Author’s note: Thanks to a foolish wager on an NBA playoff series, this article you’re now reading exists. I have no business making friendly wagers on professional sports, as I always bet with my heart instead of my brain, but, alas, here we are: I bet fellow Grumpire writer and proud Philadelphian Justin Harlan that the Toronto Raptors would defeat the Philadelphia 76ers in their Best-of-7 playoff series in May. Was I intoxicated by patriotic swoons of support for the lone Canadian NBA team? (I still miss the Vancouver Grizzlies—how are they doing in Memphis? Are there even grizzly bears in Tennessee? I should ask Her Grumpress Elbee, a once-and-always Tennessean.) I employed the tongue-in-cheek posturing known in sports as “trash talking,” but despite a spirited comeback, the Raptors lost the series 4-2; “We the North” indeed. As the loser, I was subject to a film picked by Justin (and approved for publication by Elbee) to watch and write about, so here we go…
Few countries in the world have the unique perspective of living next door to a cultural behemoth as Canada does with the USA, so watching Independence Day a week before American Independence celebrations is a fascinating experience. As a burgeoning film snob in 1994, I disliked Stargate, my introduction to the ‘90s Blockbuster Movie Duo of director Roland Emmerich, a German filmmaker who had built a cult following with ‘80s genre oddities Making Contact and Moon 44, and writer/producer Dean Devlin. I felt Stargate was a pastiche of ancient astronaut theory, a la Chariots of the Gods, and classic Star Trek. Based on that film, I skipped their follow-up, Independence Day. I avoided it for 26 years until I lost a basketball wager. The first thing that comes to my mind about Independence Day is the (in)famous speech Pullman’s President Thomas Whitmore (perhaps the most obvious white-bread name that has ever existed) gives moments before the film’s climax: “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!” Maybe it’s a rousing speech to many Americans, but to this Canuck, I rolled my eyes and sighed. Independence Day is a manipulative piece of popcorn entertainment, pandering to various demographics in a craven attempt at getting bums—sorry, butts–in seats, which they did handily.
The world is shocked to discover a series of alien ships appearing over major cities across the globe. Communication can’t be established and the aliens quickly demonstrate their hostile intentions by destroying many of the world’s major cities. Faced with certain extinction, it’s up to a gutsy fighter pilot, an unambitious scientist, and President Whitmore to create a last-ditch plan to save humanity.
I’m not against all blockbusters—my all-time favorite film, Jaws, helped launch the modern blockbuster, however unintentional, so I can’t be hypocritical and dismiss them all. I understand the importance of a finely crafted piece of cinematic escapism, the sheer pleasure of watching a good adventure on the big screen, but I’d argue that Emmerich and Devlin have contributed to the type of blockbuster that panders to multiplex audiences with explosions, thin characterizations, and awful dialogue and Independence Day is a good example. At least they had the good sense to bombard audiences without succumbing to using an existing IP, as is de rigeur in Hollywood today. Independence Day is also a throwback to a staple of ‘70s escapist cinema, the disaster flick. Like bygone successes like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, Independence Day uses heavy melodrama, insincere character moments, and an all star cast of popular and soon-to-be-famous actors to tell its extraterrestrial invasion disaster tale. Jeff Goldblum, suddenly an A-lister because of Jurassic Park, plays yet another awkward scientist who’s the only one on the planet who knows the aliens’ true intentions. Will Smith, also hot off the previous year’s Bad Boys, plays a cocky fighter pilot, continuing his flight to achieve Hollywood Superstar status. Pullman, a journeyman actor, had had success in the previous year as a comatose love interest in While You Were Sleeping, so he was cast as the President of the United States for the rom-com fans. These three characters do the bulk of audience manipulation, stoking that rah-rah patriotism and it’s not surprising they contributed to Independence Day’s financial success.
Filmmakers like Steven Spielberg understand how to connect to mass audiences with relatable “everyman” characters like Chief Brody in Jaws and Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Emmerich and Devlin attempt to recreate that with Goldblum, Smith, and Pullman, but they fail. Spielberg’s films have layered characters, good and bad traits, but Independence Day has only character sketches, created to appeal to audiences, but failing to be relatable and doing nothing but advancing the plot. There’s much bravado, tears, and drunkenness, but it all adds up to ciphers who are merely placeholders in between the action sequences, delivering half-baked one-liners like “Time’s up,” “Welcome to Earth!” and “That’s what I call a close encounter!”—aneurysm alert! Goldblum and Smith have an amiable, if somewhat awkward chemistry, but it’s introduced far too late in the film, and I have a hard time believing these two characters can save the day together. Even supporting character actors like Robert Loggia and Bill Smitrovich, veterans of playing military men, don’t get to do anything but chomp cigars and grunt disagreeably. Greg Arraki favorite James Duval gets nothing to do but show a small piece of civilian life affected by the invasion, but it ends blandly with a pre-crazy Randy Quaid playing a crazy character making the ultimate sacrifice. And what of the female characters? Emmerich shows Smith’s fiancée Jasmine (Vivica A . Fox) persevering, despite the destruction of Los Angeles, saving the First Lady (Mary McDonnell) and the family dog (of course a golden retriever AKA AMERICA’S DOG), but it’s a facade to appeal to female moviegoers, offering the promise of equal involvement in a blockbuster, but they are quickly dispatched to the sidelines to let the men make all the decisions and take care of the rebellion. Poor McDonnell is killed off just to give President Whitmore an emotional stake in the invasion, but it’s ineffectual and ridiculous. With characters like these, I was hoping the aliens would raze the planet.
It’s ironic that Independence Day tries to sell the film as an attempt by humanity to band together and stop the evil aliens. Even in 1996, that was a lot of nonsense. If there’s one thing Hollywood does well is sell American Exceptionalism on the big screen—screen icon John Wayne and the greatest Westerns and war films are clear examples. Despite a brief scene of British soldiers lollygagging until the Americans give them hope and a reason to hoist that sterling cup of tea, it’s all Team America. Everything about the plan to stop the aliens is from American know-how and carried off by a slapdash fleet of American fighter pilots consisting of soldiers and civilians alike, working together to defeat the Empire, er, Communi—er, alien threat. The only battle worth showing onscreen is the rebellion against the alien space disc hovered over the Area 51 base. (And don’t get me started on the filmmakers using The X-Files’ newfound popularity at the time as a plot point to entice audiences.) What about the other attacks? We only see the aftermath of a couple of fallen alien ships elsewhere on the planet, but the real fight is in America. When iconic American symbols like the Statue of Liberty and the White House have been destroyed, provoking American audiences, seeing a burning alien ship over the Sydney Opera House fails to convince me it’s an international effort. And it’s thanks to American tech like a 1996 laptop to implant a computer virus to defeat an advanced alien civilization with faster-than-light travel ability—I guess the aliens had good dial-up Internet?
Trying to tell an epic story of an alien invasion, with small moments of human defiance, is laudable, but at 145 minutes, the buildup to the momentous Fourth of July plan is bloated and sloppy. The tension is non-existent despite all the destruction porn and the small scenes are used to trick the audience into thinking that “we’re all in this together” is a sham for a stretched-out narrative that says nothing and offers nothing. Even the special effects, state of the art for 1996, don’t hold up as well as they ought to and like many other ineffective blockbusters, are used to bulk up a thin story. We only know that these are the same aliens who visited Roswell, New Mexico all those years ago and they want to plunder the planet of its resources—why did it take them so long to come back? We aren’t told, but at least they have gooey exoskeletons and telepathy to make them as inhuman as possible. Independence Day borrows from ‘50s science-fiction films; showing a scene of a character watching The Day the Earth Stood Still is meant to be a nod to its inspiration, but it’s a reminder that Robert Wise directed a superior science fiction film with a non-existent budget compared to the big, loud, flashy goings-on here. It’s as if a bunch of writers took a child’s daydream of past science-fiction films and filled it with stock adult characters and special effects to hide the film’s (many) deficiencies.
Independence Day checks all the boxes in its manipulating audiences to tell its bombastic tale. Useless, everyman characters? Check. Stereotypical gay characters (courtesy of Harvey Fierstein) for comic relief? Check. Lots of explosions and destruction? Check. It’s a master class of studio executives sitting in a boardroom with demographic research notes creating a film by committee that will appeal to everybody, even if it’s illusory. It’s an example of an American blockbuster made for America and no one else, a quaint throwback to a time when Hollywood didn’t rely on international grosses to dictate the types of movies to be made. It’s also a nod to the classic war films that propagated America as the Great Savior in stopping Hitler and the Nazis in World War II. I am not anti-American and despite recent events south of the 49th parallel, I do think the USA can heal its many wounds with empathy, reason, and patience. No country is perfect–I happily admit that Canada is far from the socialist paradise of universal healthcare, Schitt’s Creek, and legal cannabis. Watching Independence Day reminds me that even big, dumb movies can be successful and stay with the public long after they leave cinemas. Even as the USA is currently struggling to get its dynamic mojo back, there are far better films depicting American determination, resourcefulness, and, gasp, creativity, than Independence Day. It’s wonderful that two great friends like Canada and America share birthdays mere days apart and I encourage everybody on both sides of the border to do what they love and reflect on their respective countries, good and bad. Watch movies—might I recommend Jaws (and not because of its July 4th timeline)?–but please, don’t tell me you’re watching Independence Day. ★