It’s hard to say why Roland Emmerich’s 1996 classic Independence Day features so prominently in my childhood memories. It could be that it scared the shit out of me. My parents had no qualms about taking their first grader to a PG-13 alien invasion movie. It could be that it helped to launch the blockbuster movie career of Will Smith, who solidified a place in my heart with his seminal “Big Willie Style” the following year. One of the major box office successes of the 1990s, Independence Day is a movie I love to return to. For me, it defines an era. Just in time for our July 4 holiday, let’s look back at a film that encapsulates so much of the optimism of the 1990s. Before we begin, however, take a moment to appreciate this bizarrely soundtracked unofficial trailer.
From the ominous opening shot of a shadow hovering over Moon, you know this will be a captivating film, and with the heroic triumvirate of Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith, and Bill Pullman, (Seriously, does Bill Pullman ever not play the President of the United States?) you know America, and the world, will prevail. Part of the brilliance of the film is its ability to keep you smiling and laughing as all of the major cities in the United States are systematically destroyed, including a brilliant shot of the White House getting absolutely eviscerated. Roland Emerich seems to have a grudge against the White House. He’s destroyed it in three of his movies.
As the late Roger Ebert says in his original review of Independence Day: At one point the news comes that New York, Washington, and Los Angeles have been destroyed, and is there grief? Despair? Anguish? Speculation about what it will mean for professional sports? Not one bit- the characters nod and hurry on to the next scene.” I’m not sure I get the part about professional sports but, no, Roger, there is not. There is only time for ace pilot Steven Hiller, played by Smith, to declare that he’s “just a little anxious to get up there and whoop ET’s ass,” a line that will live forever.
As Washington is destroyed, the president and his team narrowly escape by plane, landing in the center of all conspiracy theories, Roswell, New Mexico. Here we learn that the United States has known all along about the threat of alien invasion and that we employ the most incompetent scientists we can to study their biology and technology. After a beleaguered Smith- the sole survivor from his flight squadron- drags a concussed extraterrestrial into the laboratory, the team gathers around to watch a dissection. Here’s my question: has anyone who has ever watched this film not known right away exactly what was going to happen in this scene? Even so, terrifying.
Finally, Goldblum’s Dr. David Levinson figures out the key to destroying the Alien mothership: a computer virus. Who would have guessed that all we needed to stave off our extinction was a little malware? And even though the dogfight finale still gives me goosebumps, the personal relationships in the film are what stand out the most. Pullman is a charismatic and convincing family man, Vivica A. Fox is the perfect foil to Will Smith's bravado, and Judd Hirsch’s performance as Goldblum’s father is both touching and hilarious. Even Randy Quaid, the heroic and alcoholic crop duster gives the film an added touch of humanity. If you aren’t familiar with what Randy Quaid has been up to … oh boy.
So if you're still awake after the fireworks, give yourself a moment to appreciate a film that encapsulates the unbridled optimism of the decade that gave us Bill Clinton and the Fresh Prince. Whenever I see this film I feel like I'm six again.