How often does the highest grossing movie of the summer make it to the Hall of Shame? Well, in this case, once. Independence Day was the first really big budget offering from sci-fi auteur Roland Emmerich. Co scripted by he and boy wonder Dean Devlin Independence Day takes H.G. Welles standard setting War of the Worlds novel and perverts it into a stupendously awful big-kaboom movie.
According to the all knowing Internet Movie Database Roland Emmerich fell upon the idea for Independence Day while pondering a question about alien life at a forum about 1994’s Stargate.
Whether or not this is true is known only to Emmerich, but I tend to think he watched George Pal’s 1953 adaptation of H.G. Welles and thought, “gee, I could probably remake this. Dean, get out of that leather maid costume and get my word processor!”
Before long a giant ad campaign was unleashed upon the unwary minds of America. Everywhere was ID4 this, ID4 that, ID4 this, ID4 that... The would repeat this ad saturation technique with 1998’s atrocious Godzilla, that time though, it backfired.
ID4 (a minor name change to circumvent a legal problem) sprung into theaters on midnight of July 4th and generated a tremendous buzz. Not without some worthy mention either. ID4 looked absolutely fantastic, the special effects were standard setting, and the film screamed along for two harrowing hours leaving audiences breathless and stuffed full of jingoistic patriotism and in just the perfect mental state to go home and play with Class-C fireworks.
I was one of the folks initially snookered by Independence Day. I admit it, the spectacle swept me away, I cheered, I yelled, I wanted a damn flag to wave at the end of film. And, that feeling would probably still linger today except for one little detail, I watched it twice. Independence Day’s red-white-and blue rah-rah facade melted like so much flag-colored Jell-O parfait left in the hot summer sun.
Independence Day begins with a hot summer July 2nd and a giant spaceship creeps behind the dark side of the Moon. A shadow passes over the original moon landing spot, the vibrations of which, erase Neil Armstrong’s footprints. I won’t even discuss the bad science in this scene.
SETI detects a signal from the moon and alerts the Pentagon who determined that “something” has a mass of 1/4th that of Earth and a diameter of 250 kilometers. Assume basic physics for a moment. How exactly could something that huge sneak all the way to the Moon without ANY astronomers noticing it? Not only that, were the ship that massive it would certainly have detrimental gravitational effects on Earth. Tides would change dramatically, as would the temperature, Earth’s rotation would slow, it’s pitch would change. Whole continents of people would KNOW something was wrong.
We then cut to Earth and meet all of our principle characters.
Since Independence Day is an ensemble picture there are a whole lot of characters spread throughout the USA. We meet Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith) an Air Force Pilot who’s just been denied a spot in the space program and his bestest buddy Captain Jimmy Wilder (Harry Connic Jr.) both stationed in Los Angeles, emasculated President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) in DC with his advisors General William Grey (Robert Loggia) and Albert Nimziki (James Rebhorn) and former wife of soon to be introduced David Levinson Constance Spano (Margaret Colin) , Crop dusting former alien abductee and all around drunk Russell Casse (Randy Quaid) and his kids, and finally Cable TV company owner and all around environmentalist David Levinson (Jeff “twitchy” Goldblum) and his Dad, Stereotypical Catskills Jewish whiner Julius Levinson (Judd Hirsch), finally we meet stripperiffic girlfriend of Steven Hiller, Jasmine Dubrow (Vivica A. Fox) and her son Dylan (Ross Bagely).
Seems that during the record heat of this July 3rd something is interrupting satellite communications on a global scale. Before long the first giant invasion saucers burn through the atmosphere and take positions over each of Earth’s great cities.
Like I said before, the special effects are flawless and awe inspiring. However, the script is anything but. Rather than, oh I don’t know, consider the actual implications of several giant saucers hovering over the great cities of the world and use it as a springboard to open a philosophical discussion of humanities place in the universe, or at least have the characters react like normal people and run screaming for the hills, we get almost mild disinterest from everyone but Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith.
Goldblum, for what it’s worth, is at his most annoyingly twitchy in this film. It’s like he took the worst aspects of his mathematician character from Jurassic Park and amped it up by a factor of one million. He doesn’t have lines in this film, he has sermons.
Smith, on the other hand, shows a well developed pair of acting chops. It’s hard to imagine that someone whom I ignored (for the most part) on Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and who went on to play “Will Smith as Will Smith” in a whole slew of other films (save two: Six Degrees of Separation and Ali) fell so easily into the roll of fighter jock/hero guy. I guess his role as Steven Hiller could be classified as Will Smith as Will Smith, but he was still fun to watch.
But back to the story...
It takes HOURS for someone to alert the President that this humungous ship is approaching Earth. Once he knows though, Whitmore and his cabinet are completely unable to discuss the situation realistically. By now the giant ship is a few dozen smaller ships (still 15 miles across) and entering Earth’s atmosphere. Again I won’t even attempts to dissect the stupidity of this science.
We now get a whole montage of people detecting these enormous ships. AS IF ANYONE WOULDN’T NOTICE 15 mile wide saucers careening into the lower atmosphere? Worse still, on the sides of the Earth in nighttime darkness the ships would have been visible the same way the moon in, by reflecting sunlight back at the Earth’s surface. This could have made a really neato visual, but Emmerich doesn’t even bother. Even worse, if you can believe it, the film is completely American centric in that although all of the other countries are mentioned, none of them make a move to clear the saucers at all. I like to think that were a huge saucer to enter China’s or Russia’s air space then someone in those government would, oh, I don’t know, scramble the military? Rather than have the rest of the world act in a rational and self preservation oriented manner we get several reports of riots and panic in the streets of Russia. China, and Iraq.
However, the US, remains calm, cool and collected in the face of imminent doom. Yeah, right. We’re the country that burns down whole neighborhoods when the college football team loses the playoffs. Keep in mind that were alien Armageddon a mere few hours away America would devolve into “Dope, Guns, and Fucking in the Street” as prophesied by Detroit Rockers The MC-5.
The best thing Whitmore can come up with is “stay in your homes”. He doesn’t even consider putting the military on the case. Just what the hell does Whitmore believe will happen the ships reach New York and Washington? How does he figure that nothing bad will happen? I mean, I can understand not wanting to jump the gun and potentially piss off a fleet of possibly hostile aliens, but jeez, I’d at least meet them with my friggin' guns drawn to establish that although I am prepared to negotiate peacefully, I’m not above defending myself. This inaction defines Whitmore’s presidency. When we meet him he’s being assailed in the press for wishy-washiness but I mean, even the stupidest, least competent, most in need of a lobotomy (unelected) President would AT LEAST have the smarts to ready the military and start evacuating the cities. And just where in the hell is Congress during all of this?
A more realistic scenario would be something like this:
President Whitmore: I won’t scramble the armed forces because innocent people might get hurt.
General Grey: Pulls gun and shoots Whitmore then scrambles military and establishes himself as military dictator.
We get some nice FX shots of the ships coming to a halt over NY an DC, but again, this whole scene as cool as it looks, ignores basic physics so thoroughly that anyone with even an 8th grade education would ask “how much energy does it take to stop a moving 15 mile wide flying saucer, where does that energy come from, and why isn’t the exhaust simply erasing the landscape?” Yeah, that whole finicky inertia thing...
Okay, since SETI, the US military and intelligence communities, and everyone else in the US fails to make the connection between 15 mile wide spaceships and violent human death, that leaves Jeff Goldblum to solve the mystery of why the aliens have come.
Now honestly, with some 300 million people in the continental US, and some 6 billion worldwide, only Jeff Goldblum figures out the reason for the alien arrival? Goldblum calls his ex-wife during a Presidential news conference and implores her to leave DC. She refuses (stupid, stupid decision).
Back in California Will Smith knows he has to report to his Air Force base for a briefing and has one of several really stupid conversations with Viveca Fox. He actually says “I don’t think they flew 9 billion miles to come here and start a fight.” Really? You conclude this based on what?
Panic hits the streets of America now as riots and looting break out in all the major cities. Goldblum picks up his Dad and flees the city. He heads towards DC to bring news of his discovery to the President in person.
Careful viewers will notice that, astonishingly, everyone is able to get a telephone connection in this movie. Let me throw a little telecom knowledge your way. In the US the telecommunications infrastructure is designed to work to a standard based on the busiest calling day of the year, that is Mother’s Day. And, anyone who tries to call dear old Mom on Mother’s Day is probably familiar with the switch busy message (we’re sorry, your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please hang up and try again later). The US telecommunication system uses as a series of local telecom companies with terrestrial connection and long distance companies with both terrestrial and geosynchronous satellite connections. Not even considering that alien spaceships hovering over the world’s major would instantly overload local and long distance circuits as everyone and their mother calls someone, anyone, to discuss the situation, but the aliens have co-opted and/or destroyed Earth’s communications satellites so long distance calling would be effectively destroyed.
That communications failure would probably feed the panic of the rampaging masses.
Okay, telecom rant over for now.
Goldblum and his Dad arrive in DC and contact Constance. David has figured out that the spaceships are sending a countdown signal through the communications satellite infrastructure, and when that countdown reaches zero it’s invasion time. The President’s plan is to send a light-rigged chopper to the ship to flash a series of mathematical sequences that “should” be decipherable by any intelligent life on board.
Since for over 50 years Earth’s television programs have beamed out of the atmosphere at the speed of light intact and watchable to anything with a properly configured transceiver (TV signals are unencoded so ANY frequency receiver tuned properly would receive and display them) the Aliens would have had ample time to study Earth’s various languages and structure a few choice communications phrases that would work well to make their intentions known. Something along the lines of “take me to your leader” or “time to die” etc.
The aliens instead choose to destroy the light-rigged chopper mere moments before evaporating NYC, DC, and all the other cities over which they hover.
David and his Dad end up on Air Force One and escape with the President and his advisors.
The aliens attack in one of the best special effects sequences of 1990s science fiction. Props to Volker Engle.
So far you might be thinking that this is all going along pretty well except for some minor and rather forgettable inconsistencies. Well, you’d be wrong because Independence Day careens into stupid-land very quickly. I think Emmerich and Devlin were assuming you’d be so enraptured by the special effects that none of the following events would make any difference to you at all. Well, if you only see the movie once or have never read Welles’ cautionary tale of Martian death, then they were probably right. But I saw it twice (three times now as I write this review) and I’ve read War of the Worlds a couple of times so their poor script shows about as well as a 15 mile wide flying saucer.
During the city destruction they thoughtfully focus on Jasmine and her son fleeing LA and her miraculous escape from certain death by hiding in a closet as a wave of fire explodes into a clogged tunnel within which she is trapped. Again, this defies even basic physics and chemistry. The flames would consume all of the oxygen in the closet and the heat would crisp her fine body into something resembling a Kingsford Fast Starting Charcoal Briquette. But, this is a Devlin/Emmerich production, and Will Smith needs something to fight for so she, her son, and her dog survive.
Meanwhile (get used to this phrase because you’ll be seeing a lot of it) on Air Force Once the President learns that his wife and her helicopter are missing.
Back in LA Jasmine and her son and dog wander the ruins.
Meanwhile at El Toro air base (named for the air base in Pal’s War of the Worlds from where the A-bomb carrying flying wings dispatched, and failed, to destroy the advancing martian walkers.
Hiller and his squadron “The Black Knights” scramble (FINALLY!!!) to engage the saucers and we get a the standard Devlin/Emmerich military dialogue:
Knight 2-fox three...
Knight 3- fox four...
Knight 1-red foxx...
This goes on and on and on and on as the jets launch wave after wave of missiles at the saucers only to have them bounce off a deflector screen. The aliens aren’t only passive participants either. The saucers disgorge a whole mess of smaller ships to destroy the jets. These smaller ships too are protected by shields.
With the Air Force effectively neutralized HIller and Wilder flee the scene with aliens in pursuit. At this point someone should have asked um... where is the Navy? The Marines? The Army? Why send a whole mess of men to die when some guided missiles fired from 200 miles away would have just as easily revealed the Alien shield technology.
I guess it wouldn’t have been as exciting, but it seems completely implausible that anyone with a military background would have sent an unsupported squadron into combat with no follow up plan. I mean, the saucers are low enough that even ground artillery could have been used, let alone seeding the ruins of the city with several thousand foot soldiers and tanks.
Ugh... This is the Starship Troopers (Verhoven not Heinlein) take on military, that is, only one branch is ever needed for anything and coordination between branches is both unnecessary and not worth filming.
The alien fighters turn their fury on El Toro and wipe it out.
Walker is killed but Hiller escapes and manages to down one of the enemy ships by ejecting from his F-16 in a canyon. He then captures the alien pilot by punching him in the er... face?
Jasmine finds a working truck (I would assume no big feat in deserted LA), Randy Quaid and his kids pack up the camper and head for Area 51, the same place all the other characters will inevitably head.
On Air Force One the President poo-poo’s the idea of launching nuclear weapons, supported by Jeff “listen to me preach again” Goldblum. I find it extremely hard to believe that in the face of already crippling destruction that the president would NOT use nuclear weapons.
Back in LA Jasmine has located a few survivors including one guy dressed as Dr. Clayton Forrester the principle character in War of the Worlds, and finally the first lady in the wreckage of her chopper.
Will smith, back in the desert, drags his unconscious alien pal across the salt flats of Groom Lake (i.e. Area 51).
President Whitmore and his entourage arrive at the secret military base and meet both Major Mitchell (Adam Baldwin) and Dr. Ocum (Brent Spiner). Turns out the saucer collected from the Roswell remains in 1948 was, in fact, one of the small fighter ships as seen recently destroying The Black Knights. They also have a couple of alien bodies suspended in fluid.
Spiner provides the most interesting and watchable character in the whole film, and it’s a shame he can’t shake that goddamn android typecasting. Ocum is giddy with excitement and geekily devoid of sorrow for the death taking place worldwide. He is much more interested in the “gizmo’s” that the aliens have in their ship.
The President tells David to work with Ocum (because David cracked the invasion code) to find a weakness that the humans can exploit.
Steve Hiller arrives with the sleeping alien (and Randy Quaid) in tow.
The question everyone has for Ocum and Nimziki is “why didn’t anyone tell us about this so we could have prepared a defense strategy.” Of course no one has an answer. Adding to the stupidity factor no one even TOLD President Whitmore that this base, or these saucers existed. The reason? “Plausible deniability” as stated by Nimziki. Now honestly, how is it that in ANY OTHER SITUATION except an actual alien invasion would require this information need plausible deniability? I mean, for years people have taken videos of the test flights of new and advanced planes from the hills around Groom Lake.
Anyway... Cut back to the ruins of LA where Jasmine and Marilyn Whitmore have a dorky conversation to demonstrate the complete lack of possible understanding between those in power and those at the other end of the financial and power scale. When Jasmine says she’s a “dancer” Marilyn replies, “ah ballet” Jasmine responds “no, exotic” Marilyn than answers, “oh, sorry” Jasmine finishes with, “Don’t be sorry, I’m not”.
There is some suggestion that Whitmore was modeled after former President Clinton although I never thought of his as wishy-washy. Jasmine mentions that she voted for “the other guy”. Now, I’ve met and am related to, several Republicans and the two competing characteristics for embracing Republicanism are: wealth or stupidity, and these traits are not mutually exclusive. Why in the hell would a stripper vote for a candidate who would more than likely rail against her profession as immoral meanwhile erasing the social services that would make her low-income life that much harder?
But, enough politics and back to the conversation.
Fair enough, but in the face of worldwide devastation do you think anyone would even consider talking about this sort of thing? I imagine the conversation would be more like “do you think there are any alien monsters hiding in the rubble ready to jump out and kill us?” answer “shit, I hope not”. Repeat over and over and over again.
Save the social commentary for when and where it matters.
Back at Area 51 Ocum and his pals begin dissecting the unconscious alien. The alien doesn’t like that though, and since he’s telepathic, takes over Ocum’s mind and uses him as a communications vessel. This raises the question, if they aliens are telepathic, then why in the hell didn’t they just telepathically communicate when they arrived.
Ocum doesn’t survive the mind meld.
Adding to the moron factor of this film President Whitmore tries to make a truce with the alien pilot, as if the pilot was the Chief Monster in Charge. To me this is like Saddam Hussein trying to negotiate a cease fire agreement with a captured US pilot. It’s sloppy and stupid, but as with all sloppy and stupid things in Devil/Emmerich scripts, the alien mind-melds with Whitmore for the sole purpose of explaining the entire alien plan in one short mental-to-mental connection. Well, isn’t that convenient? This alien inspired revelation convinces Whitmore to authorize the use of Nukes. What is the alien impetus for invasion? Conquest? Nope. Mars needs women? Nope again. It’s natural resources, that is, Whitmore learns that all the aliens want is to strip mine the Earth then move on. Essentially the aliens are Republicans.
If that’s the case why didn’t they stop at Mars? Mars has plenty of mineral resources, certainly on par with what’s on Earth, plus making Mars more attractive, is the fact that there aren't any pesky sentient species with an air force there waiting to shoot at you.
And it raises the question “where is the military command and control structure?” Since communication is essentially wiped out and the military is, or at least should be, scattered throughout the continental US, how does Whitmore even get the message to the Air Force to send nuke laden Stealth bombers after the ships.
We’re in the middle third of the film now where everyone, especially Goldblum, goes into full on preach, preach, preach mode.
We get the nuke strike now, and again, in defiance of all military logic, rather than send guided missiles from a sub, or underground silo, he sends a wing of Stealth Bombers to deliver the nuclear payload.
Of course this is meant as an homage to War of the Worlds, and like in the Pal version, the nukes do nothing ot the saucers.
Meanwhile Hiller “borrows” a chopper and heads off to LA to look for Jasmine. Why he assumes she is still alive is anyone’s guess. Sillier still, he finds her in the ruins? Now, I’ve never been to LA, but I tend to think it’s a pretty big place.
He brings her and the rest of the casualties to Area 51. Whitmore’s wife dies from her injuries but not before having a long and tedious “please cry now audience” moment with her daughter and husband. This scene might have been effective had we been given enough time to get to know Mrs. Whitmore, but at this point all we know is that she is embarrassed by Exotic Dancing.
Goldblum, in full-on Swaggart mode, flips out and starts throwing away recyclables. He figures if we make the planet nasty enough the aliens won’t want it. His dad talks him down. It’s about the only decent conversation in the movie and Emmerich botches it. This is the conversation that leads to the revelation that provides the key to defeating the enemy rather than bore us with the details, the whole epiphany takes less than one minute.
Now, in Welles’ War of the Worlds it was Earth’s bacteria that spelled doom for the Martian invaders, the point being that even if we are Earth’s apex creature we are still dependent on and indebted to, our environment and all the little creatures who dwell within. Since Devil and Emmerich are unconcerned with anything not technically oriented (and yet still amazingly mishandled) they replace the bacteria idea with a computer virus. So, although the aliens have only been to Earth once (as far as we’re told except for Randy Quaid’s ranting about anal probes) the Aliens should have no real defense against our Earth’s unique airborne pathogens, to which we and all the other little creatures have developed immunities over millions and millions of years of evolution.
No, it’s more exciting (and waaaaaaaaay less logical) to have Jeff Goldblum (among his other duties as recycling lunatic, prophetic code breaker, and all around twitchy nut), programs a computer virus to de-shield the alien ships.
With this information in hand the President sends a message to all the other scattered air force units of the world that a counterattack will commence in X-hours. Although this suggests worldwide unity it makes two fatal flaws: one - it’s amazingly stupid, and two - where the hell are the rest of the military units of these countries? Was there some unmentioned worldwide plague that killed every military person but pilots?
I mean, if they can knock the alien shields down for X-minutes then why put so many human factors in the mix? Why not merely launch all the conventional ballistic missiles you have? Why not use a nuke, the things are 15 miles across for crying out loud...
But no, that would be too logical. Instead we get a rah-rah world air force to engage the saucers and destroy their weak point.
You’d at least THINK that someone, somewhere, anywhere, would mobilize the infantry?
Things digress further when at Area 51 anyone who has ever flown anything is given the keys to an F-16 and a crash course in modern avionics. Yeah, right... Harkening back to the cavemen in Harriers scene in Battlefield Earth anyone?
Even President Whitmore volunteers to fly, then offers a rousing speech “blah blah blah.,.. One world spoke up and in one voice refused to be cowed... blah blah Independence Day” Yeah, it’s rousing but stupid in context. The script establishes that the Aliens aren’t interested putting Humanity under a yolk of slavery, they merely want Earth’s natural resources, and once they have them, will move on to some other planet. So, independence is a superfluous motive. More realistic would be “they atomized our friends and relatives, turned our civilization upside down, so let’s go kick them in the nuts.” But, that isn’t jingoistic enough so we have to make do with misapplied patriotism.
Flying the virus to the mother ship will be Hiller and David, of course, in the now active fighter ship that crashed in 1947. You’d think the aliens would recognize an old ship when it showed up... But no. I guess it would be like someone flying a FU-1 Corsair onto the deck of a modern aircraft carrier and expecting to “blend”.
Just how Goldblum figures out not only the computer language that the aliens CURRENTLY use, but writes a virus AND DETERMINES THE COMMUNICATIONS PROTOCOL that the aliens network with, is never even whispered. To me this would be like Aliens showing up here with a fighter plane from 1947 and a box of analog vacuum tubes to use as a super weapon to destroy our digital and military infrastructure.
It’s this sort of defiance of even a basic understanding of the workings of a computer, a computer network, or even rudimentary logic, that drags this film into the HOS.
Hiller flies the saucer into the mother ship and we get a nice flyby of millions of alien troops preparing to embark on transport ships for the purposes of an invasion. See, the Aliens understand the use of infantry, but only slightly better than the humans. Rather than stick the transport ships in the 15 mile wide saucers for immediate deployment they hold them back for no logical reason.
Goldblum uploads his virus infected e-mail (and I guess the Aliens click the .exe file) because the shields go down (MacAfee should have used this movie for a promo). All hell breaks loose as foxes and eagles are launched by the reconstituted air force. Even the little saucers are unshielded. What makes no sense is that the aliens can’t muster a coherent defense against an enemy with extremely limited ammunition.
Back over Area 51 the pilots use their ammunition poorly and although they’ve hit the big saucer many times, fail to bring the thing down. That leaves one guy with one missile, Russel Casse, as the sacrificial lamb. He can’t launch his last missile so Kamikaze’s his jet into the weapon doodad hanging below the saucer. This serves two purposes, it restores Casse’s credibility with his kids, and prevents President Whitmore from having to do the same thing (which would have been the natural progression considering the character of the man as explained in the script). The whole ship explodes and crashes.
Meanwhile back on the mother ship David and Hiller are unable to unlock their hijacked ship from the docking port (must not be plug and play). They launch the missile through the control panel in front of them and flee with several saucers in pursuit.
The mother ship explodes as they rocket to safety. How one nuke can take down a 250 KM wide ship is never discussed. Either Devlin doesn’t understand kilotons and bomb yields, or he simply doesn’t care. Guess what I think.
Everyone celebrates the death of ALL the saucers and we get a montage featuring “the survivors of many nations” cheering. I guess all the other air forces succeeded too, which was lucky, I guess...
There’s a 10 second momentary drama as everyone in Area 51 wonders what happened to David and Hiller. Well, the survived and arrive at the base in swaggering fashion to receive two word thanks from the President “good job” for Steve Hiller and “not bad at all” for David.
The cast then looks over at the burning rubble as the credits roll.
Aside from the bad science, the obvious cribbing from Welles’ and George Pal’s source material without even an acknowledgment in the credits, the pedestrian dialogue, and the implausible chink in the alien armor, Independence Day could almost be described as enjoyable.
I guess if you really need to give your patriotism organ a stroke this film is as good as any, but it’s just so silly and haphazardly written that any lingering feelings of affection are probably from some other source.
It’s a shame that this film was so huge and eclipsed one of the really underrated gems of hard science fiction of 1996, The Arrival with Charlie Sheen was a much better and more detailed/plausible story that didn’t assume the audience were slack-jawed and stupid.
But then, considering the success of Independence Day, maybe we are...