20 Years On: Independence Day (1996)

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Independence Day (1996): Centropolis Entertainment/20th Century Fox

Roland Emmerich really does turn massive-scale destruction into an art form. Michael Bay can make things go boom then throw them at you while juggling the camera, but Emmerich really seems to relish his careful construction of sequences and giving his audience breathing room for the cost of disaster to register, even to find a little beauty in chaos. INDEPENDENCE DAY is still so loved after two decades not because of the spectacle, which is considerable, or the effects, which haven’t aged too badly, but because of the enduring cast characters the story is built around.

When a worldwide alien invasion forces mankind to reevaluate its position in the universe, only a group of talented and determined individuals – scientists, politicians, soldiers and ordinary people – can prevent the human race being wiped off the planet.

The alien invasion-meets-disaster epic plot is serviceable and economic, rarely wasting time on extraneous details but just getting us where we need to go. The script is solid enough, with some nice one-liners and winks to the audience about the way these sorts of movies usually go, plus a key death midway through is handled sensitively, honestly and with a rare intimacy for a blockbuster.

The scale of human peril only has its impact because the film takes time to build our unlikely group of survivors (sometimes too) conveniently brought together. For almost an hour, the aliens are moving into position and what isn’t guys in uniforms looking at screens and talking in code is really good character stuff. We see David’s (Jeff Goldblum) single-mindedness in the workplace; Steven’s (Will Smith) dreams of joining NASA crushed; Jasmine (Vivica A Fox) having to take her young son to the Go-Go club she dances at because she can’t afford a sitter; Julius (Judd Hirsch) gently mocking his son for his life-choices and rediscovering his faith; President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) worrying what his public perception has become; Russell (Randy Quaid) drowning trauma in a bottle at the expense of his family. Each character has more shades and nuance to them than the entire casts of other lesser big summer movies. They start out as broad archetypes, but as they work together for survival and share their experiences, they grow beyond their character boundaries as the destruction commences and they do what they have to. We love them all and we want to see them make it through OK.

It’s still got the feelgood factor, if you can withstand a little (OK, a lot of) cheese. What makes such granstanding and patriotism towards Independence Day’s finale so palatable rather than disturbing is the aforementioned characters and our affection for them, and the earnestness with which the whole affair is played. I do find it amusing that Emmerich, a liberal European, is so good at making destruction porn, though always with a heart. I wish he’d have cut out those “English” soldiers who sound like they’re from a black-and-white film in the buildup to the final battle. We know it’s an American perspective, just tell us what the other countries are doing rather than embarrassing  yourself by portraying them.

Even the mostly miniature-based special effects haven’t aged too disgracefully. I’m of the belief that 90s blockbusters tend to stand the test of time a little better than others as it was the decade of combining cutting-edge practical effects with new developments in computer animation, and combinations of techniques tend to fool your eye better (just look at JURASSIC PARK and PAN’S LABYRINTH for evidence of this). The miniatures blowing up still look fine, as do the guys in rubber suits and animatronics playing aliens; it’s the CG-heavy spaceship vs fighter jets scenes that have started to look hokey.

I’ve actually got high hopes for INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE. Lightning might not quite strike twice, but I very much doubt Roland will let us down. He’ll have kept us waiting for something spectacular, and hopefully with a healthy serving of heart as well. That is, unless he’s managed to replicate the same toxic sludge that produced 10,000 BC. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright, Taika Waititi and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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One Response to 20 Years On: Independence Day (1996)

  1. Pingback: Review: Independence Day: Resurgence (2016) | SSP Thinks Film

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