Release Date: July 3rd, 1996 (US); August 9th, 1996 (UK)
Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction
Starring: Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman
Two years before his monstrous monstrosity Godzilla, Roland Emmerich hit the streets of Washington DC to tackle an alien invasion. Time — and a great deal more effort — would go on to prove extraterrestrial superiority over the giant lizard, though that’s not a particularly astounding declaration. Just how effective is Independence Day? If popcorn-munching and Coke Zero-slurping is your kind of thing then the global disaster flick works a treat. Don’t expect any intellectual poise for there’s hardly an ounce to be had. But that’s not a problem — you wouldn’t show up to Comic-Con looking for a Jane Eyre panel. Emmerich zaps many of the right notes here and, despite the modern datedness of a visual palette once heralded as ground breaking, Independence Day cajoles along boisterously.
The unexpected arrival of alien spaceships only a few days premature of July 4th sends the United States into disarray. Major cities are under immediate threat causing the peoples within them to scatter. With less than a spoonful of hope to consume, President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) finds himself seeking aid from somewhat unconventional sources; specifically, ambitious pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith) and nutty computer expert David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum).
Technology finds its way into the heart of on-screen antics more often than not. Alien or otherwise, this is sort of a love letter to technological innovation. The grandiose ships planted neatly above cityscapes not only hover with pristine accuracy, they also completely wipe out the land below with bellowing power. It’s technological warfare and the otherworldly beings have the upper hand, even when it comes to pertinent human made artefacts. (“They’re using our satellites against us.”)
But this appreciation of and for innovation speaks to a higher purpose relayed across the exceedingly long two and a half hours. Though the implementation is fairly blasé in terms of a ponderous deficit in depth, the film does propose the age-old alien versus human musing that has captured the imagination of pop culture since Neil Armstrong and of cinema since Stanley Kubrick, more or less. Emmerich and co-writer Dean Devlin’s script struggles to delve anywhere past the glossy surface — in truth, it can be really glossy — but the vigilant thinkers amongst us are still able to briefly consider some interesting possibilities as events roll across the screen.
Initially, we’re fed a distinct juxtaposition: disparate humans manifest, from the amusing to the serious to the disbelieving, whereas the stoic extraterrestrials are collectively brooding and sophisticated. It’s not until further down the heavily destroyed road that similarities strike; aliens, though technologically adept, can be just as frail as humanity. The suggestion of familiarity is intriguing but it doesn’t receive enough focus to fully unravel.
That’s because Independence Day rockets along with energy and sappy joy. Let’s be honest: the President’s Independence Day speech is amiably absurd, even more so than preceding the alien invasion. (“Perhaps it’s fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom.”) This mightn’t boast the scholarly prowess of a 2001 or even the tingling tension of an Alien, but it does come armed with fun and humour. Maybe it’s simply the childhood beer-goggles still clouding my judgement 15 years on, however it seems like the 90s was a time for chaos and frantic comedy on the silver screen. I’m thinking Space Jam. Jurassic Park. Home Alone. These films each share the same semblance of bumbling pandemonium as Independence Day, a trait that is rather infectious.
Admittedly, it is true that the quartet of aforementioned films come equipped with the stock aloof goof. We’ve essentially got two here, though Jeff Goldblum’s David Levinson is a tad more measured than his father Julius. (“‘All you need is love’ — John Lennon, smart man… shot in the back.”) The two bounce off each other with amusing distrust yet above the familial cabin fever, they’re a healthy duo and probably the best characters. Will Smith is as charismatic as ever, it’s the lack of well-roundedness that lets him down. His character Steven Hiller, along with most others, suffers from genericism syndrome. At least the guys fare better than the girls, the few of whom don’t have an awful lot to do.
Granted, this isn’t a spectacular examination of the human psyche or anything, it’s pure entertainment with a spectacular visual array. Unfortunately almost 20 years has passed and this once award winning ocular jigsaw has become penetrable. There are a number of clunky moments — the tunnel fireball stands out — but it’d be unfair to criticise a film for ageing.
One area that ought to attract some denunciation though is the prevailing lack of threat, an element that is sorely needed in order to usher in the full effect of disaster. There’s hardly any depth to the story, nor is there any strand of worry interwoven throughout proceedings which is odd given we watch the decimation of huge cities. Personal anxiety should arise, but never really does. Exposing the audience to so much carnage early on sanitises the remainder of the film — we know the worst has come and gone and the characters themselves aren’t really worth investing in, thus there is no obvious agent of emotion to clutch dearly.
Nevertheless, that is not Independence Day’s primary prerogative. Emmerich directs a film that should command greater emotional gravitas given the velocity of proceedings, but when push comes to shove this does what it sets out to do with exuberance and laughter. In fairness, compared to Godzilla, this is Citizen Kane.
Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox