Some Thoughts on 1996’s Independence Day

I Have Always Unironically Loved This Movie

I mean, I first saw it as a kid. But now I’m thirty or forty years old and I still think this movie is rad. I think it gets a seat with the other Great Nineties Action/Adventure Movies That Still Hold Up, like The Mummy and Men in Black. Back when it came out, a lot of people thought it was Big Stupid. And it completely is. It is Big Stupid on many levels. The only dude who figured out the aliens were about to obliterate all the cities their saucers were sitting over was the guy who works for DirecTV? The whole world was seemingly just sitting on their thumbs waiting for America to come up with a solution? The advanced space aliens were using an operating system that Jeff Goldblum was able to hack into?

Yeah. Big Dumb. And I understand where those arguments are coming from. My thing is, plot holes happen all the fucking time. The only thing that really matters is, is the rest of the movie entertaining enough to gloss over those plots holes? For me, seeing Will Smith punch an alien in the mouth is worth, like, two to three plot holes all on its own.

The Best Scene is When Steve Hiller Sees the Saucer for the First Time

Honestly, this scene might be better than the entire rest of the movie, and I am not kidding, and – again – I fucking love this movie.

Up until this point, Steve and Jasmine have both completely missed the aliens’ arrival. It’s still early on the west coast, they mistakenly thought tremors from the saucer latching itself in place over LA was a cheap earthquake, and they just…haven’t looked outside yet. Even in the YouTube comments people are all, hOw DoEs He NoT sEe ThE gIaNt SaUcEr, but, like…how often do you really look at your surroundings? Especially when it’s early morning, you’re barely awake, and the lawn is littered with kids toys that keep taking your attention?

The scene is a perfect encapsulation of Alfred Hitchcock’s Bomb Under the Table quote. If Steve opens the door and just sees the saucer, that immediately defuses all of the suspense. Instead, we the audience know exactly what Steve is missing, and we’re sitting there waiting for the inevitable moment he finally notices. The escalating tension of Steve very slowly figuring out something is wrong makes the scene feel like it belongs in a horror movie. The glances to his left and right as he notices that all of the neighbors are panicking, followed by him hearing the helicopter and following it with his eyes and that’s how he finally sees the saucer is fucking poetry. The soundtrack, nothing more than a sort of low, droning hum, swells into punctuating horns as the camera pushes in on Steve, finally understanding that his holiday weekend is now completely fubar.

If that isn’t cinema I don’t know what is.

Connie Doesn’t Get Enough Heat

David’s ex-wife and the White House Communication’s Director (I had to fucking look that up just now, I never understood what her role was, exactly, besides ‘follow the President around and try to fix shit’), Constance Spano is, for most of the movie, good at her job and a quick thinker. It’s this one thing, though, that has been bothered me for over two decades.

David figures out that the aliens plan on blowing up all the cities they are hovering over with seven hours to go. Knowing that his ex-wife is probably elbow-to-elbow with a man who can talk to all of America at any time he calls her, trying to warn her. She listens to him on the phone for all of ten seconds, doesn’t actually hear anything he’s saying, gets mad at him and hangs up.

Now, I get that there are a lot of factors going on here. The movie has already made it clear David is still hung up on his Connie, four years after the divorce, and we don’t know how often he calls her trying to get her to leave his job for him. The President is at that very moment in the middle of addressing the nation and a pissy woman keeps shushing her. Fucking aliens just showed up and there’s a saucer hovering directly over her head at that very moment so obviously she’s not in a great headspace.

This is how the conversation goes:

Connie: What do you want?

David: You’ve got to leave the White House.

Connie: This is hardly the time or the place to be having that same old discussion.

David: You don’t understand, you’ve got to leave Washington.

Connie: Well, in case you haven’t noticed, we are having a little bit of a crisis here.

David: They’re communicating with a hidden signal, they’re going to attack.

Connie: You are just being paranoid.

David: It’s not paranoia! The embedding is very subtle, it’s probably been overlooked! If-

Dial tone

I know there’s history there, but…lady. Seriously. Huge alien saucers have positioned themselves over the most populated cities and government centers in the world. Your ex-husband, who you know is good with modern technology, is calling to warn you they’re going to attack, and you call him paranoid? She doesn’t let him get a word of explanation out before she hangs up and goes back to listening to the President finish his address to the people, asking them to stay in their homes and not to evacuate the cities.

Six hours later David finally reaches the White House, and now that he’s gone to all this effort Connie is finally willing to listen and immediately believes him. The President orders evacuations but there’s only thirty minutes left to Kaboom Time. Sitting on Air Force One after barely escaping alive himself, he beats himself up for telling people to do the wrong the thing, and wonders how many lives could have been saved if he had told people to evacuate earlier.

And Connie just sits there. Staring at him. Probably never mentions that David tried to warn her earlier. The way the movie frames it, in fact, she seemingly has completely forgotten. If Connie had listened to David the first time, people would have had seven extra hours to get out of the cities instead of twenty minutes, but the movie itself ignores that fact. I’m not asking for her to get strung up or jailed or anything. Just a little bit of remorse would be nice.

Oh My God, The Special Effects Are Still So Damn Good

I’m not one of those people who think practical effects are always better, but I do think, in retrospect, we started using CGI in movies way too early. Movies made in the nineties and even early two-thousands that used computer graphics have aged like heavy cream in the sun. Meanwhile, Independence Day still looks amazing, because they did everything the old fashioned way: they spent days building a shit-ton of meticulous, to-scale models of New York, LA, and the White House, and then they blew them all up.

The movie really lets the destruction stand on its own, too. The soundtrack drops out shortly after David’s ominous “Time’s Up,” and for the next two minutes and twenty seconds the only sounds are the explosions and the screams. A few quick shots pull back to show the destruction from afar and only feature eerie howling. This crew spent hours upon hours getting these scenes right, and you were going to appreciate them, God damn it.

Even the shots of the aerial battles against the little alien ships are fucking amazing for the late nineties. Again, no expert, but I think because they’re constantly in motion and that masks any obvious Uncanny Valley shit the eye might otherwise pick up on. The scenes with David and Steve in the alien mothership are the most-obviously fake, but there’s still an incredible amount of physical sets and props and what was done in a computer was done with two-tones in low light, and again I think that really helps the eye gloss over the imperfections.

The COVID Pandemic Has Proven These Are the Most Realistic Parts of the Movie

  1. Jasmine’s shitty boss making her work even as an entire flying saucer is hovering menacingly over the city.
  2. The large contingent of people who decided the aliens were No Big Deal and threw a big party directly in the middle of the problem and got a space-laser to the face.

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