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Dissecting the Classics – Independence Day

July 6, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Will Smith Independence Day

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Independence Day

Wide Release Date: July 3, 1996
Directed By: Roland Emmerich
Written By: Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich & Alessia Duval
Produced By: Dean Devlin
Cinematography By: Karl Walter Lindenlaub
Edited By: David Brenner
Music By: David Arnold
Production Company: Centropolis Entertainment
Distributed By: 20th Century Fox
Jeff Goldblum as David Levinson
Will Smith as Captain Steven Hiller
Bill Pullman as President Thomas J. Whitmore
Randy Quaid as Russell Casse
And a bunch of other people, this cast is huge

What Do We All Know?

Following a massive marketing campaign that started with SuperBowl XXX, Independence Day became the biggest blockbuster of 1996. While panned by critics at the time, audiences were far from deterred, showing up in droves for the promise of an epic sci-fi spectacular that promised big explosions, fun characters and, more than anything else, a good time at the movies. In the years since, it has managed to stay in the public conscience, though opinions on the film’s quality tends to vary greatly from person to person. Some people consider it one of the worst movies of its era, citing its archetypal characters, stock plot, cheesy dialogue and supposed nationatialism. Others enjoy the film for what it is, probably don’t consider it to be great but also probably enjoy having it on as background noise during the Fourth of July.

And then there’s people like me, for whom Independence Day is a genuine pop culture touchstone, one of those films that we all saw growing up and shaped our movie tastes one way or the other. I’m not saying everyone from my generation enjoys the movie, but I’m willing to bet that those of us who grew up in the 1990s have a generally higher opinion of the film than other generations. Now, if you hate Independence Day, I’m not going to try to persuade you otherwise, there’s plenty of reasons not to like the movie. Instead, I want to analyze why fans of the film enjoyed the movie when it came out, continue to enjoy it to this day, and how it’s affected us in the long run.

What Went Right?

ID4 is not a film that wants to reinvent the wheel, but perhaps tweak the wheel a bit. It uses the most broadly understood cultural touchstones for aliens (greys in xenomorph armor in flying saucers), has a traditional three-act structure so rigid that it’s marked by dates, and uses characters so arch that they are basically action figures. All of this is stock Hollywood stuff, intended to pique the interest of as many people as possible and get them into theaters, which is the reason so many of have seen the film in the first place. If you’ve read a few of my columns before, you probably know that I don’t equate simplicity with stupidity. Rather, I’m a staunch believer that humans need broadly understood stories to create a shared cultural language. ID4 is one of those films for my generation and that is a mark in its favor.

One huge advantage of this stock material is that it creates instantly comprehensible shorthand for a surprisingly large cast. I stopped at four because it was hard to pick the fifth most important character in the piece, because Independence Day is the very definition of an ensemble film. President Whitmore, Captain Hiller, Russell and David are the central characters, yes, but we’ve also got three love interests, a small legion of military offices, several children, a parent, close friends, a kooky scientist and an obnoxious Secretary of Defense. When you’re dealing with a cast that big, it helps to have stock characters like Robert Loggia’s good military advisor, Judd Hirsch as the wise, spiritual man, or Brent Spiner’s mad scientist. But it also has the dual purpose of highlighting how these characters don’t fit their stock type. Consider how President Whitmore fails to appear strong in public despite being visually presented as “the leader”, or how David is a little too much of a leading man to be so timid. Or look at Vivica A. Fox, who is playing the loving mother archetype to the letter, and is also an exotic dancer, which is not something Hollywood portrays very often despite being a pretty common occurrence in real life.

But the most important case of how the film uses shorthand while subtly shifting that shorthand is with Captain Steve Hiller. If you don’t recognize that name, it’s because you just think of him as Will Smith, the film’s classic military action hero who embodies the film’s coolness, optimism and patriotism more than any other character (including the President). He’s a soldier who wants to be an astronaut, as stock an American protagonist as you’re going to get and… a very contemporary black man played by a rapper from television. Now, in case you’re too young to remember this or have just forgotten it, Will Smith was not a movie star before ID4, and the fact that he was in the movie and playing the action hero was a major talking point about among the more derisive movie critics who thought this movie was a crime against cinema before it even came out. That seems simply preposterous now, but it’s worth noting that Independence Day took a chance on Will Smith, and that’s why you think of him as an action movie star today. You know, unless you’ve seen After Earth.

The point is, Emmerich and Devlin were a little subversive in their creative choices. The stand-in for all religious people isn’t a Christian, but a Jewish man who’s lapsed in his faith until literal armageddon. We’ve got as stereotypical a redneck as there’s ever been, but he’s got biracial children from a mixed-race marriage. Despite being named after the American holiday and featuring the President of the United States getting in a jet plane to fight aliens, ID4 is not aiming to deify the U.S. as is, but rather celebrates that “E Pluribus Unum” ideal of the U.S. that we’ve never lived up to. The aliens may have destroyed the American landmarks, but it didn’t destroy it’s people. Instead, it allowed them to unify and rally to fight back the aliens as one greater whole that isn’t limited by cultural or class boundaries. It’s no coincidence that the climax of this movie has the U.S. President and a dirt-poor crop duster defeating the aliens thanks to the team of a black man and a Jewish man. That unity is the theme of the movie, and every major plot point is used to reinforce that message.

What Went Wrong?

I’ll fully admit that Independence Day is cheesy and kind of dumb, which is mostly by design and contributes to its appeal. But there are a few serious problems. While the film’s main message is about universality and rallying all humans together against a common foe, it does have a tendency to undercut that message toward the end. When it seems like everyone has been waiting for America to save the day, and when certain people are presented in ways that are pretty much caricature, it’s hard to swallow Emmerich and Devlin’s ideas about human unity. This is a movie made when appealing only to the tastes of American audiences was all you needed to do to have a record-breaking blockbuster, but it does date the film in some pretty unfortunate ways. Speaking of which, the film became technologically obsolete almost immediately, as the late 1990s saw the start of the internet making global communication easier, which has the effect of making what was intended to be a cutting-age sci-fi movie feel rather prehistoric in 2018.

And In Summary…

Independence Day doesn’t aim to be anything more than a crowd-pleasing popcorn flick with an uplifting message. Maybe it wants to subtly shift some of the audience’s worldview to be a little more open minded and accepting of other people, but it doesn’t do it obnoxiously. Based on that merit, ID4 is a rousing success. I also think find it’s relentless optimism in the face of the end of the world to be genuinely refreshing, as blockbusters had a tendency to get really dark and brooding in the following decades. Rather than assaulting its audience with despair, the film wants to leave us with a warm feeling of coming together, putting aside our differences and celebrating our shared accomplishments. Which is probably why it ultimately feels so right that this movie has become a staple of Fourth of July for so many; coming together with friends and family to celebrate the ideals of our Nation in the face of oblivion is very much in the spirit of the holiday.

Happy Fourth.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas, The Avengers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Jaws, The Omen, The Incredibles, Life of Brian, Escape From New York

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