REVIEW: Independence Day [1996]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 145 minutes | Release Date: July 3rd, 1996 (USA)
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Director(s): Roland Emmerich
Writer(s): Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich

“We will not go quietly into the night”

The man who proved we could only take so many disaster films and yet still made more, Roland Emmerich shouldn’t be denied the astronomical success of the one that jump-started the genre’s big budget revival in the first place. After giving us the rather smart science fiction actioner Stargate, he and writing/producing partner Dean Devlin came up with the treatment for Independence Day as a response to the constant questions about their opinions on alien life. Wanting to take a step back from the classic ‘invasion’ films like The Day the Earth Stood Still or Invasion of the Body Snatchers where our extraterrestrial visitors stay hidden in the background with ulterior motives, the two decided to portray our technologically superior foes as a force who traveled light years for a distinct purpose. They came to Earth for our resources and they were going to show their power without hesitation.

It’s not as if it hadn’t been done before with television programs “Battlestar Galactica” and “V” both finding success two decades previous, but it was the first time full-scale destruction could be shown realistically onscreen. Before Armageddon or even Emmerich’s own The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 years later, the Academy Award winning ID4 showed the world what could be done with miniatures and blew up the Empire State Building as proof in its first trailer. What better way to hook an audience that already uses the Fourth of July holiday for one of its biggest theatergoing days of the year than with our most revered structures exploding into splinters of wood? Combine that excitement with an Alien-esque monster trailing tentacles and a star-making performance from Will Smith leaving “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” behind and it’s no surprise Emmerich’s apocalyptic masterpiece became the highest grossing film of 1996.

A sprawling story spanning the lives of many Americans, their eventual convergence in Nevada’s desert for a final stand against their destroyers is overly contrived yet still entertaining enough to make sure the almost two and a half hour runtime never drags. With mile-wide spacecrafts detaching from their mothership in order to hover over the world’s largest cities, panic takes over the streets as everyone flees for safety. President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) looks to show no fear by staying-put until his braintrust can figure out what’s happening; First Lady Whitmore (Mary McDonnell) remains in Los Angeles to finish her press responsibilities; Captain Steven Hiller (Smith) reports to base for new mission instructions concerning their response to the invasion; and David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) shows how a barely used MIT degree can still come in handy when the world needs an unlikely hero.

Throw in drunk cropduster and former ‘alien abductee’ Russell Casse (Randy Quaid); stripper with a heart of gold, little boy, and dreams of marrying Hiller (Vivica A. Fox); and the ex-Mrs. Levinson (Margaret Colin‘s Constance Spano) serendipitously working as the President’s chief-of-staff and you’ll see how tidily Devlin and Emmerich interweaved their characters for maximum utility. There’s some great comic relief on behalf of Harvey Fierstein, Harry Connick Jr., and the great Judd Hirsch stealing scenes as Goldblum’s uber-Jewish father as well as government angst from tough guys (Robert Loggia) and sniveling cretins (James Rebhorn) alike. But while the story flips through secondary characters when necessary, it’s the trio of Smith, Goldblum, and Pullman that indelibly leaves its mark. Cocky as ever, neurotically awkward, and regally sharp with a now infamous speech respectively, these guys never falter from making a highly implausible premise feel authentic.

Never afraid to flamboyantly show the epic scale of the war depicted, we see the complete evisceration of many models with a mass of fiery clouds propelling debris forward. Even today these effects hold up to the scrutiny of high-definition enhancements, proving the supposed weeklong planning effort used to blow-up the White House was time well spent. And while the film will always be remembered for its iconic explosions, one must mention the familiarly grotesque creature designs of Patrick Tatopoulos and the fun fighter jet versus spaceship chases occurring with more than a coincidental nod to Star Wars. While Independence Day‘s overblown artifice may still need a very old school, War of the Worlds type epiphany for ultimate success, its heroics and ultra-secretive government facilities run by eccentrics like Brent Spiner‘s Dr. Okun definitely paved the way for our recent spate of high-octane sky’s-the-limit superhero fantasies.

And despite a soaring score from David Arnold tugging at our heartstrings during what’s probably too many overly sentimental, dramatic moments, Independence Day still remains a good ol’ patriotic romp unabashedly playing on our steadfast ‘Stars and Stripes’ mentalities. There is nothing like an underdog tale depicting humanity’s never-failing ability to join together when the singular cause is survival against a foreign intruder. Utilizing the juxtaposition of a headstrong military man and a nebbish computer geek bonding in their selfless sacrifice—that of course always turns selfish once bestowed by accolades befitting a hero if successful—fulfills the quota of everyman importance as Smith and Goldblum’s sarcastic wit counters the stern faces of the men in charge. We relate to their plight and hope we’d have the courage to risk the sacrifice they so willingly run towards.

But while we love the comedic voice shining through these dire circumstances, I’ll always maintain this is Pullman’s film. Possessing a perfect mix of compassionate empathy and a strength of will without the luxury of regret, I wouldn’t be surprised if this fictitious world repealed the 22nd Amendment and gave their country to Whitmore for life. You can see a little of his portrayal in Dennis Haysbert‘s President Palmer from “24” as well as our recent political trend of candidates doing their best to appeal as the ‘guy next door’. And if an invasion ever does come to our doorstep, we should all hope to have someone with Whitmore’s character leading the way to salvation.

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