You promised not to watch it, but come July 4th, it seems to be inevitable. It’s playing on all the holiday marathons, it’s full of exploding things while you wait for exploding fireworks, and (if we’re feeling less highbrow) it’s pretty damn fun. But what if that’s just masking everything that we’re afraid to admit? What if we were manipulated into liking this movie, and we’ve been blind to it all this time?
It’s time to face the awful truth: Independence Day—or ID:4 as they say in some circles—was specifically designed to make every American love it. (Lots of other people too, but Americans specifically.) Every single one, no matter how different we all claim to be. You can’t deny it.
Let’s start with the basics: aliens come and blow up major cities. The visuals in this film are pure action porn. That moment where the White House becomes charcoal is embedded in our cultural consciousness now; many movies have tried to imitate that shot with far less impacting results. There’s that element of schadenfreude that all good action films possess—when we see those kids partying on the rooftops to welcome our brethren from space, we know it’s going to go horribly wrong, and we giggle maniacally all the same.
The aliens themselves are smartly designed to push all of our flight buttons at once. They share elements of xenomorph inspiration and underwater horrors come to life on land, tentacles and all. They’re telepathic, so they have no voices or mouths, far more unnerving than an awkward alien language would have been. But more importantly, we have no reason to empathize with them in the slightest; they are here to destroy us, not the victims of some sad cultural misunderstanding. It’s kill or be killed, our favorite non-moral dilemma.
They also murder Data. As if they weren’t evil enough.
The fringe characters are enough to check every demographic box you can shake a stick at (though I have no idea why you would do that). There’s Harry Connick, Jr. playing Will Smith’s best marine buddy, an obnoxious but well-meaning guy who gets a little too excited because someone has to die first. There’s Harvey Fierstein who at the time was employed to play nearly every gay character. There’s Vivica A. Fox as Will Smith’s girlfriend-then-wife, the Stripper With A Kid and A Heart of Gold, who’s somehow smarter than just about every person in Los Angeles. She’s so good she manages a caravan of survivors and the First Lady to safety. The First Lady, who might as well be President Laura Roslin V1.0, because that’s how damn classy Mary MacDonnell is in the role. When she dies you cry. Don’t pretend I’m making it up. (And Adam “Jayne” Baldwin is the commanding officer of Area 51? In retrospect it’s almost as though the film knew the future, and was trying to give us all the big hints.)
Bill Pullman is constructed to be the sort of Commander-In-Chief who anyone can get behind: a President with a fighting background, not afraid to get his hands dirty or call people to task for not doing their jobs and keeping him informed. He’s practical as the situation calls for, conservative enough to be relentless and liberal enough to be impossibly fair-minded. He’s gentle, but he’s no pushover. Having an adorable kid and then losing his wife just makes it that much harder not to root for him. Firing his awful Secretary of Defense also helps.
We’ve got smart Jeff Goldblum being smart (which was safe and comfortable because of Jurassic Park), wise-cracking Will Smith cracking wise (which was safe and comfortable because of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), and Randy Quaid being generally crazy and loud (which was safe and comfortable because of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and just about every other role he’s ever played).
And once everyone is together (and Data is lying in a heap on the floor), they all come together and figure out a plan to crack that alien fleet and send them packing (or exploding).
Can we talk about that morse code message that’s sent all over the world once we’ve got our plan straight? Never mind the fact that Americans are the only people smart enough to even attempt a plan in the first place, but once we let the world know, every other country is like “oh thank goodness America finally came up with a plan! Heavens to Betsy! We were just sitting on our butts this whole time, waiting for this glorious moment! Good job, America, we knew you’d get the heavy lifting done!” It’s laugh out loud funny. Then Jim Piddock shows up and literally says “about bloody time, then.” Perfect.
Which is all leading up to That Speech. That speech from President Whitman, which is probably in the Top Five for president speeches on film. Because no matter how ridiculous Independence Day is (and it really is), it’s kind of hard not to care when Bill Pullman is telling us that we’re not going quietly into the night. The world believes him. I believe him. America believes him. It’s our birthday, after all.
In Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum’s characters Steven and David, we’ve got a dream team of opposites; the military man who is looking to start a family, a sharp jock who is brave enough to dive headfirst into things he doesn’t understand, then the snarky environmentalist nerd who nobody listens to, who pines for the woman who got away. That last piece of the puzzle should be obvious, of course: when it looks like the Earth is out of luck, Russell Casse sacrifices himself to save us all, leaving behind three children.
You can see how carefully this is constructed: a black marine, a Jewish geek, and an alcoholic redneck just saved humanity from extinction. It would sound like a bad joke, if it weren’t clearly the exact intention behind the film.
I think that puts Independence Day solidly in “guilty pleasures” territory, no matter how it’s manipulating you. It’s goofy, it’s over-the-top, maybe even jingoist, but if you’re just looking to have a good time, I can’t think of the better film to watch on July 4th.
Emily Asher-Perrin actually usually watches Yankee Doodle Dandy on the 4th because she loves watching James Cagney tapdance. But she’s weird like that. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.