With the mess that is Independence Day: Resurgence now released, let’s look back at what inspired that incoherent bore of a film. Is there anything of interest in Independence Day (1996)?
Listening to the reactions on the internet lately, Independence Day: Resurgence is almost unanimously trashed, but opinions are very divided on the first movie from 1996. Some love it, others thought it was dumb. I’ve been a big fan of the first Independence Day and I’d like to run through it to pinpoint more precisely where it succeeds and where it falls apart.
The first 10 minutes are aggressively referencing other alien invasion movies. Endless references are made to movies and shows like The Day the Earth Stood Still and The X-Files. It immediately strikes you as a film that tries too hard. But the whole buildup of tension in this film is just juicy. The giant ships that are just incredibly foreboding, and the whole world is held in tension. We’ve seen this before in the miniseries V (1984), for example, but it is effective.
And it’s a whole hour into the movie before we see the aliens for the first time. The whole time, these giant ships have been hanging in the sky and we are all left wondering: what are these aliens like from up close? And then Will Smith opens up a UFO and we get a first quick peek of a nasty face, before Mr Cool whacks him on the head. There is character and comedy to these scenes. Add to that Smiths deadpan delivery. Smith made this film. He wasn’t that convincing as a fighter pilot, but when he drags an alien through the desert, complaining of the smell and the dreadlocks, he is in his element.
The whole fighter scene leading up to it is fine as well. We shoot missiles at the ships and for the first time discover that they have shields. Then all the little alien fighters emerge for the first time as well. The film has a steady list of small discoveries that it is working through and none of it is delivered as an infodump, but as an organic part of the story. And sure, the fighter scene is reminiscent of Star Wars, but at least we get an impression of the enormous size of the alien ships and the powerlessness of the humans. That feeling of immensity was actually a bit absent in the sequel Resurgence (2016).
What it comes down to is that the original Independence Day was about more than big special effects. It was also about feelings of curiosity, exploration and awe.
Next revelation is that Area 51 is real, and that whole sequence leads to the iconic scene of the alien speaking through Dr. Okun’s mouth. I mean, sure, you can be baffled by some inane stuff at the same time. Like, why do they let Jeff Goldblum’s dad just waltz right into a top secret base? And the dumb plot of Smith’s wife rescuing the First Lady is interposed here and there. And the whole thing is very boisterous and nationalistic and a testosterone overdose. But the main storyline keeps on adding and introducing new interesting stuff. I’d even go so far as comparing the structure to the original Alien (1979). How do I dare? It too has this slow buildup of revelation and iconic scenes.
The Area 51 sequence has its own little buildup. From showing the lab and the memorable Dr. Okun, to the captured ship and the alien autopsy. None of it is new, everything is reminiscent of other movies, but it is done with style and accompanied by great music. The destruction of the planet was also an ongoing thing. After the first salvo, the aliens started moving again to their next targets and the clock started ticking again. The film maintains interest and tension.
But after these sequences, we dive into the personal stories of Smith finding his wife and Goldblum’s breakup and the president’s wife, and that is honestly all either too cheesy or too unbelievable. Emmerich is fine with the military SF, but his personal stories are uninteresting. The final act, when they go with the first plan that enters Goldblum’s mind and the whole world joins, is laughably simple. There are only two highlights in the flat story that is the last 45 minutes: the president’s speech and the flight to the alien mothership. The rest is laughably cheesy.
I’d say that this film is about halfway great. The story is severely bogged down by crappy characters, plot coincidences and a taste for storytelling that is overly sentimental and loud. At the same time, the visuals are very effective and the film leans on a sense of wonder, discovery and the charisma of small group of welcome actors.