This movie has been on my mind a lot lately, for lots of reasons. First and foremost, there is a sequel being released in just a week or two, 20 years after the original was released. Amazing. But even more so – lately it seems that Hollywood marketing people have lost their minds. For a lot of recent movies – Independence Day Resurgence among them – I feel like the commercials and trailers have been showing way too much of the movie. I worry that they have ruined the end of this one in particular, that giant alien you’ve seen stomping around? I’m sure that’s the finale of the flick. Earlier this year, they did BVS Dawn of Justice no favors by showing that Doomsday was featured, and last summer they showed the IRex from Jurassic World, which would have been a stunning reveal had they kept it under wraps – plus the reveal of Pratt’s keeper riding with the velociraptor pack.
I feel like in terms of movies that did it right, I always remember the original Independence Day. I remember for the Superbowl in early 1996, prior to hearing anything about the movie, there was a commercial that just showed that amazing shot of the White House blowing up.
At that point, I still had no idea who was in the movie – or even what it was really about, and that one shot kept me looking forward to it for 5 months while we waited for the movie to come out.
Independence Day starts with an eerie shot of the moon on July 2nd as something moves past it. A scientist at the SETI Institute (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence – visit them at Seti.org) picking up on a signal. He calls in the boss, and they listen to the signal together, initially wanting to write it off as much of the space garbage they hear regularly. However, this one is clearly generated, communicative, and getting closer. We then are gradually introduced to the main characters by seeing them in random locations – prepping for the July 4th holiday. We meet the president, Thomas J. Whitmore, Air Force Pilot Captain Steven Hiller, his unnecessarily-a-stripper girlfriend, Jasmine, and her son; and MIT grad David Levinson. The signal is finally analyzed - it is a giant alien mothership that has passed the moon and is taking up in orbit around the earth. It releases 36 smaller spacecraft – each about 15 miles across (city-killers) that each enter the atmosphere and take up positions over the largest cities on Earth. Remember how amazing seeing that was for the first time?
People behave as people will – some wanting to run up to the top of buildings with signs (“I hope they bring back Elvis!” – they don’t), and some panic and try to leave the cities (these are the smarter folks). Levinson realizes that they are using our own satellites to communicate (he works for a cable company) and immediately gets in touch with his ex-wife, White House Communications Director Constance Spano – he grabs his father Julius, and they head from New York down to Washington D.C. They get to the president, and David lets him know that the signal is a countdown to what he can only assume is an attack. The president tries to pull back a helicopter that was flashing lights at the ship in order to try to communicate it, but as the countdown hits zero – each of the 36 ships attacks at the same time, launching a beam from the center of their ships to whatever is beneath, causing a ring of fire to move outwards, destroying whatever in comes in contact with.
We then shift to July 3rd as the ships close up, and each one moves to the next city on their lists. Humanity tries to assemble some sort of counter-attack, and we follow Capt. Hiller and his group as they attack the ship nearest to them. They quickly find that the ships have hundreds of smaller fighter ships inside, and most of our forces get wiped out in dogfights. Hiller leads one in a chase through the Grand Canyon, causing both his ship and it to crash – at this point, he climbs on top of the ship and when the alien attempts to pop out, he punches it in the face. Because Will Smith.
The president, Connie, David, and Julius are hanging out on Air Force One, having barely escaped D.C., and now looking for a plan. Julius accuses the President of not acting on the information he had from the aliens that crashed in 1947 and they were keeping in the secret base, Area 51 in Roswell, New Mexico. The President insists that this is not true, but Defense Secretary Nimzicki states that it is actually there – so there is where they head.
Meanwhile, Hiller is dragging his punched-out alien through the desert and runs into a convoy of RVs led by Vietnam Vet, Crop Duster, and self-proclaimed alien abduction victim, Russel Case. He instructs them to head to the secret base he saw from the air – convenient, because now everyone is heading to Area 51.
The President and crew meet Dr. Okun, who seems to be in charge of the place, he and his staff have three alien bodies from the 1947 crash and the ship – which has started to react in the last two days since the arrival of the others. They have some information on them, but not much – basically they wear bio-mechanical exo-suits and communicate telepathically. When Hiller arrives with his alien, Okun starts an examination of it – removing it from the bio-suit. However, it wakes up, trashes the place, and communicates through Okun to the president. Whitmore asks what they want us to do, and very ominously, the alien responds “DIE”. He then learns through some telepathy that the aliens are wanting to wipe us out to take the earth for its resources. That doesn’t sit well with us, after all, we’re wanting to use up our own resources – so the president authorizes the military to try a nuclear weapon on one of the ships.
That doesn’t work - why did they think it would? David, in a fit of drunken despair, comes up with an idea to give their systems a virus. Since we couldn’t get though their shields, but they are using our satellites, he designs a computer virus that will interrupt their communications, hopefully shutting down their shields, and allowing us to attack them.
It’s a pretty great plan, or it’s the only plan, so Hiller quickly marries Jasmine, and David reconciles with Connie so that Hiller and David can fly the old ship up to the mother ship and upload the virus. The president gives a really inspiring speech to everyone left who is about to take to the skies to fight as dawn breaks on July 4th.
Hiller and David head up (nevermind how Hiller knows how to fly the ship); just as another ship moves in over the base to send out its fighters and destroy the base. David uploads the virus (nevermind how his system can interact with theirs), and just when they think their trip is one way – they shoot a nuclear missile into the mother ship – dislodging theirs, and head down as quickly as possible.
The fighters on the ground can now destroy the smaller ships because the shields are down, but the larger city-killer is too big for them to take out, until Russel Case flies his ship directly up the center weapon-hole. This sets off explosions from the inside, and they communicate that to everyone all over the world, so they know how to bring down the aliens.
Hiller and David crash out in the desert to be greeted by Connie, Jasmine and the president – everyone is all happy as the ships crash down around them. Hooray! Humanity wins! At least until we go see Independence Day Resurgence, I mean – who knows how the aliens have spent the last 20 years. My guess is that they are seriously angry with us.
Directed by Roland Emmerich and produced by Dean Devlin, this movie is the best of their multiple team-ups. Prior to this, they had done Universal Soldier (1992) and Stargate (1994). They followed this with the terrible Godzilla (1998), the Patriot (2000 – you remember, the movie about the American Revolution starring two Australians?). You can tell, at least from Universal Soldier and Stargate, that Emmerich excels at big sweeping action movies (he also did The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, and White House Down) and as much as I loved both Universal Soldier and Stargate, this movie is really fantastic, and still holds up. The pacing of the movie – cleanly broken into the three days – really helps to get the audience on board with the speed of the attack. The effects at the time were ground breaking, and the first scenes of the ships breaking into the atmosphere and slowing down were stunning and amazing. It is a bit heavy-handed in the triumph scenes, especially in insinuating that the rest of the world was just sitting around waiting for the Americans to come up with a solution, but it does manage to balance that with some more quiet, touching scenes – especially with the death of the First Lady. The scope of the movie is incredible – it manages to be a really huge global story, but by giving us multiple really interesting characters – also manages to feel fairly personal.
- This is a Will Smith movie, and definitely helped to cement his role as an action star. This came right after Bad Boys – and Smith feels completely genuine and believable as Capt. Hiller. He never gets overwhelmed by the situation, preferring to handle one issue at a time, ready to take on each challenge as it comes up. The interesting backstory of him always wanting to be an astronaut was a nice bit – but never really gets developed, just pays off when he finally gets to fly the spaceship. His shooting Suicide Squad prevented him from joining in the upcoming sequel, but hopefully they’ve handled the lack of Will with grace.
- Bill Pullman plays President Whitmore, and does a great job of making the audience really sympathize with this former pilot from the Gulf War as he shifts to leading the country. Not to mention the fact that he jumps into a plane for the final fight – come on, that’s awesome. And yes, that speech – however cheesy – still gives me chills.
- Jeff Goldblum plays David Levinson, and this came just three years after Jurassic Park, so Goldblum was familiar to summer tentpole audiences. He makes David very relatable, and really snarky and fun. Plus, who doesn’t love a guy who once punched the president over a lady?
- Mary McDonnell plays the First Lady – good practice before she headed over to BSG and accidentally became president there. She stands by Whitmore, when all the critics are calling him ‘too soft’, and then handles her helicopter crash with grace.
- Judd Hirsch – who is really only a few years older than Goldblum, plays Julius. He is very cranky and very Jewish, and is mostly comedy relief.
- Robert Loggia plays General Grey – who serves as the president’s military advisor. He handles this alien invasion the way you expect a career military man to handle it. He doesn’t become flustered – just finds a way to attack.
- Randy Quaid plays the very crazy Russell Case, who you assume is crazy when he talks about how he was abducted years ago – but then you start to realize he might have been right. His over-the-top delivery of his final line to the aliens as he’s bringing the ship down is a bit much – but hey – it fits the character I suppose.
- Margaret Colin plays Connie Spano – and is great at being annoyed at Goldblum when he shows up. She also is quick to believe him and gets him in to see the president just in time.
- Vivica A. Fox plays Jasmine, and yes – she loves dolphins – but is the fact that she is a stripper really the reason NASA won’t let Hiller become an astronaut? That seems crazy, but hey – I don’t know anything about NASA’s hiring practices. She got called in to work on her day off, even though there is a giant spaceship hovering over L.A. She also proves to be pretty handy in a crisis – stealing a huge truck and rescuing the first lady.
- James Rebhorn plays Nimziki – a standard government tool who didn’t tell the president about Area 51 because of ‘plausible deniability’.
- Harvey Fierstein plays Harvey Fierstein as the head of the cable company that David is working for – he’s strictly comedy relief as he helps try to get people out of the building once David realizes the aliens are going to attack.
- Adam Baldwin plays Major Mitchell – a military employee at Area 51.
- Bent Spiner goes completely nuts at Dr. Okun – a re-creation of a production designer named Okun that Emmerich and Devlin worked with on StarGate. He is goofy and weird, but really helps light the middle of the movie.
- Harry Connick Jr. plays Jimmy – Hiller’s flying partner who gets taken out really quickly while fighting the first wave of attackers. He certainly was charming while there, though.
- Erick Avari gets a bit cameo as the head of SETI in the beginning of the movie, presumably since he held up so much of StarGate previously for Emmerich and Devlin.
Overall, the movie was fantastic, fun, exciting, and watchable. It still holds up. I tend to watch it just about every Independence Day. I wish movies today would have that same sense of amazement I had when I first saw it, and I’m worried that the commercials/trailers have ruined what would have been those moments for the second. Much of the original cast is back, and I really look forward to seeing what happens this time around.
9 out of 10 – taking off a point for Randy Quaid, and for Adam Baldwin’s toxic real-life personality, which now colors my opinion of him when I see him onscreen.
Bonus – Stargate, before Spader went Ultron, he was Kurt Russell’s sidekick.