In the world of film snobs…er, I mean, scholars…Independence Day has become a sort of by-word, the standard for shallow movies that cater to the unwashed masses (read: people who aren’t film scholars). It represents films that substitute sentimentality for substance and special effects for true plot and character development.
I think the true problem for these critics is that in this film, the USA shows world leadership—moral, technological and political—and the President of the United States is portrayed as a brave, self-sacrificing, and wise leader…and it’s not even done ironically. It’s played straight…as though this were some kind of Frank Capra film or something.
But that’s what’s so great about it. What’s wrong with a film in which good guys defeat bad guys, armed not only with technology but with ingenuity and purity of heart? Sure, it has its flaws, as any film does, but it’s fun and inspiring and really gets viewers involved… what more could we ask of a film?
The film begins on July 2 in the mysterious present. A huge alien ship, 500 kilometers across, appears in space just above Earth, overcomes Earth’s satellites, and releases several other smaller ships—and by smaller, I mean 15 miles in diameter. Each of these ships hovers over a major Earth city—in the US it’s New York, Washington and Los Angeles, at first. They begin to blast and destroy everything. The ships have shields that keep it from being harmed, even by nuclear missiles.
The movie roughly follows four men, though those storylines sometimes split into six or more when we start following the women connected with the men. Will Smith is a fighter pilot, Jeff Goldblum is a brilliant scientist turned cable repairman (his lack of ambition is a character issue), Randy Quaid is a washed up alcoholic Vietnam vet who claims to have been abducted by aliens a decade ago, and Bill Pullman plays the President. Through a series of slightly-too-coincidental circumstances, the three are brought together at the officially-non-existent Area 51 (and the president is irritated that the Secretary of Defense didn’t think he needed to know this particular secret).
The president tries to establish some kind of diplomatic relations with the aliens, but they refuse flat out. He learns that they are there only to destroy and pillage, stripping the Earth of its resources before moving on. They are true bad guys. The ironic thing (in a movie with no ironic commentary) is that the concentrated attacks on the world’s major cities and landmarks is a larger-scale version of later large-scale coordinated attacks in 2001 in the United States and 2008 in Mumbai, India. They couldn’t have known it in 1996, when this movie was made, but post-9/11 these aliens look a lot like a higher-tech al-Qaida.
There are some flaws in the film, as I mentioned. The multiple storylines can get confusing, but at least they all come together in the end, unlike other multi-narrative films (Crash and Love Actually come to mind). And sure, it’s a heck of a coincidence that the four guys who can save the world all happen to end up in the same place at the same time (and that place isn’t even supposed to exist—a running joke in the film). Then, when Jeff Goldblum’s character gets totally smashed on what must be a gallon of whiskey, he has an inspiration that completely and instantly sobers him up, rendering him articulate and competent in the blink of an eye. The president’s young daughter is more of a plot device to show us how human the president is and how much he has at stake, but she’s not a real kid. She never gets hungry, thirsty or bored, and she never whines.
Nevertheless, the leads play their parts straight and seriously, which is the only way to make this work. Bill Pullman delivers his speech about Independence Day for the whole world (the final battle goes down on July 4) with perfect sincerity and commitment. Randy Quaid’s character is a bit cartoonish, but that’s how he’s supposed to be; he’s an embarrassment to his children until the end, when he turns it around, and we catch a glimpse of the depths that had been hidden all along. Will Smith plays a cocky but competent fighter pilot, and while we know better now the heights Smith can reach as an actor, back in ‘96 we just wanted him to be cocky and gorgeous and to live the adventure for us (one of the best lines in the film is when Smith pilots a superior alien aircraft and shouts out, “I have got to get me one of these!”). And Jeff Goldblum is his usual understated self (possibly the exact same character he played in Jurassic Park, now that I think of it). But that’s the character the movie needed, so it worked out just fine (though I can never watch Goldblum in anything without hearing my father’s voice calling him “that idiot Jeff Goldblum.”).
The movie benefits from a strong supporting cast, as well, including Vivica Fox, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s father (why didn’t anyone ever think of doing that before?), always dependable character actors Robert Loggia and James Rebhorn, Harry Connnick, Jr, as Smith’s destined-to-die best friend, and Harvey Fierstein as a typical but amusing neurotic character.
There’s lots of death, fire, and a few creepy aliens slinking around, but the good guys get to blow stuff up, too, and they get to keep the moral high ground while they do it. So, to heck with the stuffed shirts who can’t loosen up enough to enjoy a movie just for the sheer entertainment value. It’s their loss.