Blockbusters are the most perfect cultural snapshots. There are few purer reflections of their times than big tent-pole movies and while those times—and we, inevitably—keep a-changing, the movie does not. So a film you loved when you were 15 might be unwatchable now. It’s not the movie, it’s the distance you have from it and the way that distance has changed you.
Bloodsport’s still awesome, though. KUMITE! KUMITE!
Kameron Hurley talks about this a lot in The Geek Feminist Revolution, especially with regard to Die Hard. It’s a great essay in a great book, and it got me thinking about Independence Day in the same terms, especially as the sequel is about to be released.
At the time, Independence Day was a weird, almost revolutionary take on the blockbuster. THE BLACK GUY LIVED and anyone who saw any film in the 1990s (or most films since) knows how rare that is. Even better, it had female characters that did actual things, a nicely pre-millennial end of the world feel, Will Smith deciding that actually yes he DID want to be the biggest star on the planet for a while, and Jeff Goldblum hacking an alien super UFO with a MacBook. It really did feel like something new and interesting formed out of old pieces. Plus it was directly responsible for ID4:UK, the magnificently weird audio tie-in the BBC released that provided backstory for the two British pilots we meet in the original movie. ID4:UK involved late, beloved astronomer Sir Patrick Moore getting into a fistfight with an alien. It’s long since been deleted but if you possibly can, do track down a copy. It’s immense fun.
So, how does ID4 hold up now?
These days it plays less like a blockbuster and more like a really good, chewy miniseries that’s been edited together. The script is very clearly split into two halves and, as is often the case, the first half is a lot more fun than the second. That’s where we get all the players put on the table: Maverick scientist! Frustrated warrior President! Badass marine pilot! Badass fiancé! Asshole CIA dude! Judd Hirsch! Incredibly off-key Randy Quaid character! It’s a tried and tested way of storytelling and one that ID4 takes wholesale from classic sci-fi B-movies. Even better, it shows faint glimmerings of awareness and insight, with Goldblum’s David heavily criticized for throwing a hissy fit at his wife wanting a career. It’s not exactly nuanced, but for that first hour, ID4 has some genuinely interesting characters.
It also has brilliant tension, defined by the ticking clock, the growing sense of urgency, and everyone’s favorite game: guessing who’s going to die. It’s like an episode of ER or Chicago Med with added aliens and property destruction as city-killing mega-saucers blow up every landmark they can hover over.
But as is often the case, the moment we start getting the answers, the movie gets a bit less fun. This is where ID4 goes full X-Files, folding in Roswell, Area 51, a pre-Firefly Adam Baldwin, and post-Next Gen Brent Spiner as the only character in the movie broader than Randy Quaid’s. We get a lot of narrative tidying up, a lot of exposition, and a truly extraordinary amount of people looking worriedly at computer screens. To be fair, this is always the way with these movies: a good chunk of the second half is basically taking attendance and setting up the staging for the big finale.
Now, to be fair, the big finale here is super fun. A coordinated global assault on the city-killing saucers gives director Roland Emmerich a chance to throw some more property destruction around, and Goldblum and Smith’s journey into the mothership is really nicely done. Smith was approaching the height of his first career peak, here, and his combination of focused Marine dedication and wide-eyed flight geek charm is lovely. Goldblum is Goldblum, and never in the history of cinema has an actor done better work with “eccentric, occasionally slightly mumbly genius.” Few moments from ‘90s cinema are remembered more fondly, or more derisively, than Goldblum hacking the mothership with his Mac and that’s largely because these two guys sell a ridiculous moment to perfection.
They’re also the perfect example of Emmerich’s longstanding fascination with the scientist/soldier dynamic and how neither is complete without the other. Much like Daniel and Jack in Stargate, both men are each profoundly skilled in one area. And much like the Stargate pairing, they rely on their partner to cover their backs. It’s a simple dynamic but a really strong one and it’s rarely been more fun than it is here.
It’s a shame, then, that for all the fun they have, the rest of the second half brings the movie’s faults to the fore. Pullman’s stern, almost reluctant President is ill at ease in the closing dogfight and the surviving members of the female cast are relegated to sitting in a prayer circle and looking worried. That second choice is especially egregious, given how great Margaret Colin and Vivica A. Fox are in the first half of the movie. Both are strong characters, with real agency, and both are relegated to the status of worried extras by the end. At least they make it there, though—unlike Mary McDonnell’s First Lady whose job in the movie is to be Mary McDonnell then die gracefully.
It also demonstrates how thematically broad the movie is, and how much strain this causes as it lumbers toward the final scenes. David Arnold’s brilliant, if bombastic, score doesn’t sit quite right with the bloodied, against-the-wall last stand at Area 51. The intrigue and scale of the alien threat in the first half is relegated down to a motivation so basic that it’s essentially the word “Eeeeeevil” written in really big block letters and the human cost of the ending is frequently overlooked in place of effects that have aged pretty badly. Worst of all, the ending puts the film’s least well-developed character front and center. Russell Casse, played with the exact wide-eyed, bellowing energy brought to pretty much everything by Randy Quaid, doesn’t work. In fact, he doesn’t work in so many ways he breaks the movie almost from the first time we see him.
Narratively, Russell is continually set up as a clown, a man who is deluded and believes that he’s been abducted by aliens. This leads to the only part of the movie more outdated than its gender politics: jokes about anal probing that weren’t funny in the ‘90s. This kind of writing means Quaid, Spiner, and to a lesser extent Baldwin’s characters often feel like they’ve wandered in from a different, less well-written movie. For every moment of surprising nuance, and ID4 has them, there’s Quaid yelling, Spiner mugging and gurning, or Baldwin scowling. Of all of them, Baldwin comes out best, but all three characters feel weirdly out of place almost every time we see them.
There are two moments where Russell works, and they serve to just barely hold the movie together. The first is when he realizes what he has to do and, just for a moment, in the middle of airborne Hell itself, looks at the photo of his kids. Quaid, when he’s on point, can do a huge amount with very little and he puts every emotion into his eyes: horror, fear, regret, and absolute, resolute pride. This is Russell’s way out—this is what he’s always been heading towards and now that he’s finally arrived at it, he’s at peace.
It’s a lovely, quiet little moment and the movie has a surprising amount of them. President Whitmore’s numb, silent walk out of his wife’s hospital room, Captain Hiller’s reunion with Jasmine, and Julius’ speech about his wife are all moments of surprising poignancy, even now. The film is at its best when it shows the human cost of battle and the small victories the characters pull from the ruins. This is the end of the world, and the characters—and the movie itself—are at their best when they face up to that.
The other moment is Russell flying his F-18 into the super weapon, yelling “Hello BOYS!’ I’m BAAAAAACK!!” And exploding.
No subtlety. No nuance. Just a vast exuberant puppy of a movie signing off with another big explosion. It’s not clever, but it sure is big and frequently very fun.
And that’s Independence Day in a nutshell, a film that is made up of parts reverse-engineered from 1950s B-movies and a gnawing sense that you could do more with the blockbuster. When it works, it’s still really impressive; when it doesn’t, it’s very, very awful. Even then, ID4 stands as a unique movie and one that marks a clear line between the past and the future (ironically, much like the alien invasion it depicts). Only time will tell if Resurgence manages the same, or better, but even if it doesn’t, just remember: keep your MacBooks handy and always know where the nearest airbase is.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.