How long has it been since you've actually seen Independence Day?
It's a question asked out of genuine curiosity. Roland Emmerich's 1996 sci-fi blockbuster may have carved itself a permanent place in cinematic iconography thanks to that famous shot of alien invaders decimating the White House, but the jury is still out on whether or not it's a movie people still like. When it comes to big-budget, '90s studio releases, my generation gets misty-eyed over Jurassic Park and giggles at the thought of Independence Day. There's a fondness for it, but it's a fondness cloaked in nostalgia... and that nostalgia often seems tinged with a touch of irony. It's a film that's remembered strangely and it's a film that's aging strangely. To watch Independence Day now is to see a major science fiction movie that sits on the border between two generations of Hollywood filmmaking.
Unless you're new to the planet or some snot-nosed little preteen (get off my lawn), you know the plot of Independence Day. Massive alien spacecraft appear over major cities all over the world and open fire, leaving only a small slice of humanity to fend off the invaders. The cast includes Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, a TV-famous Will Smith and a whole bunch of your favorite (and not-so-favorite) character actors, many of whom seemingly exist just so they can be killed off spectacularly. At one point, the White House blows up. Everyone knows that, even the people who haven't seen the movie.
Revisiting Independence Day for the first time in years, I was struck by what a time capsule this film really is. Some films age gracefully and some films age poorly, but Independence Day is aging weirdly. It exists in a strange precipice between the old and the new, feeling like the natural evolution of the old-school blockbuster while simultaneously opening the door for the modern big summer movie. Thanks to the films that followed in its wake (Armageddon was only two years away), Independence Day feels almost quaint by modern standards. What was bombastic in the mid '90s now feels like the pinnacle of restraint. At the time, it was a necessity. But now, in the age of CGI overload, Independence Day has accidentally transformed from a bloated special effects epic into a smaller, character-driven film that uses its effects sparsely and wisely. How times change.
Of course, that doesn't mean Independence Day is a smart film, because oh, goodness no. This is a remarkably silly movie, one that features the president of the United States hopping in a fighter jet to battle aliens during the grand finale. As much as it helped pave the way for the modern blockbuster (could the mayhem and destruction-filled Man of Steel exist without it?), Independence Day has more in common with the disaster films of the '70s than anything else. Made in the same vein as Airport, Earthquake, The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, Independence Day is less about telling a smart science fiction story and more about taking a cataclysmic situation, filling it with names and faces your really like and watching movie stars save the day. It's Hollywood storytelling at its purest, for better or worse.
The generally old-fashioned feeling of Independence Day is ultimately its greatest asset. For a movie about the genocide of the human race, it's remarkably fun, moving forward at a brisk pace. The extremely economic screenplay effortlessly establishes the massive cast and the many plot threads. It's a completely noncynical experience that never sees the need to apologize for itself. Even at its goofiest, Independence Day feels proud to be what it is. It's a silly movie that's completely unashamed of its silliness. A movie like Transformers seems embarrassed to be what it is, buffering the story of killer robots from outer space with dirty jokes and lots of yelling. Independence Day believes in every word of dialogue and every scene. A movie like Star Trek Into Darkness covers up its thin plot with convolution masquerading as complexity. But Independence Day? It's telling a straightforward, B-movie story with enough gloss and charisma to elevate it above the crowd. It may be silly, but it's earnest. And that's refreshing.
Although it's clearly a sci-fi movie, it's tough to talk about Independence Day as a science fiction film since it lacks any kind of real science fiction (did you know you could hack an alien spaceship with a Mac laptop?). The alien threat is less about opening the door to examining a warlike alien race and their terrifying technology and more about creating an insurmountable obstacle for the heroes. A discussion of the "hard sci-fi" in Independence Day ends right here because there's nothing to talk about. However, the film explores a corner of the sci-fi genre that has been seemingly abandoned in this day and age: complete and total faith in humanity.
Dystopias are popular in science fiction right now (see Oblivion and Elysium) and franchises that once were entirely about humans overcoming the impossible have abandoned that angle altogether (Star Trek Into Darkness). But Independence Day is ultimately an optimistic film, with the human race rising up together to repel the invaders. It's not subtle, but basic goodness is so rare in big films like this that seeing Israeli and Arab pilots participating in the final plan together is truly in the sci-fi spirit. Sure, the film gives America the credit for the final victory (and Bill Pullman's incredible but nutty rallying speech still kind of makes the whole thing about the United States), but it also invites us to think about the world postinvasion. When every nation has worked together to save their entire race, can they possibly go back to the way things were? It'll be interesting to see if the proposed Independence Day sequels tackle this directly, especially since many utopian science fiction worlds only came about after mankind nearly faced extinction.
So, Independence Day is an odd beast. Dumb, but earnest. A massive spectacle, but surprisingly restrained. Character driven, but filled with ciphers. Old fashioned, but one of the fathers of the modern blockbuster. However, the fact that Independence Day shows off so many sides and offers so much goodness in addition to the flaws makes it a film worthy of admiration, love and attention. My generation's nostalgia for this movie may by tinged with that touch of irony, but deep down, it's impossible to not love this crazy, dumb, delightful movie.