Flashback – 1996 – Independence Day
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Original Release: 7/3/1996

“Today is our Independence Day!”

I want so hard to not like Independence Day. In fact, I remember not liking Independence Day when I first started to write about movies. As James Berardinelli┬áput it in his 1996 review, the film had a “hackneyed plot, feeble attempts at characterization, and a predictable finale.” Yet every time I watch the Roland Emmerich disaster epic, I find like it more and more.

Most of the above criticism misses the point. Independence Day makes spectacle its top priority like other pioneering effects movies of the 1990s. And unlike the lackluster disaster films that followed it, Independence Day also takes pacing the characters’ stories seriously. It has to. We still have to watch a whole lot of movie after alien spaceships level Los Angeles, New York City and D.C. And we watch.

The casting certainly helps. Emmerich had never before and has never again worked with a cast that could sustain the absurdities of his stories. Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, and Randy Quaid are all personality. Their respective characters–the soldier, the scientist, the statesman, and the working class hero–are convincing not because of the Method, but rather because these are the actors we’d like to think could save the world if the job was thrown at them.

The characters are hardly multi-layered, but so what? Neither is the film’s idealism. Emmerich’s films all have a shock current of idealism running through them. Most of the time, the heavy-handedness of it all takes us out of the film entirely. Independence Day doesn’t lack those moments (the Iraqi military sharing and airfield with the Israelis, the world celebrating together as one people), but Independence Day is the only film that makes us want to forgive him for his lack of subtlety.

It helps that Emmerich’s cry for global unity is hardly as preposterously laid out as was the call for action against climate change in The Day After Tomorrow. If we are going to see aliens or climate change or giant lizards or asteroids or volcanoes destroy the world, we need something to care about. Even if its just a simple universal message and a couple one-note characters.

Of course, there are more than a couple characters. In Independence Day, the massive cast doesn’t allow Emmerich time to get caught up in Armageddon-esque animal cracker moments–moments where unreal emotions distract from an already unreal plot. Thanks to the four leads and twice as many supporting roles, we don’t have time for needless emotional digressions. Emmerich and his editor realize that.

Steven Hillard doesn’t get into NASA? No time to feel bad because the president’s approval rating is down. David Levinson misses his ex-wife? Sorry, we have to introduce drunkard Russell Casse, our unlikely hero. We aren’t strong-armed into caring about anyone here, and before we know it, we do.

Independence Day is hardly a flawless movie. But every summer we get further away from its release, I find myself longing for another movie to handle the special effects fluff with the gusto of ID4. Really though, once you brazenly annihilate major American cities with a fiery tidal wave of carnage, there’s hardly a disaster that can compare. Independence Day resurrected the disaster epic and closed the window of opportunity all at once. Someone should remind Emmerich of before he tries to destroy the world with visual effects once again.

Happy Fourth of July!

One Comment

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