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‘Independence Day’ Review: Bring On The Sequel

‘Independence Day’ Review: Bring On The Sequel

Credits

Director: Roland Emmerich
Writers: Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich
Stars: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum

2.5

As we edge closer to the upcoming sequel to the sci-fi classic Independence Day, it only makes sense to go back and remember why it’s remained so relevant even twenty years later. Here’s a retro-replay review.

First, a quick summary: On the eve of the American celebration of Independence Day, an alien ship a quarter the size of the moon enters Earth’s orbit and unleashes 15 massive saucers, staging an attack that will test the resolve of all mankind.

No matter your opinion of this often chided film (our score makes our position clear), its legacy is secure as the kick-starter for the sci-fi revival of the modern era, and the catalyst for the stratospheric movie career of Will Smith. A visual effects powerhouse with a decidedly cheesy but purposefully tongue-in-cheek approach, the film was the biggest box office winner of its year, shattering records set by Jurassic Park and inadvertently starting the large-scale disaster film trend that continues to this day.

Directed by Roland Emmerich (who would be behind many of the aforementioned disaster films), the story grew from questions Emmerich was asked about his own feelings on life on other planets while he was promoting his latest movie, Stargate. He and his writing partner Dean Devlin noticed that most alien movies had creatures traveling long distances and then hiding out on Earth, so, to go in an entirely different direction, decided to have a full-scale, global attack. It was a risk, but audiences responded.

Independence Day, 1996
Independence Day, 1996

While the story is global, most of the action takes place in the United States as the plot follows branching stories, with everything connected in the end. There is the US President, played by Bill Pullman, who evacuates the White House just as the aliens engage their attack and destroy several well-known landmarks and buildings. He travels to Area 51, where he learns that the rumors are true and the government has known about extra-terrestrial life for decades. A scientist there, played by Brent Spiner, who has been spending far too much time underground, has been researching an alien craft found in the midwest desert long before now. There is Captain Steven Hiller (Smith), an Air Force pilot who is part of the defense team, able to engage and even take down one of the smaller alien fighters in an extended dogfight through the Grand Canyon. He subdues the creature and while dragging it across a desert, flags down a large convoy of RV’s heading away from the destruction, one of which is home to Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), a man who for years has been ridiculed for his colorful stories of alien abduction but now is proven right. Lastly, there is David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), an MIT-trained satellite expert, who has figured out the alien signals and after informing the president, is thrust into the action by partnering with Hiller in a last ditch effort to infiltrate the mothership and take it down with a computer virus.

Independence Day never takes itself seriously, keeping everything as straightforward and transparent as possible. Coloring with big, broad strokes, Emmerich is is far more interested in the show rather than the story, and succeeds on that level with some impressive, albeit wholly unrealistic, effects. Realism isn’t the point though, and we are not tasked with having to ask why or how. This is about spectacle and drama, so our only challenge is being able to let go and accept the rules of the world presented and go along. It’s not always easy.

One might say that the silly computer virus subplot, which is exceedingly far-fetched, is an homage of sorts to H.G. Wells‘ classic War of the Worlds (the entire film is essentially a remake of this story on many levels), where an attacking Martian army is defeated not by human armies but microbial infections, of which the Martians have no immunity. We can’t help but smirk at the thought, especially when it is so perfectly doled out by the out-of-this-world charms of Goldblum and Smith. In fact, re-watching the film, it is the strength of most of the performances that make the film watchable.

Independence Day
Will Smith (Independence Day, 1996)

Smith, who was already a television star, had just come off Michael Bay‘s Bad Boys, a buddy-cop movie that was all flash and style, winning a lot of fans for his tough-guy break from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. With Independence Day, he brought that same intensity, along with a cocky attitude, a powerful smile, and a confidence that propelled him into superstardom. Goldblum, who three years earlier played Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, a dark character that won many fans for his deadpan delivery (and fabulous chest), plays the computer geek here, but retains a lot of Malcolm’s traits, keeping him very identifiable. The two were a perfect pair and their banter was refreshing and often very funny. They were the heroes the film needed.

Back to the visual effects. The thing most people talked about long after the film ended were the explosive moments that were unlike anything audiences had seen before. On the cusp of a new wave of CGI-heavy movies, Independence Day held on to the old style for much of the devastation portrayed on screen. Using large-scale models (1/12 scale for the White House) and camera techniques that, because of the shift to CGI, remain, and probably always will, some of the largest of their kind, the film is noted as using more miniature models for visual effects than any other film in history. No matter the flaws in story or logic when applying the effects, they are impressive to watch, even today. The White House scene is still thrilling, but it is the New York City wall of flame that takes the prize, as this incredibly effective, but simply shot (filmmakers tilted the set) effect is both terrifying and breathlessly beautiful. It’s no wonder the movie won the Academy Award that year for Best Achievement in Visual Effects.

Independence Day
White House, Behind the Scenes (Independence Day, 1996)

So where does it falter? Having watched this in theaters on the weekend of its release, and a few times in-between then to now for this review, the film struggles to give the characters any sense of investment for the viewer, all of them stock and carefully molded around specific genre stereotypes. That doesn’t mean they aren’t effective, but just lack any depth and therefore all are predictable. The gaps in story logic are also frustrating, begging questions we aren’t supposed to ask. That in itself makes the experience shallow since a film that poses questions and allows for interpretation is part of the great joy of the media. If we walked out of a Christopher Nolan film with no questions, what’s the point? And no, not all movies need to challenge us, but when one introduces an event such as Independence Day does and feeds only the baser impulses of enjoying watching things go boom without poking our intellect, it feels empty as a result. Understanding what Independence Day is certainly should relax criticism, but it’s the missed opportunities to go beyond the obvious that ultimately detract from this admittedly fun experience.

Sensibilities have shifted, of course, since 1996. A new age of darker, more grittier film making has become the standard in mainstream movies. From the looks of the up-coming sequel, which features many of the original cast, minus Will Smith, that trend will make Independence Day: Resurgence a bit different from the first. The trailers all look decidedly more heavy, and that might be a good thing, though massive destruction seems to be one constant. Read more about of trailer Sneak Peek here.

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