Roger Ebert called this “an inheritor of the 1950s flying saucer genre”…though, for the life of me, I can only think of two films that match Independence Day‘s sheer destructive gluttony. The mid-90s will go down in history as a period shamefully infested with big-budget disaster orgies, horror pornography for middle Americans too chicken at watch real horror films.
And if ID4 has a more proximate progenitor, it is the disaster movies of the 70s, which carved this genre niche after the collapse of the studio system led to a collapse of the Epic. All-star casts stopped playing mythological heroes from various Western holy texts and began acting out multiple plot-threads as…normal people. One (or two, or three, or a whole bunch) of us. We began to appear in epic tales of survival against long odds and various plot contrivances…for, like any genre, the disaster flick soon found itself hedged in by its own, flawed, internal logic.
Independence Day follows the disaster template with all the slavishness of a puppy so desperate for love it spends two hours shamelessly wagging its tail, trying to make nice with everybody. As I’m sure everyone is well aware, the film opens with an alien invasion, right in time for the Fourth of July weekend. Our various plot-threads are established early, each in as wide a brushstroke as possible. President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) gets to forget about his poll numbers, which have sunk to Clinton Administration, circa 1994-levels, for once and focus on what’s really important…like the giant (“one-fourth the size of our moon”) flying saucer on our orbital doorstep, which deploys a dozen-or-so “smaller” saucers, only about fifteen miles wide, into our atmosphere.
These “smaller” ships find tourist-postcard-picture homes above the world’s major cities, allowing we, the audience, to meet the rest of our cast. In New York City we find David (Jeff Goldblum), whom everyone describes as a computer genius. Despite this, he spends his nerdy days doing tech work at a cable TV station, where (with the aid of his Apple) he discovers an alien signal hidden in Earth’s terrestrial satellite network: a countdown to Doomsday. With his oh-so-stereotypically-New-York-Jewish (the over-used Judd Hirsch) father in tow, David goes to Washington, hoping to (at the very least) rescue his old flame, Connie (Margaret Colin)…who’s now President Pullman’s Press Secretary.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, President Pullman’s wife (the under-used Mary McDonnell) does something First Lady-ish…but our film is much more concerned with Marine Corps Captain Stephen Hiller (Will Smith). Hiller wakes from a nightmare (in which he finds himself a b-boy from Philadelphia illogically shipped out to rich, Bel-Air relatives) to remember the real horrors of his life. Not the alien spaceship hovering over downtown, no…but the fact that he’s just been turned down by NASA. And his wingman, Jimmie, is played by Harry Connick Jr. If lines like, “Man, you ain’t never gonna fly the Space Shuttle if you marry a stripper,” don’t make you want to slit your wrists, nothing will.
Meanwhile, out in the Imperial Valley, in Movie D (or are we only on C?), a drunken crop-duster, former Vietnam vet and alien abductee, Russell (Randy Quaid) moves his gypsy family the hell out of dodge. Like David, Russell’s convinced these visitors Do Not Come In Peace. And of course, he’s right…forty minutes into things, Emmerich delivers all the flame-broiled catharsis anyone could ever ask for. New York, Washington and Los Angeles are all wiped off the map by the (unnamed) alien’s physics-defying nuclear laser blasts. Millions dead, perhaps: but at least Michael Bay will never make another picture. And for that, I tell God “Thank yee.” This is Independence Day’s indisputable high point, where we see $75 million of model work in wonderfully-Apocalyptic action.
Everything afterward is its own special brand of let-down, as humanity (represented by our cross-section of ethnically and racially diverse characters) comes together to oppose this alien threat. Socio-political, religious and ethnic divisions are stamped out by virtue of the fact they aren’t even discussed. There’s no time, what with the immanent annihilation of the species drawing every closer. The aliens prove immune to everything from Will Smith-driven fighter planes to to nuclear weapons (though Huston, Texas, does not, thankfully…I can only imagine Governor George W. Bush’s radioactive ashes scattered on the wind, blowing as far east as the smoldering crater that was once a White House he will now never reside in…no matter what the Supreme Court says). It’s up to David, our Positive Scientist, to whip up that most cliched of late-90s cliches, a computer virus, that will defeat the energy shields those dastardly aliens use to counter our honest, hard-working American weapons of mass destruction. After President Whitmore delivers what the BBC rightly called “the most jaw-droppingly pompous soliloquy ever delivered in a mainstream Hollywood movie,” it’s off to the wild blue yonder for an extended Air Force commercial disguised as a climactic battle for the Fate of All Mankind.
More a love note to Earthquake! than Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, more Star Wars than Stargate, this film cemented Devlin and Emmerich’s reputation as Hollywood gold miners. It also kicked off a minor disaster movie Renaissance that unfortunately led to more travesties than triumphs. Including Emmerich’s subsequent films. To be fair, the man knows how to direct a special effects shot. Unlike so many of the young punks getting rich off sucking his style, Emmerich knows when to bring the chaotic grandiosity of battle into his films, and when to leave it be. There’s a dramatic resonance to absent from most of the Action movies Emmerich obviously watched to prepare for all this…even to the movie’s two extended dogfight scenes are more engrossing than your average, paint-drying rip-off of Top Gun. There’s a nerdy energy to all this, a strange kind of fun, verging just this side of parody.
We have Devlin to thank for that, I suppose. His script – as pompous, heavy-handed, and war-glorifying as it is – at least has the benefit of feeling brief, thanks to the multiple plot threads, their sparse inter-play and a liberal dose of self-awareness. The film is littered with hat tips to nerds of all stripes. A piece of The Day the Earth Stood Still creeps into frame. The McGlaughland Group appears as themselves, bitching and moaning about the plot developments until they’re annihilated by an alien blast (as they should be). Star Trek veteran Brent Spiner shows up as the lead researcher in the bell jar that is Area 51, playing the a more traditional (mader) Scientist against David’s POV character. At times the film feels like one giant in-joke, and you wonder if those shots were meant to be homages to Star Wars. Or is it like they say (whomever “they” are): “homage” is just French for “steal”?
The downside to all this attention paid to nerdy touches and “smart” scripting? Not a one of the one-note characters here achieves a second dimension by film’s end. They have no time. The pace of things demands they haul ass. They are also, as a group, predominately citizens of the military-industrial complex, uniformly portrayed as noble, ethical individuals caught in a desperately one-sided struggle for survival, and the cast wears their stereotypes like second skins. The alien menace is once again brought low by American Pioneer Spirit…but we would’ve triumphed anyway, if only those dastardly aliens had come out from behind their shields and fought fair. A post-Vietnam Spirit, a new American Triumphalism, oozes from this film’s every frame, from its cosmopolitan beginnings to its spectacular (in the dictionary definition sense) finish. Far from a good film, it nevertheless represents a height never again equaled, though often copied by Emmerich himself.
If I were a betting man, the fault lies with subsequent Casting Directors, each of whom has failed, in one way or another, to construct an equal stable of workhorse character actors. Other actors might stumble and break themselves against the rocks of occasionally-hackneyed dialogue. They are, for the most part, aided by the fact Emmerich allows them to play themselves, or the fantasy people they’ve always liked to be. Will Smith is Will Smith. Bill Pullman is a young Harrison Ford as the President of these United States…the first President to lead troops into battle since James Madison. And Goldblum…poor Goldblum is the same socially-inept nerd he’s been since the 80s. And while this film will always have a special place in my heart for allowing the socially-inept nerd to save the world…it’s not like we haven’t seen this all before. Randy Quaid, the drunken abductee, is the most original and least-developed character in the film, Odious Comic Relief…until he glorious sacrifices himself for the American Race.
Like it’s disaster-movie predecessors, Independence Day blows its wad too early and cops out with a a happy, Meaningful ending that all-but screams “Marry and Reproduce!” Had its creators had the guts to actually end the world, they might’ve created a powerful film, a real nightmare of the new, American age. After all, the creatures (through telepathy) reveal themselves to be little more than caricatures of us: oxygen breathing, resource-exploiting, techno fetishist monsters with a willingness to crush everything in their path. “Die!” a capture alien tells President Pullman, a message America’s ruling class communicates on a daily basis.
From this angle, the film becomes a subversive critique of globalization, and it’s ultimate result: the annihilation of the human race, and probably the planet with us. Only a united front, and an explosives-packed opposition to our evil, alien overlords can possibly save us from Armageddon.
Or is that a little too literal for everyone? Let me know when I’ve gone too far.