In the almost twenty years since Independence Day was released, it’s become an artifact of a locked away era. In 1996, CGI was just starting to see ubiquitous use in modern movie-making. Bill Clinton was in the White House and the Republicans had gained the majority in congress. The debate over welfare reform was underway, and the political heat was rising. So, when trailers debuted that showed the White House getting blown to smithereens, people reacted. They bought movie tickets. And they made “ID4” the highest grossing film of the year.
In the days before the fourth of July, large circular spacecraft arrive all over the earth, and park over a selection of the world’s major cities, each ship measuring fifteen miles in diameter. President Thomas Whitmore, a fighter pilot in the Gulf War, does his best to calm the frightened people of America. Steven Hiller, a captain in the United States Marine Corps, is ordered to report to base on the chance the military might have to take the offensive. Meanwhile in New York, David Levinson, working for a cable provider, happens upon the radio signal circulating between the visiting spacecraft. The signal, he finds, periodically reduces itself. It’s a countdown, and the world’s in deep trouble when the clock reaches zero.
It’s B-movie spectacle on the level of an old Irwin Allen disaster movie. A disparate group of characters find themselves threaded together against the backdrop of a massive, and visually impressive, cataclysm. Director Roland Emmerich doesn’t just play the same old melody, he pounds the keys. His actors perform with over-the-top enthusiasm, some of them striking like a balled-fist punch. Every visual crackles with verve. Even David Arnold’s score is a big, banging, soaring rush.
The film brims with an overwhelming sense of awe and fun. It’s not just junk food, it is very good junk food. It isn’t out to make a point or preach a sermon, it just wants to strap you in and take you for a ride. What it lacks in sophistication is compensated by it’s sheer delight to play in Roland’s imaginary world. Forget about the unreality of it all, this film will make you want to believe the president of the United States could really hop into an F-18 to defend his country.
ID4 was made in pocket of time before the universe seemed to tilt on its axis. Remember, this was 1996. The Monica Lewinsky scandal would break the next year. Y2K hysteria would rise to a dull roar before it would be crushed by hanging chads. 9/11 waited just around the bend, and after that, things were much different.
We learned then that when buildings fall, it’s serious businesses. Those were no longer images confined to the movie screen when the towers fell. This level of cataclysm really does happen. It’s painful. It’s real. And paying to watch it happen didn’t feel like so much fun anymore. The national consciousness shifted, and the movies started to change as well. They treated global calamity with a greater level of seriousness, and often grew more mindful of partisan politics in ways that intruded upon the story instead of helping to build it.
In contrast, Independence Day is a very naïve film, and it’s that joyful naivete that sets it apart. It actually dares to show Israeli and Iraqi fighter pilots joining forces to fight a common enemy. (It was because of this that the film was actually banned in Lebanon, believe it or not.) No one cares about President Whitmore’s party affiliation, and the film doesn’t ask you to care. It may not handle earth-shattering catastrophe with the kind of grace and thoughtful maturity that another film might today, but it doesn’t treat catastrophe as anything less than serious.
The film works best as a piece of pure escapism, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. C.S. Lewis said that stories help us escape into reality, that they inform us of deeper truths that aren’t so readily apparent in the chaos of real life so that, when we returned, we’d be better equipped to handle real life. ID4 might not be the best example of this, but it is a worthy one.
Will Smith (Captain Steven Hiller)
Bill Pullman (President Thomas J. Whitmore)
Jeff Goldblum (David Levinson)
Mary McDonnell (First Lady Marilyn Whitmore)
Judd Hirsch (Julius Levinson)
Robert Loggia (General William Grey)
Randy Quaid (Russell Casse)
Margaret Colin (Constance Spano)
Vivica A. Fox (Jasmine Dubrow)
James Rebhorn (Albert Nimzicki)
Written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich
Directed by Roland Emmerich