Film * Roland Emmerich * Alien Apocalypse * 1996
Where do I even start with this terrible, wonderful, idiotic masterpiece of a film? I mean, it’s probably as formative a film as I can think of this side of Terminator 2, considering that it came out when I was seventeen and going to see movies in the theatre was actually a thing I did. Actually, now that I think about it, I’m extremely shallow when it comes to movies. It’s like, I’ll read any kind of tormented, convoluted narrative where nothing actually happens and enjoy it, but if I’m watching a movie and something doesn’t blow up in the first twenty minutes I’m bored. Well huzzah for me, because Independence Day spends very little time doing irrelevant things like building characters and constructing a cohesive plot. If that’s why you’re here, you’re doing it wrong. This is a movie that consists of broad, extremely loud strokes, which is the way it should be. We don’t have time for depth because goddamn aliens are coming and they don’t care if certain plot points make no sense. And if the aliens don’t care about such trivialities, why should you?
It occurs to me that one or two people out there may not have ever seen this, so let me explain the set-up a little bit, because the pacing of this movie is in large part what makes it work so well. The movie is broken up into three distinct acts, marked by title cards letting us know what day it is. We begin on July 2 with an ominous shadow coving the moon, which then transits to some nerd practicing his putting in a computer lab somewhere. In the background is R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” which should tell you exactly what kind of movie we’re dealing with here. From this point we bounce around between viewpoints, which serves to introduce us to the principal characters.
We’ve got Bill Pullman as the President, easily the most earnest and good-hearted politician to ever exist in human history. His team is made up of his ambitious but loyal aide, a gruff but kind general, and a sleazy Secretary of Defense who makes for an excellent heel to represent our distrust of the government. Then there’s Jeff Goldblum, American treasure, who is the ecology-obsessed weirdo science-man and his father, who is the Jewiest Jew to have ever Jewed. He is very stereotypical, is what I’m saying. Oh, and there’s Randy Quaid, who plays a sloppy drunk hillbilly pilot who claims to have been abducted by aliens in the past and spends most of his present embarrassing his children. And of course there is Will Smith, who has never been cooler, doing and saying a lot of Will Smith things. The character’s name is Steve, but the movie isn’t fooling anybody. Will Smith is a fighter pilot with aspirations of being an astronaut who also loves a stripper (gasp!) and her son. Once we check in with all these folks, things happen quickly.
The aliens are not friendly. Which, duh. Even if you haven’t seen this film, you’ve likely seen images of various landmarks blowing up because these things are ingrained in our culture. The big bad aliens have very large ships which they use to explode entire cities. The first act concludes with everything on fire and a very brave doggo juuuuust making it to safety before the lights go out and the next title card comes up. July 3. This would be the exposition/low point section of the film where we learn about various things. Here’s what we learn: 1. The aliens are bad. 2. The United States Government is morally ambiguous. 3. The X-Files are totally right you guys! 4. Nobody in the world is cooler than 1996 Will Smith. 5. Nuclear weapons are useless. 6. Brent Spiner is a delightful ham and must have really enjoyed not playing an android for once. 7. Everyone is an alcoholic. 8. No, really, the aliens are super scary. 9. It’s real sad when mom dies.
Now that all that is out of the way, the film can focus on making us feel good about this apocalypse again. Eventually our weirdo science-man gets a genius idea while sloppy drunk, which apparently sobers him up immediately. All they have to do is fly an alien craft to the mothership, upload a 1996 America Online-era computer virus, nuke them, peace out and let fighter jets take out the suddenly un-shielded alien crafts worldwide. We coordinate this attack via Morse code. All of this works more or less as advertised, with the extra added bonus of a Randy Quaid redemptive sacrifice and Will Smith being cool some more. Of course, the only reason any of this works out properly is because The President gives a stirring speech beforehand, imploring everyone that this is our Independence Day. You goddamn right it is! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!
Independence Day depicts a vast, horrifying apocalyptic event in which millions are presumably killed and everyone’s way of life is irrevocably changed for the worse. At no point during the film, however, does this fact ever feel particularly oppressive. There are more silly one-liners than laments, and other than a few melodramatic moments the movie doesn’t really notice the gravity of what is actually being depicted. I mean, entire cities are reduced to flaming rubble in what amounts to the single largest cataclysm to ever occur within the lifetime of humanity. The tone of film doesn’t really acknowledge this, which might be jarring if you’re unclear as to what we’re actually watching here. What this story comes down to is a parable of American Exceptionalism. That is a fancy way of saying it’s a movie about feeling good about America.
There is a brief scene that illustrates what I’m talking about, and it happens when Our Heroes are formulating their plan to fight back against the aliens. Once they figure out the only way to communicate is via Morse code, they begin to contact all the other affected countries in the world (which to this point have rarely been mentioned, let alone shown). When the British are contacted, one of the leaders is told that the Americans have a plan, to which the British man replies “well it’s about bloody time.” The scene is repeated with Russians and whoever, but the implication is always the same. This is a worldwide problem in which humanity itself is threatened as a species, yet nobody can think of how to respond to this imminent threat of extinction until the United States of America tell them how to do it. For as much as many of our citizens complain about our foreign policy for the last 70 years or so, really in our hearts we enjoy running shit.
Actually, I don’t know if that’s true or not, but the movie makes that assumption (which is a bit strange, considering the director is German). Presumably, the United States is also going to be in charge of the aftermath, although judging from the end of the film everything is going to be totally okay. Aside from the hundreds of millions of deaths and the hundreds of trillions of dollars in damage, the world is actually a much better place. You see, with the Americans in charge, all of humanity was able to come together for a common cause. Israelis and Palestinians holding hands and dogs and cats getting married, it’s a beautiful new day in an enlightened new world. We needed an outside threat to get us all together to act as a unified species once and for all, as long as everyone is clear as to who the real heroes are. As the film says, Independence Day is no longer an American holiday. But it still kinda is, and that’s all right I guess. There is a lot of heavy irony in the language of this article, but it comes from a place of goofy love. This film is dumb and bad, but it is great and joyful. It doesn’t take the apocalypse very seriously, and neither should anyone else. For now.