When I was fifteen, I thought Independence Day was the greatest movie ever made. By the most rudimentary definitions, it still is. They could’ve titled it “Pure Teenage Awesomeness” and been no less accurate. I remember seeing the blockbuster its opening week in a large theater in Portland, Maine during the summer of 1996. I was blown away by the drama, the scares, the humor, the lofty death toll, and the larger-than-life Oscar-winning special effects.
The following fall I was visiting New York with my family and wandered into F.A.O. Schwartz. I recall feeling somewhat out of place amidst all the toys, stuffed animals, and toddlers hopping with glee. Nearing the end of my rope, I turned a corner and stumbled across an enormous TV showing none other than Independence Day, which had just come out on video cassette. My excitement peaked as I stood frozen like one of Madame Tussaud’s wax figures, gazing at the screen for the next 20 minutes until my parents found me. I declared emphatically, “You have to see this movie!”
To be sure ID4, as it widely became known, has everything money can buy: giant explosions, the destruction of revered landmarks, disgusting aliens, dogs in peril, cheesy speeches, a rousing musical score, and a mammoth cast comprised of every stereotype imaginable. The original teaser, which featured a shot of the White House getting blown to smithereens, had young audiences drooling with anticipation long before the July 2nd release date. Credit the executives at 20th Century Fox, who managed to turn the film into THE cinematic event of ’96 a full six months before anyone knew anything about the movie. Still, the brilliant ad campaign would’ve been irrelevant if the movie didn’t prove entertaining as hell.
Independence Day takes place over the course of three days, punctuated by bold lettering marked July 2nd, 3rd, & 4th, respectively. Nobody ever accused director Roland Emmerich of being subtle. The pauses emerge at roughly 50 minutes intervals, breaking the film into even thirds, which aids the overall structure considerably. The opening act introduces the dozen or so principals while spaceships cast city-size shadows over several prominent territories around the globe. Fortunately cable repairman Jeff Goldblum, never nerdier, discovers a hidden signal within our own satellite system, correctly surmising that an ensuing count down will result in a catastrophic attack. The majority of the cast narrowly escapes on Air Force One just seconds before the devastation that wipes out Washington, New York, and Los Angeles.
The second act takes to the sky as fighter pilot Will Smith (who surprisingly doesn’t show up until around the 25 minute mark), buddy Harry Connick, Jr., and a host of soon-to-be-dead extras learn that the alien spacecrafts have protective shields rendering them invulnerable. On the ground stripper Vivica A. Fox meets first lady Mary McDonnell, while president Bill Pullman learns of the mysterious, classified Area 51, managed by loony doctor Brent Spiner, happy as a clam because the invasion has stimulated all the gizmos in his lab. Once a captured alien teleports their grand plan to Pullman’s brain (stay with me), the largely untested Commander-in-chief gives the order to “nuke the bastards.”
The climax takes shape following the failed counterattack, when a highly suspect explanation involving a computer virus and a coke can disables the enemy shields. After the president rallies the troops with one of the great monologues in modern cinema, Smith flies he and Goldblum into the lion’s den so the latter can infect the mothership. In the midst of the wide-scale human retaliation, an unlikely hero emerges in booze-guzzling Randy Quaid, who gets to utter the film’s most famous 8 words: “In the words of my generation, up YOURS!” Celebration. Fireworks. End Credits.
Nobody benefitted from the success of ID4 as much as Smith, who became a household name in a third medium following his previous musical efforts and television status as the ‘Prince of Bel-Air.‘ After Men in Black hit one year later, Smith became the biggest movie star on the planet, a title he retained for well over a decade. He and Goldblum made for an endearing odd couple, as did Smith and Fox, who delivered her share of unintentionally hilarious lines. After the first lady mistakes her pole dancing for ballet, Fox justifies her career choice by confirming, “My babies’ wharf it.” She’s also the only Los Angeles resident smart enough to hide her family in a tunnel maintenance closet during the initial attack.
The rest of the cast connects like “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” Judd Hirsch plays Goldblum’s testy father who likes to call people “vultures” and gets many of the best lines on their frantic early drive to warn the White House staff. “Tell me something, you're so smart, how come you spent 8 years at M.I.T to become a cable repairman? They want HBO, they'll call you.” Goldblum also has history with ex-wife Margaret Colin, who works under the president. The three once formed a romantic triangle causing Goldblum to deck Pullman, whose right-hand man is hall of fame “that guy” Robert Loggia. Pullman and McDonnell represent the movie’s third couple, who we know are deeply in love because she smiles when endearingly calling her husband a “liar.” Super slimy secretary of defense James Rebhorn is on hand to offer terrible advice (like blowing the mothership out of the sky without regard for human safety) and disagree with every strategic decision the president makes. He also hides his knowledge of Area 51, which is run by Spiner. And round and round we go.
There are also several children with speaking parts, three of whom belong to Quaid’s character. Their terrible acting is redeemed somewhat by the scene in which a scumbag kid propositions his only daughter in a pickup truck with, “This could be your last night on Earth. You don’t want to die a virgin do you?” Classy. A word on Quaid - His paranoid antics throughout Independence Day eerily mirror the actor’s real life outbursts over the past few years. Was he even acting here? Did the aliens actually do sexual things to him? Was he genuinely drunk when he slurred, “They got bigger fish to fry now, believe you me.” Whatever the motivation, this ranks as his goofiest performance ever, which says something for the man who brought us Cousin Eddie and Ishmael Borg.
The script for Independence Day, written by Dean Devlin and Emmerich, could charitably be described as juvenile. Though in reality, few movies over the last 20 years are as quotable.
- “Everyone in the world’s trying to get out of Washington. We’re the only schmucks trying to get in.”
- “Jasmine’s got a thing for dolphins.”
- “A toast, to the end of the world.”
- “We don’t even know if it’s capable of flying!”
- “You’re talking about line of sight.”
- “Now that’s what I call a close encounter.”
- “I’m not Jewish.”
- “Why did I just send my mother to Atlanta?”
- “Cockameme plan.”
- “This is the vault. Or as some of us like to call it: The Freak Show.”
- “Why?” . . . marching over to the window . . . “THAT’S WHY!”
- “But you are not as charming as you think you are, sir.”
“Yes, I am.”
- “And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day when the world declared in one voice, ‘We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!’”
I still know Pullman’s speech more or less by heart and have been known to occasionally blurt it out after polishing off my fourth beer. ID4 mixes patriotism with unintentional humor to such a degree one can’t help but laugh. But a memorable script goes beyond dialogue. It has to fain intelligence, but then show a Labrador Retriever out-jumping a fireball. It has to take shady science theories seriously, but also make Connick, Jr. fly like an untrained moron who doesn’t know he needs oxygen to maintain consciousness. It has to suspend a whining Harvey Fierstein in Manhattan gridlock and allow a parade of morons to hold up welcome signs atop L.A. skyscrapers, while managing to kill all of them simultaneously.
Is Independence Day well directed? That probably depends who you ask. On the one hand, Emmerich plants two hideous looking bums (one white, one black) with scars in front of the camera in an extended shot for no reason. On the other hand, he slams a lunatic controlled by an alien tentacle into a glass window out of nowhere, a moment that made entire theaters gasp in unison 17 years ago. It’s tough to separate nostalgia when assessing entertainment, but sometimes you have to ignore logic and abide by involuntary response. Do I know that Air Force One can’t possibly be destroyed because it’s carrying 2/3 of the ensemble? Yes! Do I care? Not at all.
ID4 still sucks me in every time it airs on cable. The original score still give me goosebumps every time the end credits roll. I still laugh every time Quaid almost accidentally launches a nuclear missile before taking flight. And I still feel perplexed every time I see the dad from The Wonder Years show up for his ten seconds of unexplained screen time.
Independence Day has something for everybody, which remains its most refreshing feature. And if they lure the survivors back for the long- rumored sequel, I’ll probably be first in line.