Guess who’s coming to invade? Revisiting ‘Independence Day’

February 3, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 3, 2015

Aliens are coming! Aliens are coming! And they’re going to blow up the White House, the Empire State Building and some skyscraper in Los Angeles!

That’s the elevator pitch for Independence Day, the blockbuster action-adventure movie directed by Roland Emmerich and co-written by Emmerich and Dean Devlin. ID4, as it was dubbed in marketing materials, was the top-grossing film of 1996 and to this day has the 12th-biggest Independence Day weekend opening of all time.

I remember watching Independence Day when it first came out and thinking that it was good, corny entertainment. (Confession: I’m almost positive that I owned, and eagerly read, the novelization of this movie.)

It was not without reservations that I sat down to re-watch Independence Day one night last week. After all, I’d recently read a rather indifferent assessment of the movie at Moria, Richard Scheib’s invaluable website for fans of science fiction, horror and fantasy films.

And indeed, I found the feature rather more silly and grating than I’d remembered it being. A seemingly anesthetized Bill Pullman is completely wooden as President Tom Whitmore, the ineffectual nice-guy former fighter pilot who comes into his own as a wartime leader. (It’s almost as if Emmerich and Devlin were pre-mythologizing the leadership of another fighter jock turned president.)

Much worse, the movie is practically overflowing with would-be comical characters who are meant to provoke laughter but instead offer cringe-worthy moment after cringe-worthy moment. Independence Day has Brent Spiner as Dr. Okun, the über-geeky head of über-classified alien research at Area 51; Harvey Fierstein as Marty, literally a walking, talking gay stereotype who is the cable-TV company boss of David Levinson, one of the heroes of the piece; Judd Hirsch as Julius Levinson, David’s loving but nagging father, a Jewish-immigrant stereotype who does everything short of pinching his son’s cheek and saying “Nu?” while force-feeding him chicken soup; Harry Connick Jr. as Jimmy Wilder, the wise-cracking fighter pilot sidekick to Steven Hiller, David Levinson’s partner in canceling the apocalypse; and Randy Quaid as wild-eyed alcoholic former alien abductee Russell Casse, in a role that seems to have prefigured the actor’s possible break from reality. It’s hard to figure out which of these characters is most annoying, although clearly Hirsch’s and Fierstein’s characters run neck and neck for indulging in the most offensive stereotyping.

Of course, Capt. Hiller and, to a slightly lesser extent, David Levinson don’t escape the screenplay’s penchant for heavy-handed humor. As embodied by the unquestionably charismatic Will Smith, Hiller is a sassy, jive-talking alpha warrior who gains a knack for piloting an alien fighter ship with only a minor hiccup or two. Levinson is played by Jeff Goldblum, who oozes a nerdier brand of charisma as a brilliant, smug MIT-trained engineer who’s also a obsessive recycling-embracing environmentalist.

The movie-makers’ grasp of human psychology is summed up by the plot thread involving Casse’s teenage daughter, Alicia (Lisa Jakub), who’s eager to lose her virginity as alien saucers first deploy over and then begin leveling major cities. Just before her older brother, Miguel (James Duval), drives the family’s motor home out of the trailer park where they live, Alicia Casse is making out with a teenaged boy, who tells her, “This could be our last night on Earth. You don’t want to die a virgin, do you?”

During the climactic battle, Alicia is huddled with a different teenaged boy, who earlier had given her other brother some medicine. “This could be our last night on Earth,” Alicia tells this fellow. “I don’t want to die a virgin.” The teenager grimaces, takes her hand and says something like, “Well, if you do, you won’t be the only one. I’m a virgin too.”

Independence Day also boasts some of cinema’s lamest final character dialogue ever. As Russell Casse — the name rhymes with ace — is about to sacrifice himself by flying his jet into one of the massive extraterrestrial city-destroyer saucers, he shouts, “All right, you alien assholes. In the words of my generation, Up yours!” A moment later, after Whitmore has wished Casse good luck, the doomed pilot gleefully shouts, “Ha ha. Hello, boys. I’m back!” With those immortal words, Casse’s fighter triggers a chain reaction of explosions of the alien vessel, and humanity is saved.

As far as the action and special effects go, they hold up well enough, although they’re nothing to write home about. The alien designs are interesting; the movie posits that their intimidating large exterior form is actually a biomechanical suit that conceals the creatures’ actual shape.

The movie’s implausible points still seem as wildly improbable as they did on an initial viewing: Levinson’s ability to hack (and disable a crucial element of) the alien computer system with even more ease than Hiller learns to become an ace alien fighter pilot is and always will be ludicrous. The film’s converting a ragtag collection of people with aviation experience (Casse among them) into competent fighter jocks on about five hours’ training is nearly as silly. It’s a sign of how little fidelity the movie will have to reality that, in its very first scene, the alien mother ship seems to kick up a lunar dust storm (!) as it zooms past the moon on its way to menacing Mother Earth.

But let’s not bust our brains over this. Either you’re the type of person who will enjoy this movie or you aren’t, and likely you knew which type you before you started reading this review. Independence Day is hopelessly silly, but it is fun. If you think you’ll enjoy it, you probably will. If you don’t think you will, you probably wouldn’t, and you probably shouldn’t have read all the way through this blog post.

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