One of my favorite parts about the summertime is going to the movies. On a hot humid day, there’s no better feeling than entering a large cold dark room with an ice-cold beverage, ready to be transported into a story. Hollywood has been banking on this idea and it’s worked. The modern origin of the blockbuster took place on June 20th, 1975 with the release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Audiences devoured Spielberg’s exciting and terror-filled film that set the standard for the summer blockbuster. While Jaws is considered a classic blockbuster for its special effects, superb cast, and story, these credentials are not always necessary. Sometimes you can have one or two of these and still have a blockbuster that people will come back to again and again. As a writer, I am always ready to write about film as an art form that adds to the human consciousness in important ways. At the same time, I can appreciate a film that places the spectacle before anything else. Sometimes you just want to be taken on a ride. Sometimes you want an overconfident lead to save the day with swagger. Sometimes you just want shit to blow up. No blockbuster does this better than the 1996 film Independence Day.
Independence Day takes place over three days, during the July 4th weekend. A massive alien mothership pulls up next to Earth and releases somewhat smaller (but still large) ships over major cities around the world. Panic ensues! Through this initial panic, we are introduced to multiple storylines. First, there’s David, played by Jeff Goldblum (America’s future daddy), who is a down-and-out satellite engineer and technological expert. He is the first to find a hidden signal being transmitted by the alien ships that are counting down to a possible coordinated attack. David and his hilarious Jewish father, played by Judd Hirsch, to Washington D.C. to warn the President of this impending doom. He does this by contacting his ex-wife who just so happens to be the White House Communications Director. The President, played by Bill Pullman, is trying to figure out the best course of action while he is pulled in different directions by his cabinet and the military. We are introduced to Russel, a drunken Vietnam vet played by Randy Quaid, who’s not at all surprised by this alien invasion, as he claims he was abducted ten years prior and knew that aliens had their sights on earth. And then, we’re introduced to our star, Captain Steven Hiller, played by a young Will Smith. He is a Marine fighter pilot who has dreams of flying for NASA one day, who was just about to take the holiday weekend off before the alien invasion begins.
The President weighs his options and does not want the public to panic. The public, however, is doing one of two things: panicking or preparing to welcome the aliens with open arms. Some people are trying to flee cities, while others find the tallest buildings around to get a better look. David is finally able to reach the President at the White House and tries to explain that the Aliens are about to attack. The President is unmoved at first and sends a “welcome wagon” to one of the spaceships. This welcome wagon is a helicopter with flashing lights reminiscent of Close Encounters of a Third Kind, a film with a much friendlier space invader. These aliens however are not so nice. This is made even clearer as the welcome wagon is shot out of the sky by the spaceship as soon as it tries to get close. The President orders the evacuation of all major cities, but it's too late. The giant spaceships fire a single large beam down onto each major city, causing massive destruction and death.
Independence Day was director Ronald Emmerich’s first foray into apocalyptic films. With this film, he set the standard of how to destroy the planet. He would do so again in the films The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2009). With the help of CGI, Emmerich has blown up cities, countries, and even whole continents. All of this calamity and destruction almost becomes a character in itself: the ultimate villain that no one can escape. Post-apocalyptic films like I am Legend and The Matrix Trilogy focus on what happens after, while Emmerich’s films are interested in the actual events that lead to a radical new future for mankind. With the scope of planetary destruction as the main goal, it is easy to see why Emmerich’s films have been criticized for their lack of character development and thin plot lines. Independence Day does not escape from these critiques. I would argue that the film, at the very least, gives you characters that you can't help but root for.
With major cities destroyed all across the globe and military strikes proving useless, all hope seems lost. We start to see our main characters deal with this new reality. Captain Steven Hiller is one of the sole survivors of an aerial dog fight with the aliens, and he manages to take down one of their fighter jets. In one of the funniest scenes in the film and the first time we actually see what the aliens look like, Steven Hiller walks right up to the downed alien spacecraft ready to throw hands. The alien just killed his best friend and as the alien tries to come out of its craft he punches it straight in the face. He then chomps on a cigar saying, “Now that’s what I call a close encounter.” There is no fear in Will Smith’s character, only confidence. This confidence will serve Will Smith well when he moves on from Independence Day to make other blockbuster classics like Men in Black, Wild Wild West, and Bad Boys 2. Meanwhile, the President, his staff, and David and his father all manage to barely escape the destruction by lifting off on Air Force One at the very last minute. As they fly around they ponder their next move. The President has immediate regret about not evacuating the cities sooner and the reality that millions have died sets in. Bill Pullman's portrayal as the U.S. President is as idealistic as one could hope for in this situation. He regrets not acting sooner and when he finally agrees to use the nuclear option, which fails due to the aliens' protective shield, he decides to not try it again. It’s worth mentioning that he is fed bad ideas from his Secretary of Defense Albert Nimzicki, played by James Rebhorn. Bill Pullman’s portrayal as the President is all about leadership, integrity, and doing the right thing, ideals that have been sorely lacking in that particular office in the real world. James Reborn’s loudmouth government official who lacks any of those qualities, unfortunately, seems right on brand in the real world. I mean this guy is amazing; he still thinks it would be a good idea to nuke the aliens after it doesn’t work out the first time.
Aboard Air Force One, David’s hilarious father goes on a rant about Area 51 being real and the government hiding it from the public, which the President assures him is false. The Secretary of Defense then tells him that actually, that's not entirely accurate. The President and the gang are taken to a very real Area 51 which has three dead aliens and a small alien fighter jet just like the one that they are fighting against now. The reason for this major secret being kept from the President? “Plausible deniability.” I mean is that not a textbook line from an idiot government official trying to weasel himself away from any responsibility? But I digress. Just as the President is made aware of this well-hidden secret, Captain Steven Miller finds his way to this very well-hidden secret with a seemingly dead alien carcass and a caravan of people in mobile homes who just so happened to find him in the middle of the desert. How convenient! At this point in the film, these characters start to find each other in such a ridiculous way that it’s clear that the writers and the director realized they had to get the story moving in an already two-and-a-half-hour-long film. I mean, when Will Smith’s character gets to Area 51 and finds out his stripper girlfriend and her kid could possibly be dead after the initial alien attack he steals a helicopter and looks for them anyways. He finds them seconds later and hey, they are with the First Lady, who is severely injured. He brings them all back to Area 51 where the First Lady dies and the President becomes sad. Just as this all seems like an absurd deviation, the film picks up the main story again.
Scientists at Area 51 begin an autopsy of the alien body brought back by Captain Steven. The alien seems to be in an organic space suit that springs open and reveals a smaller alien, sort of like a Russian doll. Just then, the alien emits a psychic frequency that causes the head scientist to have painful headaches. The alien comes to life and starts to kill the other scientist. The President is eager to see this recently captured alien, and when he and his entourage enter the room where the autopsy is taking place they find a mess. The alien has the lead scientist by the throat with its tentacles, using him as a telepathic puppet. He wants to be released. The President tries his hand at diplomacy, telling the aliens that they can learn a lot from each other if they can have a truce and peace. The alien does not agree and only wants them to die. He begins to perform the same psychic frequency on the President who falls to the ground. The President’s security detail shoots the alien multiple times, killing it. It just so happens that the President was able to read this particular alien’s mind and sees that their plan is this: invade the planet, kill all of its inhabitants, take their resources, and then move on to the next one. This scene is very effective because the alien’s design in this film is truly scary. When they are cutting him open it feels very real and the aliens look so different than any other alien seen on film or in any other media. When the alien is speaking to the President, its tone is very matter-of-fact and frightening. In a movie that leans heavily on comedy and spectacle, this scene makes the stakes seem very real.
While all of this goes down, Jeff Goldblum's character, David, is having a rough time. He is heavily drinking knowing that the world is screwed. Early on in the film, we see him as a bike riding, recycling, environmentalist techie, who now drunkenly states we should pollute the world as fast as we can so that the aliens don't even want it anymore. His father tries to snap him out of it and goes on another hilarious rant, this time about his son having a cold. This inspires David to create a virus that will take down the aliens’ defense system for a short period of time. Thanks, dad! He tests his virus on the alien ship at Area 51 and it works. Exhausting all other efforts, the President approves David’s crazy plan: sneaking the alien ship onto the mothership hovering above Earth, hacking their computer system, temporarily taking down their defenses, and bombing the hell out of the sister ships hovering in Earth’s atmosphere. Who volunteers for this crazy plan you ask? Only America’s two favorite daddys, Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith of course! As they prepare for their ascent to the mothership, the President, a former fighter pilot himself, rounds up as many pilots as he can to help attack the ships once the defenses are down. This is when we see drunken veteran pilot Russel again, who is more than willing to volunteer himself to obliterate his former capturers. The President gives a rousing speech to the airmen before they take off that is actually incredibly moving. I got goosebumps listening to it as a kid and I received those same goosebumps 25 years later.
After a quick impromptu wedding ceremony where Captain Steven Hiller marries his girlfriend with David and his ex-wife serving as witnesses, they shoot off into space as Earth's final hope. The banter between David and Steven on their important mission is funny as both of their qualities are on full display. Steven is really enjoying being able to fly this advanced spacecraft and does so by going very fast and performing flips in the air. David's anxiety about even agreeing to this mission is on full display now as he begs Steven to stop. Both Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum are at the top of their comedic game in this final part of the film and it almost makes you wish they had more screen time together. Their journey to the mothership is where we are again reminded of the great CGI that still holds up today in this film. They are pulled into the mothership as the aliens recognize the ship as one of their own. Inside the massive mothership, they float by a huge army of aliens preparing for an invasion. They are docked in front of an alien air traffic controller of sorts and this is where they initiate uploading the virus. With a few clicks of David’s laptop, the virus is uploaded and the shields are down. It’s time for the humans to attack!
The President, along with his ragtag team of pilots, is finally able to start doing some damage to the massive ships and alien fighter jets. The aliens prepare to fire another energy beam down on Earth. In a nail-biting scene, the President and his pilots realize they are out of rockets and have no way to stop the impending beam. Our drunken hero Russel is the last one with a rocket and prepares to fire it at the beam, but his rocket is jammed. He knows what he must do. He ends up sacrificing himself by flying his plane directly into the beam before it goes off. He screams: “ Hello boys, I’m baaack!” For a character that was mostly a mess the entire film, his sacrifice for mankind feels rewarding. They now know the alien ship's weak spot and they spread the message throughout the world. As for our heroes on the mothership, they plant a bomb and narrowly escape, but the massive explosion from the bomb destroys the mothership and it looks as if it engulfs them as well. Back on Earth, their signal is lost for a moment, only for it to reappear in the nearby desert. The President, along with Captain Steven’s new wife, David’s ex, and his father find them walking back from their victory, cigars in their mouths, looking like a couple of badasses. They all look up to the falling alien spaceship and as it falls, debris rains down like fireworks. Independence Day, indeed.
This was one of my favorite movies growing up as a kid and in my most recent viewing, I still had a great time. The comedy throughout is funny, the CGI holds up even to today’s high standards, and the A-list cast gives it their all. We get to see a young Will Smith star begin to shine, and Jeff Goldblum is just good in anything, am I right? Today we are inundated with sequels, prequels, remakes, and Disney’s Marvel movie and television show-making machine. It is nostalgic to watch a film like Independence Day that is before all of that. There was a sequel to Independence Day that was made in 2016, also directed by Roland Emmerich. This film, titled Independence Day: Resurgence, apparently has a lot of the same cast minus Will Smith. This writer has not seen that film nor needs to. From what I understand it is not very good. If you really want to be that guy, you can argue that the first Independence Day is not very good. But sometimes you gotta just let go and watch a cheesy science-fiction blockbuster from the ’90s. Life is too short to constantly watch art-house films all of the time or to only watch movies that are of today’s technological standards. I was recently dragged to the theaters to see F9 (Fast and the Furious 9) by some friends. The movie was dumb and not very good, but I had a very good time. Independence Day is of the same vein. On a final thought, we should probably start preparing for some kind of encounter now that the U.S intelligence community has recently said that some of the UFOs their airmen have encountered are “unexplainable.” If you can believe that, then you should be able to enjoy Independence Day for what it is, a damn good time.
Sahil is a social work student at Hunter College and has dreams to watch every film in the Criterion Collection. He is passionate about meditation and has been known to quote Step Brothers word for word.