For three decades, Roland Emmerich has been getting paid good money to blow iconic landmarks the absolute fuck up. It isn’t the director’s only trick, but it’s clearly one he relishes. Whether he’s nuking space-pyramids, covering the Statue of Liberty in an ice-tsunami, or just causing most of the world to sort of … swallow itself (?), Emmerich’s movies have things like characters and plot in them, but they are usually pretty secondary to the fireworks and natural disasters.
While paired with screenwriter Dean Devlin, Emmerich managed two really freaking awesome sci-fi action movies right on top of each other: 1994’s Stargate, which went on to spawn several long-running TV series that are actually really damn good, and 1996’s Independence Day, which is simultaneously everything stupid and everything amazing about mid-’90s blockbuster movies in one convenient and highly quotable package, Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum included.
In the quarter-century since the 4th of July-themed movie hit theaters right in time for the 4th of July weekend (just in case you might forget when it came out!!), the blockbuster environment in Hollywood only seems like it’s changed since this loud but lovable feature exploded our heads.
Independence Day, which was inexplicably referred to as ID4 in a bunch of the marketing, has the simplest of premises: Aliens are bad and mean and don’t like our architecture. They want Earth, but don’t want to deal with us, so they send flying saucers down to blow absolutely everything up. The humans scramble around in crisis until the last reel, where they mount a counterattack with the power of freedom and a virus (delivered via a Macintosh, complete with the Chicago font to really make Millennials feel old).
The movie’s sprawling subplots follow several perspective characters in the days leading up to July 4: Will Smith’s hotshot F-18 pilot, Randy Quaid’s cropduster pilot who insists he was an alien abductee once, Jeff Goldblum’s vaguely scientific … broadcast guy?, and the president of the United States (Bill Pullman, easily the second-best Clinton Stand-In ’90s Action Hero President). They separately come to the realization that the aliens are violent conquerors when the ships that have settled over major cities all over the world start blowing them up with glowing green lasers, and then make their way to the actual Area 51 to mount the retaliatory strike.
None of this requires more than two brain cells to understand. Devlin and Emmerich’s plot machine rolls along like an RV caravan through a desert—pretty quickly, with little wind resistance. It’s melodrama of the most efficient kind, bolstered by utterly relentless special effects, from gooey alien bio-mech suits to F-18 Hornet vs. Flying Saucer dogfights in canyons to absolutely every American monument and skyscraper getting fragged.
Independence Day sits at the confluence of a bunch of ’90s peculiarities. It marked Will Smith’s first real graduation from TV and comedy to top-billed action hero. It had the kind of incessant, inescapable marketing and merchandising campaign behind it that these days only gets trotted out for superhero films. (Why did we need toys of F/A-18 Hornets?) And, being as it dropped during the Clinton years, its president had a virile hairline and directly scrapped with bad guys. Pullman is, in fact, one of the very best examples of the fightin’ president trope.
More than any of that stuff, though, is the movie’s politics—a word some will bristle at even though the bulk of the movie is about big loud jet fighters doing the shooty shooty to save America and God. Independence Day (I will never call it “ID4”) is the kind of innocent action movie that hasn’t been made in the past 20 years, as the post-9/11 wars soured a new generation on American imperialism with its pointed reminders of just how little respect the American war machine shows for the infrastructure and monuments of other countries.
It fiercely believes it’s a story about our peace-loving little planet getting bullied. Pullman’s president resists trotting out the nuclear arsenal (and regrets it when, after he does, it proves ineffective), and even after everything that happens attempts to make an overture of peace when he comes face to face with one of the invaders. Goldblum’s character’s one quirky trait is that he’s an environmentalist. Quaid is a thinly veiled stand-in for Americans left out to dry after suffering trauma during military service.
All of these things are subverted by the end, and I don’t think Emmerich or Devlin intended any kind of reversal or subversion. Pullman gives a hopped up jingoistic speech and hops into a jet and blows things up. Goldblum shoots a nuke right into an alien’s face. Quaid, spat on and belittled, makes the ultimate sacrifice—he won’t get to see his kids again, but he posthumously wins the approval of the government that sidelined him. The whole world is saved because America is the best country, and now the whole world gets to celebrate the 4th of July like we do!
None of this detracts one iota from being able to enjoy this movie, of course (at least, not for me). It may be because, as absolutely on-the-nose as it is, it’s also just fun to watch.
Muddled politics or not, every character in the movie has some kind of underlying motivation and desire, and by the end of the movie they’ve achieved it with the application of several hundred megatons of military ordnance. Smith wants to go to freaking space, and he gets to do it (and blow things up while he’s there). Goldblum wants to save the world, and does (by blowing things up). Pullman wants to be reunited with his daughter, and he is (after blowing things up). And yes, Quaid wins the respect of his family and his country (by blowing things, and himself, up).
The characters revel in their victory as the literal flaming debris from all the stuff they all just blew up rains gloriously down upon our innocent blue world. Didn’t Independence Day promise you fireworks?
Kenneth Lowe must go faster. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.