It’s really easy to see, with 20 years of hindsight and several dozen viewing experiences, all of the cliches, coincidences and ridiculous jokes that riddle Roland Emmerich’s “Independence Day,” and make it a prime example of Hollywood’s “dumbing down” of the modern day blockbuster. That being said, as someone who has vivid memories of it’s release, and the build-up to it in 1996, it’s equally easy to remember just how brilliantly 20th Century Fox marketed the film, coinciding it’s release to the 4th of July (because of course you would), as well as selling the iconic image of the alien spaceship blowing up the White House as must-see cinema. I think the only other film that’s been an ingeniously sold to audiences in the ensuing years was “The Blair Witch Project.” Like that film, “ID4,” as it was nicknamed, has taken not undeserved knocks from critics and audiences over the years, but Emmerich’s film remains insanely watchable because the master of large-scale disaster cinema (as he continued to show in “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012”) understands his audience, and cast the main characters to perfection, and not just Will Smith as Captain Steve Hiller. He was the obvious breakout star of the film, but try to picture the film without Jeff Goldblum’s nervous David Levinson and Bill Pullman as President Tom Whitmore, and tell me the movie is better for it. Great cinema? Not a chance. A great cinematic experience? I think even it’s most brutal critics would agree with that.
If you’ve seen the 1950s version of “War of the Worlds,” or listened to Orson Welles’s iconic radio play of it, you’ve basically already experienced “Independence Day.” If you’ve watched the original “Star Wars,” you’ll understand some of the character dynamics and know some of the story beats. If you’ve watched any number of big event films over the past 40 years, very little in “ID4” will come as a surprise to you. But the inspired part of Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s screenplay isn’t how original it is, but how cock-sure it is about what it does. If you cringe at the coincidences that bring all of the main characters together, you aren’t getting the point. If you went into this expecting anything other than a big, silly action event film, you weren’t really paying attention to how Hollywood made such films in the early ’90s, much less how Emmerich and Devlin (who were coming off of a minor hit in “Stargate”) operate. They got justly criticized when they turned the craziness of their next film, “Godzilla,” to 11 (not to mention changed everything about the big beast’s iconic look), but they found a perfect sweet spot between empty thrills and storytelling that engages us here, but that came from how confident they were in the story they were telling. Explicitly laying out the three-act structure of the film as an act a day (July 2- They Arrive, July 3- They Attack, July 4- The Day We Fight Back, as the trailer told us) culminating in Bill Pullman’s justly famous (albeit painfully cliched) rallying cry, and all the central characters aiding in the counter attack that will save the day, gets the juices flowing and raises the stakes in a way that feels plausible, and gets us jacked at what we’re seeing during the film’s 2 hours, 25 minutes, with British composer David Arnold providing some of the most rousingly patriotic music any composer has created in the 240 years since America had declared it’s independence, and made July 4 a day to celebrate always.
1996 is probably one of my favorite movie years I’ve had in my entire life, and that summer was a big part of it. Yes, films like “Twister,” “The Rock,” “ID4” and “Mission: Impossible” weren’t big intellectual movies, but they all had great hooks to get an audience excited about them, and delivered when we got into the theatre. “Independence Day” sold us with it’s imagery of wanton destruction, but it grabbed us with the characters it gave us. Jeff Goldblum had already stolen the show in “Jurassic Park,” so as another nerd who gets what’s going to happen, audiences knew exactly what they were getting, with the added plus of Judd Hirsch as his father and Margaret Colin as his ex-wife who still loves him, even if she can’t stand him. Colin is also an adviser to President Whitmore, leading us to the 2nd big star of the film. After a career in comedies from “Spaceballs” to “While You were Sleeping,” did anyone think Pullman could sell you as a credible movie president? Even someone who had enjoyed his work to that point like me would have had a tough time doing that, but he found the sweet spot in the character and played right to it, selling everything from his resolve to stay at the White House when the aliens arrive to his wife’s death to that speech and his decision to join the pilots in the air during the climactic battle, and becoming one of our favorite movie presidents of all-time in the process. (That he also stood toe-to-toe with Robert Loggia as one of his top military advisers, and felt like he belonged there, is also quite a feat.) While Goldblum and Pullman were already plenty familiar to audiences going into the film, Will Smith was still being introduced. Up to that point, he was best known as the Fresh Prince, but “Independence Day” and Hiller made him a superstar. He became Mr. 4th of July when “Men in Black” hit it big the next year, and then “Men in Black II” and “Hancock” later succeeded during the same weekend. (Let’s not bring up “Wild Wild West.”) It’s easy to see why Hiller made him a star, as it’s basically the “Han Solo” hero role- cocky, smart-ass, aware of things in a way the other characters aren’t. He has a woman he loves in Jasmine (Vivica A. Fox), and a potential stepson in Dylan (Ross Bagley), but he really feels comfortable flying in the air, whether it’s a dogfight against the aliens or going into space to plant the computer virus with David, which shows us beautiful teamwork between Smith and Goldblum. After this movie, Will Smith wasn’t so much the Fresh Prince as he was a breath of fresh air as far as movie stars were concerned.
Watching the film again, one of the best things about the screenplay is how it builds up in the first act before the release that will lead into the second act. Emmerich is employing the same technique Spielberg did with “Jaws,” in which he builds the tension by what may happen by actually showing it happen. The action, and thus, those iconic money shots of wanton destruction, doesn’t happen until the 45-minute mark, and while those first 45 minutes has a lot of potentially-annoying humor that can make a person cringe, it comes out of the characters rather than situations, which are treated with seriousness, even when you see cutaways to crowds leaving that make you chuckle. As ridiculous as the film is as a narrative, it’s treated honestly and seriously in a way that doesn’t insult our intelligence. We get surprises and enjoyable references to other movies along the way, and the supporting cast (which also includes Randy Quaid, Harvey Fierstein, James Rebhorn, Harry Connick Jr., Adam Baldwin and Brett Spiner) has plenty to offer as the film kicks the tires and lights the fires. Another great aspect was how, at least in the first and third act, Emmerich showed the worldly response as well as the American one. Of course, the focus remains on the main characters, but seeing the way they reach out to the world for their counter attack, along with show the way the panic envelopes them at the beginning, is not something we always see in American-produced invasion movies. That universality of this story is acknowledged in Whitmore’s speech at the end, and it helps turn “Independence Day” into something we don’t always see in American cinema- a blockbuster that is truly for everyone, even if it revolves around a quintessentially American holiday. If this film is on, it’s impossible not to watch it. Even if it’s only by that measure, Emmerich’s film is a classic.