Flashback Fridays: Independence Day
The Fourth of July, Independence Day, what better way to celebrate than blowing up the White House? No, not in the sense of an anarchist fever dream, but in the sense of extraterrestrials doing the unthinkable. This was the wondrous special effects-laden takeaway provided by the initial teaser trailer for Roland Emmerich’s quintessential popcorn flick “Independence Day.”
When “Independence Day” dropped in the summer of 1996, before a vast majority of college kids today were even born, it was not the first explosion-filled blockbuster to exploit the 4th of July holiday for box-office bank, but it has definitely become the benchmark in hype and reach.
Today, these big-budget special effects monstrosities are what 4th of July box-office wet dreams are made of. Thin on story, a plot with more holes than Swiss cheese, an all-star cast filling generic character types, hundreds of fleeing extras, and Michael Bay’s favorite screen time filler: Explosions, big fiery ones that seem to burst out of the screen.
For younger readers unfamiliar with the plot, it follows a familiar thread as seen in Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” an alien race descends upon the Earth to of course colonize the planet. Giant saucers emerge over the world's major cities. Meanwhile a scrappy crew of humans gets together, there is a momentous speech that hammily includes the movie title (“Today we celebrate, our Independence Day”), and they fight the enemy with the help of super top-secret government assets hidden in ridiculous places, in this case being Area 51 where a spaceship that landed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 is being held.
The characters are like a microcosm of modern America: The slick-haired, smooth-voiced president (Bill Pullman), the nerd who knows how to crack the alien's codes and warns that they plan to unleash hell (Jeff Goldblum) and of course, the buffed action hero, in this case a fighter pilot played by Will Smith (in one of his early box office smashes).
Unlike “Transformers,” there is no giant robot to be seen unless you count the scientifically impossibly large spaceships or their smaller fighter ships that engage the U.S. Air Force in dogfights with their corny ray beam blasts. With the absence of giant monsters or robots to save the day, the humans instead use a basic Windows 95 computer virus to disable the entire armada of alien spaceships. It's lifted right out of H.G. Wells's "War Of The Worlds" and updated for the era of cyberspace, but it's fun in a 50's B-flick sort of way.
Build large city-sized ships that travel inside of a ships a quarter-size of the moon and navigate them across the galaxy? Easy peezy. Combat an English-language computer virus that was probably out of date by the time this movie was actually released? Impossible! But in the world of Roland Emmerich, it's not so far-fetched.
After "Independence Day" he made the ill-conceived 1998 "Godzilla" remake, and rebounded with 2000's Revolutionary War epic "The Patriot" (still his only real claim at serious drama), and has continued with a streak of successful disaster marathons such as "The Day After Tomorrow," "2012" and last year's "White House Down."
Back in its day, “Independence Day” set the standard for 4th of July box-office successes, including starting the streak of “Mr. 4th of July” Will Smith, who has made more successful 4th of July blockbusters than any other actor. Before this, he was known mostly for Bay’s sepia-toned “Bad Boys” with Martin Lawrence and for being born and raised in west Philadelphia. More box office mojo would come the following year with "Men In Black."
Both Emmerich and Smith were simply tapping into the times. In 1996 the Cold War was over, there were no major rivals to American supremacy and 9/11 was unthinkable. Culturally UFOs and paranormal reality shows like "Sightings" were hip. "Independence Day" imagines aliens as the only real threat America could face in a world where the USSR is dead and buried.
Looking back on it today, even with the initially awesome sight of world monuments being overcast in the shadows of gigantic, 15-mile-wide spaceships, it’s a hokey mess; so, pretty much what the American public clamors for in its blockbusters. "Independence Day" was even awarded an Oscar for its special effects in the same year "The English Patient" took home Best Picture (and yet, which film is probably more popular?).
“Independence Day” is currently available on Amazon Prime, so you can complement your neighborhood rascals’ illegal fireworks with these special effects “fireworks.”
So sit back, relax, turn off your brain, and don’t ask questions. Time to watch the purdy ‘splosions.