Title: Independence Day
Release Date: July 3rd, 1996
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Roland Emmerich
Release Format: Theatrical
“Forget government conspiracies about aliens — what about the entertainment media’s conspiracy to persuade America that this movie doesn’t suck?” – Rob Gonsalves (eFilmCritic.com)
“As for the human characters, they give merely adequate backseat support to the special effects that drive this big budget thriller” – Kevin McManus (Washington Post)
“The characters are unbelievable cutouts, the story has a bajillion plotholes and – No, I don’t need anything else. That’s enough to hate this movie.” – Doug Walker (ChannelAwesome.com)
The year was 1996. I was an eight-year-old boy living in NY when Independence Day hit theaters. I pleaded with my father; “Please take me to see Independence Day. I have to see Independence Day. I will die if I don’t see Independence Day.” Sadly, my family wasn’t doing well financially and I never got the chance to see it on the big screen. My first memory of this film was receiving it on VHS a year after its theatrical release. I was still satisfied when I watched it, but I still felt cheated that I never got to see it in theaters. On June 23, 2016, my wish came true. With the release of the sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, Regal Cinema had a showing of both films back to back.
Witnessing the spectacle, I sat there falling in love with this movie all over again. The acting, the effects, the writing, the characters and even the musical score made me feel like a little kid again. That being said, one thing has seriously baffled me over the years; how criminally underrated and unappreciated this film has been. In the quotations above, you can see some of the most hurtful things said about the film over the years. Even most people who defend it can only muster up that the film is just “A Fun Time” (It is) or “Dumb Entertainment.” With this article, I would like to show people why the popular consensus of this movie is a bunch of bull. I will not go quietly into the night! I will not vanish without a fight! I will live on, I will survive and today I celebrate my Independence Day!
C’mon, you’ve had twenty years to see this!
On the surface, it’s rather easy to dismiss Independence Day as a retread of old-school alien invasion movies like War Of The Worlds and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers. Hell, even the outcome of defeating the aliens with a virus (in this case, a computer virus) is a direct nod to War Of The Worlds. However, that was actually the intention of the writers, Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich. They wanted to make an alien invasion movie that paid tribute to the alien invasion films of old with one slight difference. They wanted to achieve this by using the style and structure of a modern day disaster film. By doing so, what they ended up achieving was nothing short of extraordinary. They not only created a perfect disaster movie but redefined what a disaster movie should be.
Make no mistake, even if you think Independence Day is just a “dumb movie”, you must also admit something else; Independence Day is the perfect Blockbuster. The effects have stood the test of time, the pacing is immaculate, the lines are quotable, the action is brilliant and even the characters and performances are memorable. When all is said and done, that’s what a summer blockbuster should be; memorable. To further demonstrate this, let me ask all of you a few serious questions; When was the last time you had a discussion about Volcano, Dante’s Peak, The X-Files: Fight The Future, Deep Impact, Virus, Mars Attacks or Twister? How many of you forgot half of those films even existed? When was the last time you quoted a line from one of those films?
You could easily argue that something like The X-Files: Fight The Future is a smarter movie (I like the film too). However, the fact still remains that it has not aged nearly as well as Independence Day. Nor has any other disaster film from the 90s for that matter. The only one that even comes close is Titanic which, in all fairness, might be a superior film. However, while Titanic demonstrated the real-life disaster perfectly, it was more of a love story than anything else. The love story took center stage in that film, overshadowing the disaster aspect of it. That being said, this was not the case with Independence Day.
The film’s story begins by showing us exactly what we are in store for, with a 15-mile wide spaceship passing over the moon. The ship, obviously, is heading for earth. From the first frame of this film, we see the impending danger and are given a good idea of what the stakes will be. Most movies would show the aliens attacking almost immediately after arriving. For an example, let’s just use Steven Spielberg’s terrible remake of War Of The Worlds. However, Independence Day is smart enough to take its time, establishing its world and characters first. Hell, the aliens don’t even attack until 46 minutes and 32 seconds into the film. Before that point, everything we need to know about all of our main characters is established.
Independence Day blends uplifting as well as meaningful character moments with disaster elements perfectly and in a way I have not seen in any other film. Even after the aliens attack, the film is not without its quiet moments. It allows you to breathe and take in the stakes of every situation. These characters are so much more than “Backseat support to the special effects” or “Unbelievable Cutouts” as stated above by the critics. If I had to pick a movie with cutout characters, where the effects drive the story in every aspect, I’d say watch Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a terrible movie because it has no grasp on reality. Nor does it have characters we care about. Independence Day does have that because we are able to see different people from all walks of life interact and react to every situation properly.
What makes the cast in this movie great is how Roland Emmerich attempts to show the diversity of our nation as a strength. He doesn’t just show people in power as the main characters. The characters range from The President, A Cable Repair Man, A Drunk Redneck, A Stripper, A Wise Old Father and An Ace Fighter Pilot. This is something that strengthens the film as it shows a diverse group of people trying to survive an alien invasion instead of one distinctive group. But it’s one thing to just have the characters on screen, it’s another thing entirely to make them matter to the audience. Despite that some of them are recognizable archetypes of the genre, they work wonderfully because they are all given the attention they need to make them matter. I cared about the characters in Independence Day and it’s their interactions that drive the story home.
Most people see these characters as stereotypes but, I’m sorry, I must respectfully disagree. The only character that even remotely resembles a stereotype is Julius Levinson (Judd Hirsch). Julius often comes off a Jewish stereotype and I won’t argue this because it’s true. However, I will argue that he still makes for a good character regardless of this. Any lesser director would have shown this character in a mean-spirited way. Let’s just use the two racist, jive-talking robots from Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen as an example. Do you have those two idiots in your head? Good, now compare them to the way Julius Levinson is handled in Independence Day.
Julius is a kind man who loves his son, helping him in times of need. He even gives him the idea for defeating the aliens in the end. He’s a typical father, often telling his son that he needs to do something better with his life. After all, David went to MIT for eight years only to become a cable repairman. At the end of the day, he’s portrayed as a kind soul, a man of faith and a loving father. Whereas most stereotypes are portrayed as racist, anti-semitic and/or annoying in movies like this, Julius is portrayed in a kind and uplifting manner. How refreshing is that?
Now, let’s just look at our main characters as well as the casting for the moment. Who has top billing in this film? Will Smith, somebody who was the farthest thing from a movie star back in 1996. Critics lambasted this when it was announced, believing that the film cared so little about its casting that it casted a rapper from a tv series as its lead. Yet, when all was said and done, all of them were eating their words. Will Smith crushed the role of Captain Steven Hiller. It launched his career as a movie star and everyone wanted him after that. Why? Will Smith is the king of cool. He has an unbelievably great on-screen presence as an actor and it shines beautifully here.
Make no mistake, if this movie was being made in the 1950’s, someone like John Wayne would have likely played this role. Hell, in most disaster movies being made at the time, this kind of role still would have gone to a young white actor. I’m not trying to bring race into this but let’s look at the facts. Every disaster movie I mentioned earlier had a white lead. Roland Emmerich took a chance on Will Smith and it paid off beautifully, cementing Smith’s status as a film star to watch. Out of all the main characters, Captain Steven Hiller has some development but, admittedly, also has the least. However, Will Smith brings charisma and fun to his role, making him arguably the most enjoyable character in the film.
Then there’s David Levinson, played wonderfully by Jeff Goldblum. In just his introduction scene, we learn everything we need to know about this character. He is shown taking his time while playing a game of chess, indicating to us that he is smart and thinks before he acts. He scolds his father for using a styrofoam cup and for smoking, indicating that he cares about the environment. More importantly, however, he still wears his wedding band, revealing that he is still in love with his ex-wife (Margaret Collin). Despite these facts, as well as the reveal that he went to MIT for eight years, he’s not ambitious or confident enough to move on, keeping his job as a cable repairman because as he puts it “I was happy where I was.” The film properly establishes a character, his strengths and his weaknesses from the word go.
The main driving force for David is his wife, Constance, who also happens to be the President’s aid. When the saucers arrive and he discovers the alien’s hidden signal, all he can think about is getting to her. My point in all of this is that David’s love for his ex-wife is what ultimately saves her, his father, the president, and the chief advisors. This is all done while revealing a backstory about David and President Whitmore hating each other. By the end of this film, David is completely transformed. He’s become more ambitious, he has his wife back, he and Whitmore respect each other and he even smokes a victory cigar with Steven Hiller. For everyone who refers to these characters as “cutouts”, we have a term for this in the film industry; it’s called “CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT”.
Then we have President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman), who is arguably the most tragic character of the film. At the start, he’s introduced as a weak president. As a woman on the television puts it, “they elected a warrior and they got a wimp.” The fact that Thomas Whitmore is an ex-fighter pilot and ambitious man is irrelevant because The American People don’t see him that way. However, this doesn’t just stop there as he tries to do the right thing all throughout the film and constantly fails. His Secretary of Defense disrespects him. He doesn’t evacuate the cities in an attempt to stop a widespread panic and, unfortunately, this results in the deaths of thousands of people when the aliens attack.
He orders a counter-defensive with several squadrons of fighter pilots and all but one of those pilots die. He orders a nuclear strike on one of the saucers which only hurts whoever may have been around the blast radius and not the saucer itself. Then, finally, when you think this character can’t take anymore, he loses his wife. It’s not his fault this time but, at this point, it doesn’t matter. Throughout this film, we are able to feel for this character. He shoulders a great responsibility and can never seem to do the right thing, no matter how hard he tries. This is why it’s easy to root for him when he gets in that plane and fights alongside the other pilots. Oh, and making the greatest movie speech of all time was a serious plus as well.
This is something that makes Independence Day such a likable movie; we can empathize with the characters. Independence Day is mean to its characters and never makes things easy for them. Like all great characters, they are likable but flawed. Nowhere is that more prominent in Independence Day than with Russell Casse (Randy Quaid). He’s a drunk who claims to have been kidnapped by aliens ten years earlier. He has three kids who hate his guts and, like Whitmore, he can’t do much right either. Going back to what I said earlier about the character development in this film, Russell Casse gets the most. By the end, he quits drinking, sobers up, fights with the other pilots in the climax and is ultimately the one who sacrifices himself for all of them, suicide bombing himself up the ass of the alien ship when his missile jams.
Who he is at the end of the movie is in complete contrast to who he was at the beginning of the movie. He was a broken man who needed redemption and in the end, he got that. “Do me a favor… tell my children, I love them very much”, got me teary eyed as a kid and still gets me as an adult. Keep in mind, up until that point, nobody believed in him. I doubt this character even believed in himself. His children, especially his oldest son, despised him. His neighbors ridiculed him and even the superior officers who recruited him looked at him like he was crazy. Yet, despite all of that, he still made the noble decision to die for everyone. Again… “CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT”. I sincerely hope spelling it out for people in big bold letters is helping.
Other characters like Jasmine (Vivica A. Fox) and Constance (Margaret Collin) do well as supporting players and both of them give great believable performances. Neither of them is sidelined and both have something to contribute to the film’s progression. Admittedly, for the most part, their progression relies a lot on the main characters and their interactions with them but the film still finds a way to make it work by, again, making these characters diverse. Not just in nature but in occupation.
Jasmine is a stripper; she also saves several people including the president’s wife from piles of rubble before her boyfriend, Hiller, finds her. Constance is a presidential advisor; she’s also David’s motivation to be more ambitious and without her convincing Whitmore to listen to David, The President and everyone in The White House would have died. However, it’s not just the characters that get a bad rep, as the story apparently does too. “… The story has about a bajillion plotholes” as one of the critics above so distinctly put it. Let’s just look over some of these “plotholes”, shall we?
1. It makes no sense how David can hack into the alien technology in order to set the virus. It’s so stupid.
Actually, no, it isn’t stupid. According to the movie, David was easily able to find the signal the aliens were sending through our satellites. If he was able to decrypt that, it is entirely plausible that he’d be able to send a virus into the mothership by use of the same signal being that the aliens were using our satellites. This is only backed by the fact that he has access to Area 51’s technology as well as their near 50 years of research on the alien ship.
2. How did Steven Hiller know exactly where to find Jasmine, especially in the middle of the night?
Um… did you even watch the movie? He told her to pack some things and head to El Toro so that she and Dillion could stay with him at the base. When everything went down, Jasmine saved a ton of people and headed straight for El Toro. That is the first place Steven Hiller looked, hence why he found her so easily. Watch the movie next time.
3. How did a cable repair man figure out the signal?
I kind of already answered this but the film clearly states that David went to MIT for eight years. Again, it helps to actually watch the movie.
4. Why wouldn’t they let Steven Hiller join NASA just because his girlfriend is a stripper?
He was rejected but not because his girlfriend was a stripper. That was just a dumb statement made by Jimmy (Harry Connick Jr.). The letter didn’t say he was rejected because his girlfriend was a stripper. Hell, he could sue for that.
5. Why didn’t they say anything about the crashed spaceship from the 50’s when the ships were entering the atmosphere?
The only one that knew about it was Mr. Nimzicki (James Rebhorn) and he is scolded for not saying something. Both Whitmore and General Grey (Robert Loggia) give him hell for not telling them sooner. He makes the excuse that it was deemed classified but even that doesn’t sway them. Case and point, this is not a plothole. It is addressed in the film.
6. Why would they let The President of The United States fly a fighter plane with the other pilots at the end?
I actually have several answers for this one. One, he’s The President, so even if you told him no, I’m pretty sure he’d tell you to go scratch. Two, he does this to show the pilots that he’s willing to fight with them, giving them the confidence they need. Three, THE WORLD IS ABOUT TO END! Who the hell would care? There is no United States anymore! It’s all been blown to hell! If The President of The United States wants to get in a fighter jet to battle aliens, frickin’ let him.
7. “Tell em how to bring those sons of bitches down!” What did they tell them? To get a redneck pilot to fly into the primary weapon and die?
Uh, no, I’m pretty sure they told the other nations to just fire a missile into the primary weapon, which would have also effectively destroyed the other saucers. Yeah, pretty simple explanation.
These, my friends, are just a handful of insults hurled at Independence Day that is not only baseless but easy to explain if you actually, ya know, watch the movie.
However, aside from the characters and the story, the action in the film is fantastic. Even people who hate the movie can admit that. The scenes of the monuments blowing up, more particularly The White House getting demolished, are so iconic that blowing up landmarks in disaster movies has almost become a right of passage for action directors. This is yet another thing done perfectly in Independence Day; the visuals. Every visual feels big and is a sight to behold. From the explosions to the aliens to the dogfights in the air, Independence Day looks amazing. However, it’s one thing to make an explosion on screen and something else entirely to make it stick with you. Michael Bay uses explosions all the time but they don;t stand out. Why? Because Roland Emmerich knows (or knew… 2012 was pretty abysmal) how to build tension.
The tension mounts up the more the plot builds on itself so when the first attack does happen, we feel the weight of everything going on. What also makes it work is the use of practical effects. The film utilized miniatures and several other practical elements to make each scene look as realistic as possible. When you see The White House blows up, you believe The White House blew up. Another thing I have to give this film is that it has a perfect musical score. Something musical scores have lost in recent years (especially in Independence Day: Regurgitation) is the ability to make us feel. Whether it makes us feel sad in the harsh moments or uplift us in the brighter moments, David Arnold’s score is nothing short of perfection. I could listen to the main theme of this film on repeat for hours; it’s that damn good.
Now, as far as the actual aliens themselves are concerned, the film takes the approach that less is more. The less we see, the more frightened we as an audience can become. The saucers do their part and the limited scenes of the actual aliens do theirs. Not to mention just the practical visuals alone are still so awesome. The designer of the aliens was Patrick Tatopoulos, who also did the effects work on Stargate, Underworld, Pitch Black and Silent Hill. Needless to say, the man has talent. What worked so well about these aliens was their simplicity. They don’t look groundbreaking but they are presented in a unique fashion, through the mechanical armor suits. Personally, I didn’t have a problem with them.
Now before I get into my closing thoughts, am I gonna be the guy who says that Independence Day doesn’t have its share of cheesy and cliche moments? No! Independence Day has a ton of cheesy and cliche moments. Hell, the original ending had Russell Casse flying his crop-duster, with a missile strapped to the wing, into the ass of the alien ship instead of fighting with the other pilots. So yeah, I get that. However, do me a favor and name one action and/or disaster film from the last four decades that doesn’t have something cheesy, cliche or stupid in it. My god, Titanic won best picture in 1997 and I could be here til’ next Christmas talking about all the cheesy moments in that film. It’s a damn disaster movie, of course it has moments like this. However, Independence Day does this for purposes of entertainment and fun.
Overall, what else can I say about Independence Day? It’s a film where a leader that nobody believes in can inspire world peace and unity. It’s a movie where an every day, drunken schmo. that everyone ridicules can save the human race. It’s a film where a cable repairman and an ace pilot can work together to save the world and the ones they love. It’s a film where those who have lost faith can find it again. Where so many actions and disaster movies today are dark, gritty and unsettling, Independence Day is uplifting and optimistic about the future of mankind. It’s a movie that wants to move you, charm you, make you cry, make you think and make you laugh but, most of all, when all is said and done it just wants to make you stand up and cheer.
Independence Day is a criminally underrated masterpiece that I love and will continue to love for years to come.
The fat lady has sung, Big Daddy!
- Characters – Characters are fun, diverse, identifiable and memorable. Most are given superb development, while others make up for it with sheer charisma and charm. The humor between these characters is fantastic and the lines are quotable. I salute the TV Screen every time Whitmore makes that speech.
- Cinematography – Fun Fact: The explosion of The Empire State Building and the explosion of The Primary Weapon are the exact same explosion. They just turned The Empire State Building upside down for the other scene in post. True Story! But yeah, the cinematography is fantastic and the movie looks great.
- Story – The story is uplifting and the theme of unity is well addressed. It has clever nods to Science Fiction and Disaster films of old, especially towards the end.
- Acting – The acting is wonderful all around. Will Smith is hilarious as always, Jeff Goldblum is at his Jeff Goldblum-iest (if that makes any sense), Randy Quaid fits his role perfectly and Bill Pullman was brilliant.
- Groundbreaking Effects
- A Stellar Cast
- A Nice Sendup To Alien Invasion Films Of Old
- One Of The Best Musical Scores I've Ever Heard
- Memorable Characters And Superb Character Development
- Charisma, Charm And A Great Deal Of Heart
- The Greatest Movie Speech Ever!
- Some 90's Cheese Sprinkled Throughout
- ... Yeah, I got nothin' else.
A graduate of Full Sail University with a Bachelors Degree in Creative Writing, Adam is a Writer and Film Critic, looking to make his mark on the world. When he isn’t at the movies, writing for The Nerd Stash, playing Duck Hunt (respect the classics) or delivering pizzas to his neighbors, he is back at school earning his Masters Degree in Film Production.