucers that take up position above several of the world’s major cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. We then see the unfolding war of the worlds through the eyes of four American men and their families: underachieving New York cable company technician David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), Los Angeles-based Marine pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith), drunken Californian crop duster pilot Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), and the youthful President Whitmore (Bill Pullman).
So, is this movie pretty stupid? Sure. This is light science-fiction pulp, of the kind you might find in Amazing Stories, or in a drive-in theater in the late 1950s, only given a massive budget and an all-star cast. Granted, a lot of those classic films were better than this one (The War of the Worlds in particular does many of the same things while being an overall superior film), but none achieved the same sense of scale and grandeur as this one.
As for me, I’m glad we have it.
This is the movie that Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, or Invasion of the Saucer Men, or those 1940s serials dreamed of being. It’s pulp sci-fi done as an epic: national and world-spanning in scope, drenched in apocalyptic dread and patriotic defiance, with implacably hostile collectivist aliens pitted against scrappy, courageous, freedom-loving humans. It tackles big ideas of freedom, heroism, faith, family, and patriotism in a simple, but solid fashion. This may or may not sound appealing to you, but to the film’s credit is unambiguously knows what it’s trying to be and doesn’t make any apologies for it.
There are a lot of things to like about this movie. In the first place, it’s huge. Four main characters, each one carrying a small cast of supporting characters, a world-spanning plot involving a large-scale alien invasion targeting the major cities of the globe, huge airborne battles…it’s just a grand, glorious spectacle. Yet, amazingly enough, the film still manages to keep the focus largely on the people involved: we see these events through their eyes, and the real story of the film is how it affects them. It’s not done brilliantly, but it works. We very rarely leave the perspective of one of our leads, and then only briefly to illustrate things that they are talking or thinkings about. For instance, late in the film we have a brief glimpse of various armies around the world receiving and responding to the President’s call for a united counter-attack, but we quickly cut back to where the President and his military aids are receiving the answers.
At the same time, though, the four interconnected storylines make the film seem anything but constrained. On the contrary, the multiple-perspective format gives the story an epic feel that few subsequent blockbusters (Armageddon, Transformers, etc.) have successfully imitated. This is in stark contrast with Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which though in some ways a better film was rendered all-but unbearable by the fact that we spent the whole thing welded to three boring and unpleasant characters.
The leads here, by contrast, are all charismatic and likable (though some might find Jeff Goldblum’s stammering speaking style annoying), as are most of the supporting characters. They’re not especially original, but they all have personality and serve as pleasant enough company. I particularly like Robert Loggia as the President’s right-hand general and Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s father. It helps that most of them are played by veteran supporting players and character actors (including a pre-Firefly Adam Baldwin as the commander of Area 51 and a very young, pre-Avatar: The Last Airbender Mae Whitman as the President’s daughter). Even the SETI boss who only shows up in the opening scene is invested with life and character, thanks in part to old-pro Eric Avari. This is really one of the most impressive ensemble casts I can remember seeing in a 90s blockbuster.
More than that, though, it’s just a really good story and well-done adventure. It’s grand and epic, but also keeps focused. Appropriate for a film about the Fourth of July, the theme is pitting freedom and the American way of life against the encroaching forces of collectivist aliens backed with all-powerful technology. When, after the opening salvos, we see the Statue of Liberty lying broken in New York harbor we understand what the battle is really about.
The film’s theme plays out in the lives of its characters, who all start off having forgotten what’s really important, which they rediscover throughout the film, even as they have to fight against the implacable hostility of the alien menace. Levinson and his wife have divorced due to their divergent career paths, with her working on the White House staff while he wastes his talents at a dead-end cable job. Whitmore’s caught up in politics and has lost his authority. Hiller dithers about marrying his girlfriend for fear of how it will affect his military career. And Casse is a drunken wreck who can barely take care of his family, while his adult son sees him as an embarrassment. All the characters are then forced to reexamine their lives and ‘re-center’ on what really matters: family, faith, and country.
The four leads provide an interesting cross-section of American society about the mid-nineties: blue collar, white collar, military, politics; Black, White, Jewish; married, single, widowed, divorced. The film is thus about as representative of the American way of life of the time as could be asked for. We see that the characters in the opening don’t appreciate what they have, being lost amid their petty concerns and self-destructive behavior. It’s only when their world is threatened that they begin to re-orientate their lives around the things they’ve neglected for so long, and it is this that gives them the power to strike back.
On the other hand, the aliens prove to be the reverse of American values; they’re a kind of hive-mind, with little or no individual personality, each subject to the collective. They have no home and no land of their own: they simply move from planet to planet taking whatever they need like locusts and moving on when they’re done. When asked if there’s any possibility of the two species co-existing, they bluntly respond that there isn’t: the trademark American skill at integrating different cultures is not going to work here.
In this context, it’s significant that the film explicitly describes the aliens as having bodies ‘just as frail as ours.’ All men, and aliens, are created equal; the aliens just have better technology that allows them to impose their will upon the earth. Once mankind figures out a way around that technology, the fight becomes more even.
The specifics of that method have justly been called out as ridiculous, but, again, that’s not really the point. All they needed was a semi-plausible excuse to bring down the alien shields, and a computer virus works as well as any other (the fact that the aliens were previously established to be using the Earth’s satellites to coordinate their attack lends it just enough pseudo-validity to work in context). The important thing was how the idea was given (amid a heart-to-heart between Levinson and his father about the need to have faith even in the face of disaster) and what it leads to (a last-ditch battle for freedom).
There are so many things that, looking back, the film does really well. The motives and backgrounds of the characters are established very quickly and concisely. For instance, we meet Levinson talking with his father over chess, who urges him to move on after his divorce. The scene establishes at once 1. their respective personalities and close relationship, 2. Levinson’s divorce, 3. his intelligence as he smoothly checkmates his father, 4. his environmentalist principles, 5. his reluctance to move on with his life, suggesting both his continuing attachment to his wife and his unambitious, lethargic personality. All that in one scene that lasts maybe two minutes (these key points are reiterated and expanded on in equally efficient subsequent scenes). A quick moment of Hiller receiving a rejection letter from NASA establishes his dreams of flying in space, which he achieves at the end, as well as establishing the reasons for his inner conflict over marrying his girlfriend. Considering how many characters the film juggles, it’s remarkable that it manages to develop its leads as well as it does.
The film also does a good job of conveying the impact of the events; a minor, but established character dies in the destruction of each city, then more characters die in the subsequent counter attack. At least one character who survives the initial bombardments later dies of her injuries simply because she couldn’t get medical care soon enough. And we see things like the President agonizing over his failure to act more decisively, or Hiller making his way to Area 51 only to learn that he’s the only survivor of his entire Marine base. The film keeps moving, but it does allow the characters to react to the disaster.
I like the humor in the film a lot as well. Many of the jokes turn on the fact that, in the course of the disaster, normal social barriers have been eliminated, leading to unexpected situations, like when Hiller’s girlfriend sheepishly admits to the First Lady that, “I voted for the other guy.” Or when Levinson’s father unexpectedly finds himself about to meet the President…and discovers that his son once punched him in the face.
I’m also impressed at how well the effects have held up, probably because (like many of the best early CG-driven films) the movie actually uses a large amount of model work and practical effects and only supplemented with computers where necessary. The destruction of New York, Los Angeles, and Washington was mostly done with models and real fire effects filmed at low speed (so, the exact same techniques pioneered in the original Godzilla), the fiery clouds surrounding the ships as they enter the atmosphere were done with models in smoke-filled tanks, while the aliens themselves are glorious animatronic costumes. On that note, the sheer fact that the film manages to make flying saucers frightening and otherworldly again after so many decades of parody and over-exposure is impressive in itself. The featureless, almost motionless ships hovering ominously over the cities convey a distinctly alien atmosphere, especially contrasted with the more familiar planes and buildings of our own world.
I could go on about it, but suffice to say, I think it’s a really good movie. Yes, it’s kinda stupid, yes it’s cheesy and overblown, but at the end of the day it succeeds in being exactly what it sets out to be, which is a big-budget, large-scale version of a classic sci-fi b-movie. It has pleasant characters, great visuals, and tells a simple, but solid story. All in all, it’s one of my favorites.