Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Pesky Aliens, Interrupting My Barbecue

The sequel hits theatres this weekend (a whole week before it might have made sense for the film to come out), and so I thought it would be a good idea to review the original, twenty years on.

“I ain’t heard no fat lady!” ~ Steven Hiller 
“Forget the fat lady, you’re obsessed with the fat lady. Just get us out of here!” ~ David Levinson

“Look at us. Everybody’s trying to get out of Washington, and we’re the only schmucks trying to get in.” ~ Julius Levinson

“I picked a hell of a day to stop drinkin’.” ~ Russell Casse

“Oh my God, I gotta call my brother, my housekeeper, my lawyer. Nah, forget my lawyer.” ~ Marty Gilbert

“Perhaps it’s fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom. Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution... but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist.” ~ Thomas Whitmore

“This was supposed to be my weekend off, but nooo, you got me out here, draggin’ your heavy ass through the burning desert with your dreadlocks sticking out the back of my parachute. You gotta come down here with an attitude, actin’ all big and bad.” ~ Steven Hiller

“It’s like in chess. First you strategically position your pieces. Then, when the timing’s right, you strike. See? They’re positioning themselves all over the world usin’ this one signal to synchronize their efforts. In approximately six hours, the signal’s gonna disappear and the countdown’s gonna be over.” ~ David Levinson

It’s been twenty years since Independence Day hit the theatres. The film, from director Roland Emmerich and writer-producer Dean Devlin, did big business in the summer of 1996, weaving an epic disaster tale with a cast of disparate characters. In the face of an alien invasion, the story waves flags without hesitation, invests a good deal of humour, creeps out the audience, and has special effects that look convincingly like the annihilation of the world is well under way. While all of that occasionally comes at the cost of characterization for some members of the cast, the film nonetheless is a thrill ride.

The film opens with the approach of a massive ship towards Earth from the depths of space, a ship that starts deploying smaller spacecraft to take up positions around the planet. We quickly meet some of the key players in the film. Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith) is a combat pilot, eager to join the astronaut program, but worried that his relationship with Jasmine (Vivica A. Fox) might be problematic for his chances. Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman), a former fighter pilot and now the President of the United States, is briefed on the detected approach of something into Earth’s orbit. David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), a computer expert who’s taken to working as a satellite technician, is puzzled by a signal he’s discovered in the planet’s satellite systems.

There are other players introduced before things all go wrong. Constance Spano (Margaret Colin) is David’s ex-wife, now working as the Communications Director at the White House. Marilyn Whitmore (Mary McDonnell) is the First Lady, in Los Angeles for official functions when the story begins. Julius Levinson (Judd Hirsch) is David’s grouchy father, living in New York in retirement and playing regular chess games with his son. General Grey (Robert Loggia) is a Marine commander, head of the American Space Command and a mentor of sorts to the President, who now outranks him. These and other characters form the human side of what ends up becoming an apocalyptic nightmare when the alien ships have themselves positioned and start unleashing city destroying attacks on their first targets.

Emmerich and Devlin had worked together before, having had written Stargate together for a release two years earlier, a film that Emmerich directed as well. Stargate is the more imaginative of these two films, and Independence Day is not quite a sequel to that film, but certainly in the same spirit, with malevolent aliens, a fight for freedom, and a visual gag of sorts involving a nuclear weapon. The two parted ways after their work on Godzilla, but have come back together to work on a sequel to Independence Day. This film’s story drew out of a question about Stargate- what it would be like to wake up one morning and see a massive alien ship hovering over your city, and that’s a visual that shows itself through the film. It’s an interesting premise to start off with, and the script takes on the notion of alien invasion and turns it into a full blooded attack on a global scale.

The film carries a message or two through the story. One is the will to survive, something that comes across in the better written characters. The other is the concept of environmentalism; David is an avid environmentalist, worried about the world he’ll one day leave behind (to the point where he’s obsessive compulsive about what trash goes where). On the other hand we have the aliens, whose motives are simple but malevolent: move from planet to planet, wipe out resistance, and harvest the planet’s resources on an industrial scale. Some of the characters are written better and fleshed out more than others-  there are stereotypes at play here, as well as gratuitous content that doesn’t really serve the story, but in a film about spectacle, that’s to be expected. The story does lean towards America- unabashed patriotism, most of the world mentioned or glimpsed as it deals with the invasion, but the story’s emphasis strongly on what’s happening in America.

Emmerich’s direction works for this film, as it did for Stargate, though later films would start to show some problems; The Patriot messes around with history, Godzilla didn’t get the big bad beast right, and The Day After Tomorrow is, to put it mildly, playing fast and loose with science. His films since then have tended to be unwatchable- 10,000 B.C. and 2012 are wretchedly awful. For this film, however, he paces the story well, even if some of the characters are stereotypes and underdeveloped. The film follows a nightmare scenario- but only so far, as the whole point is to save the day rather than become an ultra nihilistic apocalypse.

The visual effects play to that- both physical and CGI. The production designs for the aliens and their ships, for instance, certainly look otherworldly. Rather than a guy in a suit as you might have seen decades ago, the creatures look extra terrestrial. Their ships, dark and menacing, fit their agenda. And the destruction they wreck- particularly kicking things off with destroying Los Angeles, New York, and Washington- still looks convincing, which is a good thing in a disaster film. That said, the destruction is not over the top in the way Emmerich’s team would later do in 2012, which ended up annoying me. David Arnold did the score for this film, following up his outstanding score on Stargate with a full blooded action heavy score that didn’t shy away from sheer American patriotism- ironic, considering he’s a Brit.

The cast is hit and miss though, and that’s less on the actors than it is on the script, which gives some actors more to do and tends to underwrite others. James Rebhorn, the character actor one has seen in countless television and movie roles, plays something of a snivelling weasel as the Secretary of Defense; his Albert Nimzicki is something of an antagonist in that he’s secretive and argumentative, seemingly always being the obstacle to getting things done. Adam Baldwin, who’s done a whole lot on film and television (including a memorable role in the classic Firefly and Serenity television and film projects) plays the part of a military officer at Area 51 with both authority and sympathy.

Brent Spiner, who’s best known for his android Data role in Star Trek: The Next Generation looks entirely different as the eccentric (perhaps crazy) scientist at Area 51, Doctor Okun. The character is unkempt, socially awkward, and in desperate need of a haircut, and Spiner certainly plays him as bizarre. Harvey Fierstein appears early on as David’s boss Marty; the role is stereotypical in more than one way, as a stereotype of a gay man and a chattering New Yorker. One gets the impression Fierstein is pretty much just playing Fierstein, but he certainly does contribute some of the humour to the film. Randy Quaid, who later lost his mind in real life, plays the alcoholic pilot, alien abductee, and comedy relief we meet early on. He’s over the top in the way he plays the widowed father and proverbial train wreck, and ends up being the hero of the day- one wonders if the character’s nuttiness was a prelude of what was to come of the actor. 

Judd Hirsch also gets a bit of a stereotype role, though he does more with it and is more likable as things go along. He’s the cranky Jewish father, playing the role at first almost like it was a stock theatre role (the actor ends up looking older than he was at the time). And yet there’s a quiet wisdom and concern, pride, and loyalty for his son that quickly establishes itself through the rest of the story. Robert Loggia also gets a fairly well written role as General Grey, the high ranking officer in charge of Space Command who has a well established connection with the President, something of a father and son sort of bond. He plays the role with gruff authority.

The women in the film seem to be underdeveloped. Vivica A. Fox gets to play opposite Will Smith as his character’s girlfriend Jasmine, a single mother making a living as an exotic dancer. There’s really no point to that for the story, and feels gratuitous. She does, however, come into her own amid death and destruction, and the character proves to be rather resourceful. Mary McDonnell, whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past, seems written more or less as a supportive and loving First Lady whose ultimate fate is generally to provide the President with a reason to grieve. And Margaret Colin appears as Connie, a woman caught between her highly responsible job and a former marriage that still means something to her. The actress makes the most of what the script gives her- including interjecting some humour into it- and we can believe her relationship to David in how she and Jeff Goldblum interact, but the script doesn’t serve her well enough.

Bill Pullman gets a good role as the President, an amiable former military pilot and war hero from Desert Storm who’s gone into politics. He’s a loyal husband and father, principled and strong when he needs to be. When we first meet him, it’s suggested by political commentators on television that the young Chief Executive might well be out of his depth. He ends up facing a nightmare scenario, coupled with grief, and yet rises to the occasion. His decision to take to the skies though is a perplexing one- surely a President in such a scenario, where he is effectively all that remains of the government, would understand that his place is on the ground, not among the dangers of an air battle. That, however, is more the story than the role, as it seems to be a way for Emmerich and Devlin to give the actor a heroic role in the climax of the film as opposed to what would make sense.

Jeff Goldblum is one of those actors who can make pretty much anything interesting, which is what he does with this role. He brings a charm and eccentricity to his work, both of which play out through the film. David is an environmentalist at heart, and an exceptionally smart guy working in a line of work he’s overqualified for. He gets along well enough with his father when we first meet him, can get lost in his work, and has unfinished business with his ex-wife. And yet when he realizes the peril the world is in, his first thought is of his ex. Their bond is one that owes more to the actors’ performances than the script, but we can believe them as a couple. Goldblum gives his role a wry sense of humour and a calm under pressure (mostly, anyway) sensibility that makes us like him.

Will Smith plays the heroic Captain Steven Hiller with charm, brashness, and attitude. It’s through his eyes that we get the experience of waking up one morning and seeing a massive alien ship hanging over your city. He gives his character the swagger you’d expect out of a combat pilot, adding the nuance of ambition- Hiller wants the experience of being an astronaut, even while his current relationship might be a disqualifying factor. As the film goes along and we get to know him more, the audience does like him. Smith, whose history as an actor is a bit hit and miss with me- some films I like, others I don’t care for- makes the most of this role, and particularly in the later stages, while Hiller and David are deep in peril, the friendship that comes out of it feels genuine, something that both actors really bring out in their performances.

Independence Day is a whole lot of spectacle, chaos, and destruction, promising fireworks and pretty much delivering. While some of its characters benefit at the expense of others, it’s nonetheless a whole lot of fun. One just wonders, with the sequel out there... didn’t they pretty much wipe out the aliens this time? How much story was there really left to tell?


  1. I remember the film as...unmemorable. I've long been tired of macho. When all the female characters are underdeveloped, it's not a film for me.

    Except Robert Loggia. I never complain about Robert Loggia.

  2. I remember the special effects of this movie being somewhat the only think I really enjoyed about it. Good review though, and DAYAM, that was Vivica Fox? lol

  3. I liked this movie. It was summer fun and went with the children.
    I agree with everything you said about the stereotypes which made me cringe. But like you said they did mellow somewhat.
    Loved the poster.

    cheers, parsnip and thehamish

  4. I really love this movie--we have the digital version and are going to see Resurgence on Monday.

    Great review, as always, William!

  5. I liked this movie and your review is right on!

    I hear the sequel is pretty bad, but that's to be expected I guess!

  6. I enjoyed the original, but I'll probably wait until the new one comes out on DVD. Maybe I'll rent it as an uplifting Christmas story.

  7. @Petrea: Robert Loggia was interesting in whatever he did.

    @Diane: it has been awhile.

    @Parsnip: thanks!

    @Norma: enjoy!

    @Cheryl: I have heard some not pleased reviews.

    @Karla: that would be a different Christmas movie!

  8. I liked the first one so I don't know how I feel about a sequel now. It's been so long.

  9. Good review and I remember I watched it with my daughter.

  10. Never saw it. Good review. Not sure I'd get the movie. I'll take ET any ol' day.


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