Independence Day (1996)

D: Roland Emmerich
S: Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith, Bill Pullman

Having visited the realms of Saturday-Matinee pulp sci-fi with Stargate and found it hugely profitable, German director Roland Emmerich and writer/producer Dean Devlin dipped into the well again with another retro-styled and self-conscious but straight-faced homage to the history of American mainstream cinema and found their cup running over. Generating huge response at the American box-office and then following the same course world-wide despite everyone's general dismissiveness about the whole thing, Independence Day went on to become one of the highest grossing films of all time and irresistible even to grumpy anti-Hollywood academics who had to take the time out to talk about it even if only to complain. But they paid their money to see it like everyone else, and the result is the commercial zenith of the sci-fi revival of the 90s.

Essentially an update of The War of the Worlds (right down to the alien defeat by a 'virus'), this film details a ruthless alien invasion of the Earth and the responses of the indigenous population to the threat; a combination of terrified panic and good old fashioned human resilience. But what it lacks in originality it makes up for in size, scale and scope. It manages to pull off the elusive trick of making bigger seem better without reeking of bloated excess. Of course, some would argue that it is excessive by definition to stage the apocalypse, and they may have a point, but Independence Day is a remarkably controlled epic which survives multiple forays into the obvious and some horrifyingly transparent demographical pandering purely on the visceral impact of its beautifully orchestrated mayhem.

With well over two hours to play with, the film takes its time to establish tension before the fireworks, beginning with the dramatic shot of the shadow of the mother ship blotting out the message of peace left on the moon by American astronauts (rendering obsolete the symbolic pinnacle of human achievement). The first hour of the movie is a slow burn which carefully sets up our array of characters and crises which must be resolved with alien intervention, and despite itself, it works.

The characters are a mixture of stereotypes and caricatures, from Will Smith's sassy air force pilot to Judd Hirsch's hysterically funny ex-Rabbi, but with a game cast including Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Mary McDonnell, Margaret Colin, Randy Quaid and Robert Loggia hitting the right note at all points, it never seems silly enough to destroy the suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy a film of this type. Each is introduced carefully and their personal problems are clearly defined (from Pullman's necessity for a show of strength in the face of public indifference to his Presidency to Quaid's necessity for redemption from alcoholism to restore the faith of his children) and the film leaps between sub-plots with ease, establishing the emotional stakes while detailing the arrival of the alien ships and their chess-board positioning around the earth (although the film's focus is firmly American).

When the attack comes, it exceeds expectations: a mind blowing visual feast of angry orange flames, multiple explosions and massive property damage pumped up to the max by terrific sound editing and a portentous score by David Arnold (whose compositions for Stargate were even more sumptuous). The civilised world is destroyed in one fell swoop, and those characters singled out for immediate elimination meet a variety of interesting ends. It climaxes in a tunnel where the survival of a dog named Momar gives the audience a moment of exhalation and a wry smile that they simply cannot help.

This is the key to the film: it's hard to stop your buttons being pushed no matter how eager you are to pick at the bones of the plot. It is riddled with niggly mistakes and improbabilities, and when you get a chance to think it out, it all seems like a long-forgotten juvenile fantasy. But Devlin and Emmerich have wit enough to ensure you don't have time to begin doubting when the action is in progress, and having drawn you into the stories of the characters, then blown our your eardrums during some ten minutes of alien attack, they allow you time to recover your wits, but not reactivate your brain, before launching into the human counterattack which instinct tells you must come.

The film is then propelled along by its own inanity. Every step of the plot is inevitable given the set up and derived from previous films with which everyone is familiar. Every character is readily identifiable and completely devoid of ambiguity, and as the sub-plots get worked out one by one in the manner of a 70s disaster movie, there is a tranquillising comfort to the routine. The result is a stupid, happy grin (with the occasional wince), which holds pretty much all the way as the film gets sillier and sillier and noisier and noisier, climaxing with the orgasmic destruction of the invaders' mother ship.

A full analysis of Independence Day would take years. There are so many contexts and angles from which to approach any prospective close reading that the exercise becomes self-defeating: ethnicity, gender, politics, narrative, neo-colonialism, and so on. Each would produce plenty of material because the film is so loaded with the standard elements of major motion pictures which have been subjected to such study in the past. But the most dominant idea to come from the film is of the restoration of masculinity.

Even the title and advertising ("The Day We Fight Back") suggests the film's aggression and eagerness to repossess the high ground. It is about breaking free of the political and social constraints which have held masculinity in check for the better part of a decade (Rambo: First Blood Part II may have been the last unabashedly masculine film made in Hollywood before self-pardoy and self-consciouness set in in the action genre). The film hinges on abandonment of negotiation (Pullman is attacked by an alien and sees its thoughts, which are only to exterminate mankind) in favour of action. It is in dropping the trappings of effeteness and 'new man' politics that Goldblum and Pullman achieve their personal goals, and Smith's macho attitude ("I'm just a little anxious to get up there and whup E.T.s ass, that's all") is the only masculine strength exhibited from the outset. It is no co-incidence that the film's climax is the destruction of the 'mother' ship or that each of the female characters begin with a degree of independence which is gradually eroded by death or marriage.

None of this is a judgment. In fact, this simplicity of concept may have a lot to do with its success. It is a wish-fulfilment film in which mankind overcomes the ultimate adversity by a show of strength. At a time when people feel increasingly out of touch with reality and unable to determine the direction of their destiny, cinematic catharsis is a blessed relief. Of course every male in the theatre must then leave and face the world again, where his control is far more problematic.

But this is exactly the point, and Emmerich and Devlin know it. Independence Day is escapism of the highest order. Everyone concerned with the project is aware of this, and pour it on in heavy, unapologetic doses (right down to Pullman's full bore jingoistic speechmaking). It is in this awareness, and in leaving out the expected 'winks to the audience' of postmodernism (apart from the unfortunate cameo by Brent Spiner as a wacko scientist in Area 51 which reeks of self-parody and upsets the balance of the film momentarily), that it achieves its aims.

It has its many flaws, and when one begins to look closely at it, the film falls completely apart. But there is a certain pleasure to be had from ignoring the obvious deficiencies and simply letting it do its work, which is the important task of playing out our fears and anxieties and making us feel better about them. Leave it to other movies to closely analyse the postmodern condition - Independence Day simply deals with it in the best possible manner; which is to blow the hell out of everything and see what happens.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.