So let’s talk about Independence Day, ID4, or, as I like to call it: that piece of shit movie from the ‘90s that used alien invasion to make Americans patriotic for a brief moment. Last week I had band practice at my house and, as usual, our guitarist was late. It’s not that he’s a bad person but he’s never punctual. Our singer/screamer Brett was on time and we ended up watching part of Independence Day, laughing at the absurdity and stupidity of this film – it’s obviously a film made for addlepated, overtly patriotic Americans who think nationalism still matters when faced with beings from another planet.
The film is split into three acts (July 2nd, July 3rd, and July 4th); the first act is definitely the most interest because it’s where the aliens destroy everything and people lose their minds because 15 mile wide flying saucers are parked over every major world city. The second act deals with the counterstrike against the aliens and the realization that they’re stronger than any armament our species can muster. The final act is where president Whitmore (Bill Pullman) gives his horribly melodramatic and jingoistic speech to the small battalion amassed to fight the aliens again; it’s also where Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum fly an alien craft into the mother ship and upload a virus into the aliens’ computer system. The first act, which is by far the most interesting investigation of the human condition, is still rife with schmaltz but is at least interesting. It also features a humorous 9/11 reference, obviously unintentional since the film hit theaters over five years before the world changing attacks. Jeff Goldblum, a MIT graduate who works for a cable company, discovers the aliens have usurped our satellites and uncovers a countdown code – the end result is the annihilation of Earth’s major cities. It’s my belief Al-Qaeda took their inspiration for the September 11th attacks from this completely trite film, which really doesn’t work outside an American context (I know a Canadian professor who thought Pullman’s nationalistic diatribe comical).
Now the film’s construction (editing, cinematography, etc.) isn’t bad at all. In fact, it’s pretty high quality, following the stereotypical filmmaking conventions. Actually, it’s like director and co-writer Roland Emmerich (writing with Dean Devlin) looked at a scriptwriting 101 book and crafted something American audiences would love: a simple-minded, special effects extravaganza with a few funny quips here and there – just what American audiences need over Fourth of July weekend when it’s really hot outside and people want a nice distraction. Emmerich’s film does implement all the techniques necessary for a summer blockbuster but it lacks portrayals of real emotions that don’t rely heavily on melodrama and hackneyed dialogue. In my opinion this doesn’t make a film great – it makes a film easily digestible and dull.
During the film’s second half the president and his entourage visit Area 51, meeting Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner from Star Trek: The Next Generation), and discovering the Roswell incident from the 1940s isn’t a conspiracy theory. Later Will Smith, a tough talking, wise cracking, and overly confident Air Force captain brings a live alien specimen to the base and from there the plan leading to humanity’s triumph over the aliens begins. Released in theaters at the height of the alien conspiracy craze of the ‘90s (Alien Autopsy pseudo-documentary hosted by Jonathan Frakes, The X-Files, etc.), Independence Day is a high budget contribution to a craze that I personally find silly. I don’t doubt the existence of other life in the universe but my theory is if aliens can travel countless light years to reach earth I don’t believe contacting us would be a high priority. It’s akin to communicating with an ant colony, except the ant colony called humankind has travelled outside the community briefly and fights over the jellified remains of dinosaurs so we can whiz around in metal and plastic pods, blasting pop music and destroying our hearing. Did I mention I’m a bit of a curmudgeon sometimes?
The film’s final act features president Whitmore leading an aerial assault against the aliens, coordinated with Smith and Goldblum’s covert digital operations. Here a scene of generic heroism occurs, featuring Randy Quaid and through the use of antiquated technologies (the telegraph) America saves the day. Naturally since the film is American the Americans save the day, but my main concern with the film’s narrative is its condemnation of the other. Naturally it’s understandable since the other is attacking every major city in the world and wiping out humanity, but it’s not within the film’s context where I find fault but instead the larger implications to the corporeal world. The kind of hegemonic diatribe the president gives before the film’s final encounter is typical of hyper-nationalism. Aside from Whitmore’s use of the term, “mankind,” a few times in his rallying call, his statement, “Perhaps its fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom… Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution… but from annihilation,” shows the superiority inherent in the American environment. How apropos that the attack happens on July 4th weekend and the Americans are the ones saving the day – not the Russians, not the Chinese, but the Americans. The film presents America as the best nation in the world and the savior of humankind, not another player in a small world but the biggest fish in the pond and a bastion of morals, ethics, and ass-kicking. It’s this self-important sentiment that’s involved us in two unwinnable wars and crippled ours, and just about everybody else’s economy. While Whitmore’s speech contains a unifying sentiment, its use of American symbolism as an amalgamate for every nation imparts a sense of cultural superiority. Although I love America, even though I’m very critical of it because I feel it’s capable of so much more, I feel this kind of mindset is not only dangerous but is actually hubris.
The aliens’ primary goal is the collection of natural resources, moving from planet to planet, killing the indigenous inhabitants, and moving on after they’ve squandered them. I find it ironic the Americans condemn these actions when they’re the same as the Bush administration’s impetus for war in the Middle East. Although the official reason, after changing multiple times, is “spreading democracy,” to oppressed nations, the no-bid contract awarded Halliburton and other corporations demonstrate different motivations. This is another reason why the film one works on one level – it displays a very narrow worldview, reducing events to a singular motivation and not exploring the web of factors converging into the creation of a single event. In essence, Independence Day is a very constricted representation of cause and effect, saying a solitary event causes a solitary outcome. Once again, it’s hubris at its finest.
The film was very successful theatrically and probably just as profitable in foreign market and on home video and television (even though Lebanon banned the film because it features Israeli’s working together with Muslim nations). I’ll admit I contributed about $10 to this film’s success in 1996 – I saw it twice in theaters, although I only paid for it once since my uncle took me the second time, heavily interested in the film’s hype – and I’m a little upset I got sucked into it a third time recently. I highly suggest nobody spends a penny on this film ever again.
Final Note: Normally I like announcing spoilers prior to beginning my posts but in the case of this terrible film I hope I spoil it for anybody reading this.
Here’s the trailer