Independence Day (1996) Starring: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, Randy Quaid, Margaret Colin, Vivica A. Fox. Directed by Roland Emmerich. Screenplay by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. Produced by Dean Devlin. Color. U.S.A. Run time 145. Science Fiction, Horror, Action.
There is a rich tradition of filmmakers coming from Germany to Hollywood. But Roland Emmerich is hardly ever mentioned in the same breath as F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang or Billy Wilder. While these filmmakers’ works have stood the test of time, Emmerich’s have not yet, nor will they necessarily. A lot of that has to do with the types of films Emmerich is best known for making, disaster films. This is a genre that usually doesn’t stand the time of time. When is the last time anyone has mentioned The Towering Inferno (1974) or Earthquake (1974) or even Emmerich’s own The Day After Tomorrow (2004).
But some disaster films do last and even spark their own sequels. Such is the case with Emmerich’s Independence Day, released on July 2, 1996. The story originates when Emmerich and his filmmaking partner, Dean Devlin, were doing a press tour promoting their film adventure, science fiction film Stargate, in 1994.
By Hollywood standards, Emmerich and Devlin were able to have very quick turn around on their idea, with principal photography starting in New York in July 1995. There was a lot of location shooting with such diverse places as the Very Large Array in San Agustin, New Mexico; Wendover, Utah, West Wendover, Nevada; Cliffside Park, New Jersey; Fontana, California; the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah; and Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles. Some sets, like those of the Oval Office, were reused from such films as The American President (1995) and Nixon (1995).
As can be imagined for a film reliant on special effects, there are 3000 plus special effects in Independence Day. However, to save on the budget, more were done on-set, in-camera rather than CGI and blue screen-laden. It was a strategy that seemed to work as the film won Best Visual Effects.
|The mother ship deploys smaller ships which take positions over major cities throughout the world.|
The movie opened on the day the story starts, on July 2, 1996, which is a tribute to good marketing. On that day, an enormous alien mothership, that scientists measure to be about one fourth the size of the Moon, enters orbit around Earth. The immediate effects were the disruption of communications, like capable TV, that is reliant on satellite technology. So big is this ship that it destroys anything that gets in its way or who’s way it gets into.
|Early on the news isn't good, with General Grey (Robert Loggia) hearing first hand.|
As the military is coming to grips and notifications go up the ladder to the President, Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman), the mothership deploys three dozen smaller ships, each about 15 miles wide, which take positions over the major cities and military bases around the world.
|Even the smaller ships are large, about 15 miles wide.|
Meanwhile, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), an MIT graduate who works as the satellite technician for a New York cable company, leaves a chess game with his father, Julius (Judd Hirsch), when he’s called into work over the emergency, by his boss, Marty Gilbert (Harvey Fierstein). David quickly diagnosis the issue as a signal embedded in the satellite transmissions, which he thinks he can program to override. But at the same time, he notices that the signal is really a countdown, which he determines is for a coordinated attack from these ships.
|David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) plays chess with his father Julius (Judd Hirsch).|
It turns out that his ex-wife, Constance Spano (Margaret Colin), happens to be the President’s White House Communications Director. However, the President is still uncertain what to do. A former fighter pilot during the Gulf War, Mitchell was apparently enough of a war hero to have been elected President and his qualifications show. He seems uncertain what to do. He is getting advice from the head of US Space Command, General William Grey (Robert Loggia), and from his Secretary of Defense, Albert Nimzicki (James Rebhorn), but isn’t sure if the aliens are friendly or not. He even goes on TV to tell Americans not to panic, but to remain indoors.
In an effort to save his wife, David gets Julius to drive him down to Washington D.C. as everyone is beginning, on revised instructions, to evacuate the cities. They manage to make the drive in time to warn the President against the alien’s hostile intent.
The President’s own wife, Marilyn (Mary McDonnell), is in Los Angeles for a series of events and promises to turn to Washington as soon as she’s done.
Across the country, on July 3, Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith), a USMC F/A-18 pilot, is waking up in the bed of his girlfriend, Jasmine Dubrow (Vivica A. Fox), a single mother and an exotic dancer. Her son, Dylan (Ross Bagley), is excited about the alien invasion, which Steven is blind to at first. It is not until he sees one of the ships parked over the Library Tower in downtown Los Angeles.
|Crowds gather hoping the aliens will provide hope.|
Out in the Imperial Valley, Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), a widowed, alcoholic crop duster, is doing what he’s does best, messing up. His son, Miguel (James Duval), is sent by a farmer to tell Russell that he’s dusted the wrong field, again. Russell, who had served in Vietnam as a fighter pilot, is a local nutjob, claiming to have been once kidnapped by aliens, a story everyone believes he got from the bottom of a bottle. But when one of the ships passes overhead, his family, which includes his teenage daughter, Alicia (Lisa Jakub), and his youngest and sickly son, Troy (Giuseppe Andrews), along with the other trailer park residents, decide to get out of town.
|Russell Casse (Randy Quaid) is an alcoholic former fighter pilot turned crop duster.|
When Steven returns to his base, El Toro, Jasmine goes back to work, dancing one more night at the club, even though everyone is more interested in the news than her pole work. Deciding it’s time to leave, she grabs Dylan and heads to El Toro.
|On what could be her last night on Earth, Jasmine (Vivica A. Fox) goes back to work as a stripper.|
Realizing what the countdown means, the President and his daughter, Patricia (Mae Whitman), along with his immediate staff and the Levinsons, are ushered out of the White House just as the attack begins and the White House, along with the Empire State Building in New York and the Library Tower in LA, are simultaneously destroyed and an atomic blast effect sweeps over those cities. Other cities across the globe: London, Moscow and Paris among them, share the same fate.
|The White House gets destroyed just after the President manages to escape.|
Jasmine, son and their dog narrowly escape destruction, by hiding in a room in a tunnel just as the blast effect lays waste to all of Los Angeles. Also caught up in the blast is the First Lady’s helicopter that is forced down by the explosion.
|Back at El Toro, Steve (Will Smith) and Jimmy (Harry|
Connick Jr.) take part in planning the counter attack.
On July 3, Steven and his wing, including his best friend, Captain Jimmy Wilder (Harry Connick Jr.), are dispatched to counterattack the enemy ship over Los Angeles. But the ship is protected by a force field that the missiles can’t pierce. Steven and Jimmy pull out of the attack formation, but two of the ship’s smaller fighter crafts take chase. They end up somewhere that looks like the Grand Canyon, where Jimmy tries a maneuver that his plane can’t perform and he’s shot down. Steven, who is a better pilot, manages to survive and lead the fighter following him into crashing. Steven, who has parachuted out, goes over to the alien spaceship, opens the door and knocks the alien out.
|The counter strike does not go very well.|
Meanwhile, spurred on by Julius, who rants out alien conspiracy theories dating from a crash in Roswell back in 1947, the Secretary of Defense admits to the President that Area 51 does exist and the President has Air Force One sent there.
At the same time, Steven is pulling the unconscious alien, wrapped up in his parachute, through the desert, when the fleet of motor homes descends on him. Steven tells him that he saw a military base nearby when he was flying, Area 51, and directs the convoy in that direction.
The President lands at Area 51, which is run by Major Mitchell (Adam Baldwin). Dr. Brackish Okun (Brent Spiner) is in charge of the research and leads a large contingent of scientist in an underground bunker several stories below the ground. Dr. Okun is an excitable unkempt man, perhaps driven a little mad by the isolation.
|Dr. Brackish Okun (Brent Spiner) runs the scientific investigation at Area 51.|
He shows the President the “freak show” as they call it, three aliens who have crash landed on earth preserved in cylinders. And he shows him the alien craft from 1947 that they have been rebuilding as best they can since it crashed landed. He tells that a few days ago, everything on the ship lit up and started to function. Impressed by David, the President suggests that he take a look at what Dr. Okun’s team has done to see if they’d missed anything.
|President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) and his entourage look at the "freak show".|
Steven and the convoy arrive at the gates of Area 51 and use the unconscious alien as their ticket inside. No one is more excited by the arrival than Dr. Okun. Along with a team of scientists, they prepare to do an autopsy on the alien, only he’s not really dead. After throwing the doctors around, the alien grabs Okun. The President, who has come down to witness the autopsy, communicates telepathically through Dr. Okun. While the President talks about co-existing, the alien insists that they are there to kill off the human race. The alien then psychically attacks Whitmore. His security detail, including Major Mitchell, fire through the glass, killing the alien once and for all, but not before Whitmore is able to also read the alien’s mind. He sees that they move from planet to planet, like space locusts, killing off the native population and then strip the planet of its natural resources before moving on to the next conquest.
|They start to do an autopsy on the alien, only he's not quite dead yet.|
Knowing the aliens’ plans, Whitmore takes his Secretary of Defense’s suggestion and orders they retaliate with the bomb. He orders a wing of B-2 Stealth bombers to attack, the first being in Houston, Texas. With a ground patrol observing, the B-2 launches the missile. While they initially think the ship has been destroyed, once the electronics reboot, it reveals that the ship is still there. The other planes are ordered back to base.
While everyone is pre-occupied, Steven steals one of the helicopters and flies to El Toro Air Station to look for Jasmine and Dylan. When he arrives, Jasmine is not alone, having collected people along the way while having commandeered a firetruck. One of the survivors she’s collected is the First Lady, who is fatally wounded. Steven flies everyone back to Area 51, where the First Lady receives medical aide, but it is already too late. Whitmore is advised by one of the doctors that she has internal bleeding and there is nothing they can do to save her. But she does get to see her family again before she passes.
The next day, July 4th, Julius inadvertently gives David an idea on how to defeat the aliens. He turns his father’s concern that he’ll catch a cold lying drunk on the floor, into the idea of giving the mothership a virus. He demonstrates this by giving the ship in the hangar a virus so that its shields go down. He suggests that they use the refurbished attack ship to gain entry to the mothership, surmising that if they can plant a virus it will cause all the shields to go down. The military adds to the idea, of adding a nuclear bomb on board the attack ship which they can deploy to cover their escape.
Steve volunteers to fly the alien ship and David volunteers to go with him, over Julius’ objections to plant the virus. But before they leave, Steve marries Jasmine in a ceremony that David and Constance witness, signaling a renewal of their love for each other.
|Steve and Jasmine marry in an impromptu ceremony before he goes into space.|
While Steve has some difficulty getting the ship going, he does manage to get it into space, where, as David hoped, the mother ship’s tractor beam pulls the craft inside and into a docking station. Once there, David takes out his trusty Apple laptop which manages to communicate with the mother ship’s network (of course it does) and he manages to upload the virus.
|David manages to plant a virus in the alien ship's computer.|
Meanwhile, the military has organized a ragtag team of pilots, including Russell and even the President, who insists on going up; he is, after all, a fighter pilot at heart. He delivers an inspirational message to everyone before they go up, a mixture of patriotism and Shakespeare, that rallies the troops. They are in flight waiting for the virus to take effect.
|President Whitmore addresses the meager forces gathered at Area 51.|
With its shields down, the ship over Area 51 is susceptible to a missile attack, but the planes lack the fire power to bring it down. The ship starts to deploy the its main attack weapon, a powerful destructive beam. The President takes aim, but misses. However, Russell comes out of nowhere with the last missile of the attack wing. But when he tries to fire it, the armed missile malfunctions and won’t fire. Taking matters into his own hands, Russell flies his plane into the beam. The resulting explosion reverberates throughout the ship, ultimately bringing it down. General Grey orders that they let the other straggling forces left throughout the world in on how to bring the ships down.
|The ship over Area 51 starts to destruct.|
But onboard the Mother Ship, Steve and David try to escape, but are locked in place. Once they are discovered, they launch the missile and the disruption frees their ship. With 30 seconds to go before the bomb explodes and despite being chased by like-size attack ships, Steve manages to fly them out of there just as the aperture they came in through closes. They are away by the time the bomb goes off, destroying the Mother Ship, but they get caught up in the aftermath and Area 51 loses contact with them.
|Even after delivering the virus, David and Steve are not out of danger.|
When their ship crash lands, Constance and Jasmine, along with the President, rush out to the crash site. They find Steve and David walking away from the crash site, smoking victory cigars. Steve tells Dylan that he promised him fireworks as they watch the crashed ship explode.
|During the least satisfying special effects sequence, Steve shows Dylan the fireworks.|
We’re all led to believe that with the aliens defeated, life can get back to a new normal as the humans rebuild. And that’s what they wanted us to believe, for 20 years, before someone had the bright idea, or lack thereof, and decided to make a sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, with an eye towards trying to make this into a trilogy. In retrospect, it takes a little away from your enjoyment to realize that what you thought was a complete and original story was only part one of three. Not to put this in the league with truly great films like Casablanca, but I’m so glad the thinking was different back then. Knowing that there was Casablanca 2: Freedom Fighter and Casablanca 3: Rick and Ilsa Together Again would certainly have tainted that film.
For the most part I really enjoyed the film the first time I saw it in the theater and on repeated viewings. It seems to hold up as an Epic Sci-Fi Adventure film. A few of the special effects haven’t aged well, especially the panorama of the crashed space ship with Steven holding Dylan and talking about fireworks. This shot for some reason really screams blue screen to me.
Will Smith makes a likeable hero. At this point in his career, Smith was still transitioning from being a rap star, The Fresh Prince; and TV star, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air; into a movie star. He had already appeared in several films, including a very good performance in the drama Six Degrees of Separation (1993) and the action-comedy Bad Boys (1995). This was in the era before Smith’s ego got so big that he thinks every role he played was Academy Award worthy.
Jeff Goldblum got his start in films playing the role of Freak #1 in Death Wish (1974). He would have a series of small but memorable roles, including Annie Hall (1977), in which he plays a party guest speaking into the phone, "This is Mr. Davis. I forgot my mantra." He would continue to get bigger roles in such films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and The Big Chill (1983) before taking the lead in the modern remake of The Fly (1986) and its sequel The Fly II (1989). He would reach the point where he was a big enough star to be playing himself in The Player (1992). Goldblum also appeared as Dr. Ian Malcolm in the blockbuster Jurassic Park (1993) prior to his role in Independence Day. His quirky persona came to good use as the MIT trained genius who would rather spend his days working as a satellite technician for a New York cable company.
The acting in the supporting roles is for the most part good, but not all together stellar. Mary McDonnell seems under used in her relatively small role as the First Lady. Bill Pullman is good as a President struggling with the overwhelming duties of a crisis none before him has had to face. Vivica A. Fox plays a stripper with a good heart. Robert Loggia almost seems born to play roles like General Grey. He’s an actor who can play both tough and smart, capabilities that come in handy here. Judd Hirsch is typically good, showing that he had successfully moved on from the TV Series Taxi.
But if anything, the film has almost too many comedic sidekicks.To begin with, Randy Quaid comes to mind. His Russell Casse is so over-the-top that it still sort of works. In a bit of art imitating life, Quaid has come to resemble this character since the movie. Harry Connick is also a little bit of a ham, perhaps just a tad over playing his fairly small part of a subordinate close friend of Steven’s in the Marine’s Air Corp. I wince every time he goes into his “preacher” routine. Likewise, Brent Spiner makes all that he can as the oddball head of the alien science program at Area 51. It’s sort of rare that a sci-fi film has so many comedic side-characters. Harvey Fierstein also gets into the act, playing David’s boss at the cable company. But his role is mostly running around yelling “David, David”, like a chicken with its head cut off, sort of a waste for his talent. You might say you need a lot of comedy to over balance the severity of the subject matter, but there is only so much scenery that you can chew.
The story is riddled with conveniences, like David’s wife being the Communications Director for the President. Like Jasmine happening to find and save the wounded first lady out of the whole of Los Angeles. Like the fact that an Apple laptop can communicate with a truly alien technology. Like the fact that despite their tentacles and squid-like bodies, the seating in the spaceship would be amenable to humans. Or like the fact that alien space crafts have not changed in the 50 years since the one at Area 51 crashed at Roswell. With the progress Earth technology has made in the past half-century, it’s a little hard to believe that theirs would have seemed to have stopped. In a matter of about fifty years we went from bi-planes in WWI to landing on the moon. Wouldn’t theirs have progressed, too? I could go on and on and I would if I didn’t like the film.
I’ve seen it a couple of times, originally in the theater and a week ago during our family Friday night movie. The film may have story problems, but what summer tent pole movie doesn’t? The plot may be pretty straight forward and the characters never get beyond a caricature, but there really isn’t time for much of that, as the film has a rather large cast to showcase. But you don’t watch a summer film for the high quality stories and great acting; you watch to have fun and to see the spectacle. And on that level, Independence Day does deliver. It’s little wonder that it was a major hit, being the top-grossing film in the US in 1996; breaking opening week and weekend records Jurassic Park had set three years before. (All of those have since been shattered many times over.)
What the film does best is give you hope that when the chips are down, humans from all different countries, religions and races can and will work together. So much has changed in the world since this film was released that that hope seems dimmer now. I have no idea about or interest to see the sequel, but I’m sure “current” events would have to addressed somehow. Part of my reason for not being interested in the sequel is that I think this film doesn’t really need one, especially 20 years later. For me, the original Independence Day is enough. I’m one and done.