Wed
Jul 4 2012 10:00am

Independence Day is the American Movie

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.

41 comments
Meijers
2. Meijers
But that's the thing isn't it :-) Guilty pleasures have the biggest hook :-)
Meijers
3. BecRackley
Forget the fat lady! You're obsessed with the fat lady!
john mullen
4. johntheirishmongol
I love ID4, watched it last night after I got home. There's so many odes to previous scifi movies that you can't keep up with them all, from War of the Worlds, to 2001, to Alien and many more. And I remember the audience cheering when the White House was destroyed. There's always those movies you watch for the holidays, for almost every holiday. I also recommend 1776 for a 4th of July movie.
Heidi Byrd
5. sweetlilflower
Yeah, if I see that the movie is playing, I will totally go watch through the end....guilty pleasure indeed!
Meijers
6. helbel
I do like this movie, mainly for the lovely Major Mitchell (Adam Baldwin) but I maintain it's a comedy throughout, starting from REM's 'it's the end of the world as we know it..'

The stereotypical 'allies around the world' bit is one of the funniest things in the film.
Nathan Martin
7. lerris
Even from a non-American perspective, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. I regard it as a decent retelling of "The War of the Worlds" - right down to the aliens ultimately being brought down by a virus.
Meijers
8. XenaCatolica
Glad I'm not the only one who wants to see it every year....

And casting Spiner in that role was sheer brilliance. I hope he had a good time.
Meijers
9. AlBrown
Definitely one of the top guilty pleasure movies of all time. It is the movie equivalent of American cheese, not the finest of cheeses the world has to offer, or the healthiest of foods, but it gets all gooey and yummy when you put it in an omelet, or on your burger when you grill it.
Michael Grosberg
10. Michael_GR
ID4 was a pleasure and I'm not feeling the least guilty for having enjoyed it. IMO It was the last great "fun" movie, in the tradition of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars and Ghostbusters. Later action flicks were either darker & edgier - which is alright but sometimes you want something with a lighter tone - or they are big, loud, full of explosions, and boring or sometimes downright embarrasing. Making a fun, silly movie still requires a type of genius, or at the very least, craftmanship. The recent batch of action wrters/directors - Bay, Abrams, Len Wisemsn, Orci & Kurtzman and their like, can string dozens of action sequences and convoluted incomprehensible plot moments, but they don't really know how to create an enjoyable moviegoing experience.
Chris Meadows
11. Robotech_Master
You forgot to mention that the President's adorable daughter grew up to be Katara from Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Meijers
12. jc1960
Oops.

And happy Independence Day to all.
Meijers
13. Tumas-Muscat
11. Robotech_Master

And Roxy from Scott Pilgrim vs the World.
Meijers
14. Rowan Collins
Don't forget the all-time best product placement by Apple Computers, Inc, as the obvious choice for infecting the alien mainframe...

Although Sam Hughes has a brilliant defence of that particular stretch of imagination here: http://qntm.org/id4
Meijers
15. Sean C.
This is a significant movie for me, because it was the first one that I owned; I got it on VHS for Christmas in Christmas of '96, when I was nine, and watched it half a hundred times, at least. For a year or so it was my favourite movie ever.

It also benefits from being really the first of Roland Emmerich's Big Event Movies, which hadn't become so rote by that point.
Meijers
16. GuruJ
It's funny, I can never separate ID4 in my head from Mars Attacks! They both came out the same year and have roughly the same plot. I don't how know much Burton intended his film to satirise ID4 but it does work that way in practice.

I don't know. Perhaps it's because I'm not American. But I will take Tom Jones over Randy Quaid any day :)
Joris Meijer
17. jtmeijer
I just watched it again, it is one of those movies that manage to pull of the tongue-on-cheek humour to a tee. Walking a very fine line between being silly and being overly serious and dark.

By coincidence the Jennifer Lopez, George Clooney film Out of Sight is on now, which manages to pull the same trick.
lake sidey
18. lakesidey
Perhaps it's that I'm not American. But I hated it.

But perhaps it isn't just that I'm not American. It is that I am a science fiction fan and this movie is, in my opinion, one of the movies that give science fiction a bad name. Not that there haven't been worse SF flicks (alas, too many of those). Just that there haven't been worse ones which every goddamn idiot has seen. So when I used to try and get a friend to read/follow science fiction, too often the response was "Scifi? That's the Independence Day kind of thing, right? Naah man it's too mindless..." Fortunately the effect is wearing off now, a decade ago it was horrid.

I don't count this as "science fiction", but more as "mindless action" (or perhaps a video game where I don't even get the controller in my hand - I had more fun playing the original Unreal Tournament's Mothership level than watching this)

~lakesidey
Meijers
19. Another Steve
I am American, and I hated it.
Meijers
20. etv13
Like Another Steve, I hate it. It's sappy and heartless at the same time. Ick.
Jack Flynn
21. JackofMidworld
You know what I've been trying to figure out since Bill Pullman's speech? Why don't politicians hire screenwriters to write their speeches?
Michael Grosberg
22. Michael_GR
JackofMidworld - because they can't hire the same screenwriters to script the audience's response.
alastair chadwin
23. a-j
There was a British radio play tie-in called, I think, ID4: UK. It starred Colin (6th Doctor) Baker as the Prime Minister. Never heard it myself, did anyone?
Not American and I cringed slightly at the various armies (including our RAF) sitting around waiting for the US to sort it out for them, but I rather like the big speech. And it's worth checking out what the film makers based it on:

http://youtu.be/P9fa3HFR02E
Meijers
24. Jeff R.
Actually, it's a retelling of Earth vs the Flying Saucers. (I recently encountered Stephen King's meditation on that film in Danse Macabre, (the earlier film, that is. ID4 post-dated that book by quite some time.) which made the resemblence clear as crystal...)
Meijers
25. StrongDreams
In defense of the "Everyone else sitting on their hands waiting for the Americans to figure it out" objection, America was (probably) the only nation with a captured alien ship and crew to study.

It would have been fun if the mothership had blown up while Smith and Goldblum were on their way to it, having been infiltrated by the Soviet Union using tech scavenged from Tunguska. But that would be an entirely different movie.
James Hogan
26. Sonofthunder
Such a fun movie!! I have to say, never gets old watching Goldblum and Smith together. Also, this movie has more of my family's most quoted lines and favorite scenes than almost any other..."Hello boys, I'm baaaack!"
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
27. Lisamarie
I love this movie and didn't realize I was supposed to feel guilty about it, but I love your break down of it :0

I think this is probably the only movie I like Will Smith in...I agree that it was one of the last truly 'fun' movies (although I enjoy a lot of the comic book movie offerings - but agreed that they are starting to get more 'gritty').

You know, I have to admit, I don't classify this in my head as a 'sci-fi' movie, even though it has sci fi elements. While the alien invasion IS what drives the plot, the focus is not really the aliens. I agree that it's definitely more of an action-comedy.
Meijers
28. Anemone
3 this movie!
Jeremiah Whitmore
29. JamesOrrin
While my login name is JamesOrrin, my last name is Whitmore. So... on that note. The President's name is Whitmore, not Whitman! Stop trying to strip away the one cool thing my name has ever been involved with. Lol.
Alan Brown
31. AlanBrown
I had a lot of fun watching this movie, but thought that Presidential speech was horribly corny, and when he followed it up by strapping into the cockpit personally, alongside a drunk cropduster, my suspension of belief--which had bought evil aliens, government conspiracies, Area 51 being real, skin of the teeth escapes one after the other--well, it just broke down. It was fun, but definitely a check-your-brain-at-the-door guilty pleasure type of fun.
Meijers
32. Manu Gopinath
it is sappy, but I also do think it is a guilty pleasure... and Jeff Goldblum? cmon, you can't go wrong lol
Meijers
33. Dianthus
I used to watch Taxi when I was younger, so it was a treat to see Judd Hirsch playing David's "Pop."
Joel Clean Water
34. joelcleanwater
Good Day!!This topic gave ne and idea about independence day..thank you for sharing...
Meijers
35. TBGH
I was a teenager when it came out and (not so coincidentally) had no problem checking my brain at the door and enjoyed it thorougly.

And the soundtrack! As over-the-top as the movie and just as fun to listen to. Big bright trumpet calls for the moments of triumph, relentless maniacal energy running through the action sequences, and lots of sappy saccharine strings (off the cuff alliteration I swear!) for the quasi-emotional scenes.

If you tried watching it without that soundtrack manipulating behind the scenes it wouldn't work at all.
Anthony Pero
36. anthonypero
I was 17 and entering my senior year of H.S when this came out. I saw it four times the opening weekend (It opened on a Thursday, IIRC), and I must have seen it 10 times before Labor Day (first Monday in September for non-americans). That was the last summer our drive-in movie was open (another classic american summer tradition), and they always did double features (triple features on the weekend) so I was seeing it paired with another film. So much of how this film effects me emotionally is based on nostalgia and memories of friends I wouldn't see much again, etc... I STILL tear up when Randy Quaid gives the mothership his own version of an anal probe. Seriously, in what other context would that sentence even make sense?

Is it manipulative? What film isn't? All stories are excersises in manipulation. This film isn't even particularly subtle about it. But it is vastly effective.

Two quick stories regarding the drive-in pairings. That summer, , when I took my mom to see ID:4, it was paired with Down Periscope, with Kelsey Grammer. That movie wasn't very good, but it had the single funniest scene ever... at least when watched in the context of a group of people. It wasn't as funny the second time around. Its not even particularly funny retelling it. But when the enemy submarine was searching for them, and they were all being absolutely quiet, it was mildly tense, and totally silent in the drive-in, and on the movie. Then one of the sailors lets out a fart... The next 2 minutes are still silent with no talking, as this guy tries to hold the rest in... and all around me, the whole place is just laughing histerically. Uncontrollably. It took five minutes for people to get control of themselves. Maybe it says more about us as a society, lol.

The next year, I went back and they had ID:4 paired with Face/Off... which is the worst movie in history, except for Battlefield: Earth. Both had John Travolta in them... you do the math.

At any rate, the movie was crap, and then came the final chase scene... by land, by sea, by air, back by sea, back by air, back by land... just the most ridiculously overblown chase scene ever.

My friend, who was in the car next to me, finally gets out of his car, kicking rocks and screaming and shouting at the top of his lungs: "Somebody just die already! I don't even care who anymore! Somebody just die so we can watch Independence Day already!"

Everyone around us was laughing and honking their horns... Good times.
Luis Milan
37. LuisMilan
2 things come to mind whenever I see this movie:

1) Africans taking down a Mothership. With spears. Seriously? ( I bloody well know there are armed forces in Africa with jet fighters, but all they showed were africans shaking their spears at a Mothership.)

2) We used to joke here in Mexico about how they didn't show up Mexico City being destroyed (being the first or second biggest city in the world), and we said that the aliens came, took a look at the city, and decided that someone else had already beat them to it. That, or they couldn't find it under all the smog.
Bob Blough
38. Bob
I absolutely detest this movie. It is my example for everything that is wrong with science fiction movies.
Sara H
39. LadyBelaine
I actually sorta secretly love this movie even though it's really stupid. It actually has a few swell moments like when Vivica Fox manages to hide in a tunnel and made sure she rescued the dog also, and I thought that the wedding was really sweet. And not least of all, the First Lady manages to survive, runs for office and eventually saves humanity from the Cylons.
Steven Lyle Jordan
40. Steven Lyle Jordan
Sorry, I didn't even run across it in the listings. I put in a DVD of 1776 instead. Much better time.
C R L
41. Maac
When this film hit theaters, I saw it -- on July 4th, in Washington D.C., at what I think was the first midnight showing I was old enough to go to, surrounded by camp and expressive new college friends who brought BEER. And there were fireworks outside, possibly the most spectacular in the nation, because D.C.

I saw every single button well before it was pushed and may have actually exclaimed... "This... this is jingoism!" and "How come only America is doing anything?" in the theater (I had lived abroad twice by then) -- and it did not affect my love for the film, for the experience, one iota.

It worked. (I also squealed "Ooh! Data!") I am ashamed. My grin, she is sheepish. But she is a big damn grin.
Meijers
42. Jannisar
i was disappointed at how bubble gum it was. jeff goldblum and his poser cigar. judd hamming up the cliche jewish father. will as usual trying to hard to be the coolest hippest thing out there, quaid's moronic character. baldwin's dialogue at the end made me want to heave. corporate beer commercial mentality tripe. which is too bad because the special effects were cool, and the idea was interesting, but the dialogue and characters ruined that.

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