While I quickly shook off remotely liking most of his movies, including our current subject, I would be a fool not to admit that director/writer Roland Emmerich gets us Americans. He knows what we want, him and his frequent producing/co-writing partner Dean Devlin. At least they did back in the 1990s at the height of their career*, delivering to us constant barrages of modern-day Jack Arnold effects with overbloated badly strained Irwin Allen disaster film storytelling, like the first American production of Godzilla, all of which probably wouldn’t be possible without the 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park blowing the gates wide open for audiences to be lured in on the promise of that good ol’ great big money effects shot and we all know what shot 1996’s Independence Day was sold on. We know damn well what it is. Go on, picture it:
Even if you weren’t even alive in 1996 (I was 3-4 years old in the time between the first teaser in Super Bowl XXX to the film’s eventual Oscar win for Best Visual Effects and still vividly recall the mania that was happening around the movie’s release), there’s no possible way that sensationalist image of a flying saucer the size of Texas completely decimating the residence of the Leader of the Free World in a fiery ball. Of course THAT would be the main image in which the biggest effects extravaganza in the year of effects extravaganzas (Twister, The Rock, Mission: Impossible, and The Nutty Professor all ranked among the top-ten highest grossing films of the year and Independence Day almost doubled the take of second-place Twister – Dragonheart and Mars Attacks! also inhabited cinema at the time), something that could only possibly be gotten away with in a pre-9/11 world and a lot of Emmerich’s subsequent career clearly wants to echo that shot in a pale manner – Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, and especially Independence Day: Resurgence – but you just can’t imitate the cojones it takes for such a heated political season as the Clinton administration and make it a bold messy catharsis of destruction like that. Holy shit.
And honest to God, the effects in Independence Day earned the hell out of that Oscar. Central in the film is a showpiece sequence where we witness three alien invader ships on the 2nd of July (the year is not specified but it absolutely does not take place in 1996) demolishing New York City, Los Angeles, and of course Washington D.C. all in one fell swoop with all the possible flamings and sounds and crushing models you’d want to put if you wanted your popcorn movie to stand up against the likes of Star Wars. Now it’s absolutely obvious Star Wars was on Emmerich and Devlin’s mind because beyond that one great scene, there are assorted alien vs. human dogfights with all the Star Wars lifts you could possibly want, not least of which being the climactic chase on the great big alien mothership shortly after one of the most notoriously contrived solutions to the unstoppable power of the dark Gibson-esque designs of the mothership interiors. But they’re good effects, Brent, save for occasional bad compositing (most notoriously a dog’s daring escape from immolation). That Oscar was earned.
Now that I got the incredible effects out of the way, we need to shovel the shit: Independence Day is still a modern day Irwin Allen, like I said before, and that means we’ve got a story that draws hella over 145 minutes with too many cooks of characters and only three of them truly compelling. And by three of them, I mean like… 1 and a half, I’m not sure people enjoy Jeff Goldblum Goldblumming his way through saving the world via a laptop as MIT graduate David Levinson for anything but his novelty as a presence (almost certainly earned from his much more invested performance in Jurassic Park). While Bill Pullman as President Thomas Whitmore is half-asleep like he’s mostly been to me (he makes the world’s least threatening serial killer in Torchwood) and gets mileage based on his “Today is the Day We Celebrate Our Independence” Rah-Rah Speech that I’ve never entirely been fond of but understand the rise it brings in patriotism. Will Smith as Air Marine Captain Steven Hiller however has found his footing as a charismatic action movie star right here in all of his frustrations with having his holiday ruined and turning it into popcorn cynicism. And right there you get the most 1990s stars you can get, heading a cast of overall forgettable filler material that outstays its welcome in attempting to be human stories with the most anonymous stereotypes you could imagine (Brent Spiner – an actor I knew by heart at age 4 from watching Star Trek: The Next Generation – was unrecognizable to me at first watch). Most of these characters just sit and talk themselves all through the show, even in the waiting game finale of Hiller and Levinson sitting in the ship essentially hostage.
Still BIG runtime, BIG explosions, BIG cast, BIG movie. Most of it useless? No problem.
Like I said at the beginning, Emmerich and Devlin knew what Americans wanted in 1996 and gave a hell of a movie to celebrate the overglut of all things American (I know Emmerich was born in Germany, but come on, if I can consider myself American why can’t he?), which is probably why Independence Day remains a fixture of movie history. They also damn well knew we didn’t really want a good movie, so there we are with Independence Day. Let’s go celebrate, dammit, no matter what kind of slog we got. It’s a big damn thing.