Dir: rolaNd emmerich
Gen: From War to Peace: ALIENS IN THE LAST 50 YEARS OF CINEMA
Are stereotypes and cliches the key to success in cinema? Independence Day’s incredible box office returns prove very hard to argue against.
A patriotic, scream the star spangled banner until you’re (red, white and) blue in the face movie, Independence Day takes alien invasion from an unapologetically American standpoint. Famous monument after famous monument are destroyed, rousing speeches made and the duty of saving the world falls at the feet of an odd couple in Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum; a go-getting African-American fighter pilot and neurotic Jewish scientist whose quirks even out to just the right type of people - and it just happens to take place on the fourth of July.
Independence Day (ID4 for short) is the biggest money maker in our series, bringing in a colossal $817m on a $75m budget which earned it the title of second highest grossing film of all time until Titanic came along. It re-ignited public interest in large scale disaster movies and broke records on almost every front. But despite this massive financial success, ID4 is an alien invasion movie that keeps things simple and reaps the benefits of doing so, managing to beat out Mission Impossible at the box office and ride the summer smash wave that Jurassic Park kicked off a few years prior.
Comprising a cast of the US President, military servicemen, an exotic dancer, a grossly overqualified cable repairman with a love-hate relationship with his father, a dog, various children, lots of scientists and a family of poor farmers, ID4 has mass appeal through profession, race and religion. It also appeals to many with its sense of humour, while still maintaining a dramatic story and dutiful tone. Basing the story around many different walks of life and how they individually deal with an alien invasion is a great way to explore the full extent of the invasion and not have a small cast the audience couldn’t relate to, while the occasional comedy lifts what would otherwise be an incredibly bleak film.
Casting Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum opposite each other is a decision that I’m sure still gives kicks to casting director Wendy Kurtzman, and with the addition of sweet faced crooner Harry Connick Jr. the public saw everything they wanted to see in peak 90’s culture. In Smith and Goldblum they had the unlikeliest duo that represented contemporary America, with Smith raised as a Christian and Goldblum raised Jewish. On the success of ID4, Smith reached a new career high he’d follow with another smash, Men in Black the next summer. Jeff Goldblum would have a similar high profile summer follow up in Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World. The men were at the top of their game from two very different worlds but worked wonderfully together and brought a surprisingly harmonious element to the starring roles.
ID4 also has the unique selling point of being set the very day it was released, adding an extra level of excitement and pertinence to the story. But at the same time it also looks back to the revolutionary days of America, with dialogue about fighting tyranny and the main theme played by whistles and snare drums. It’s the sort of film that could only be made as a British or American production - countries with a history of accepted cinematic nationalism. Despite this, ID4 ironically has a German director/writer in Roland Emmerich and British composer in David Arnold as the driving forces behind its imagery, story and sound.
The special effects are still solid 23 years on because Emmerich relied a lot on scale models and forced perspective. The aliens themselves, while oddly formed, mostly relied on practical effects which age much better than the digital laser blasts of their ships do. In terms of the film’s legacy, the President’s address to the troops at Area 51 is one of the most famous speeches in modern cinema and to many is the role Bill Pullman is remembered best for; the jet flying, ex-military, loving family man President Whitmore.
The motivation for the attack is never dwelled on, as Emmerich knows that his summer smash audience would rather see explosions than hear about motives. All that matters is that the attack is happening and what we’re going to do about it. As far as character development goes, there’s not much to discuss as the cast are fairly simply written outside of the main two. Though that’s not to say that the arcs aren’t interesting, the usual trope of president’s daughter is actually dealt with very tastefully and Will Smith’s exotic dancer girlfriend handily looks after herself better than most. It’s not a 90 min, in and out film either. Even though it runs at over 2 and a half hours it’s a pretty tight screenplay, constantly unraveling the story and expanding the scale and stakes of the invasion while never feeling slow or boring.
Despite the fact that ID4 is a playbook of cliches from start to finish. There’s something about it that is incredibly endearing, and not just to audiences in America. It allows an American national identity to be appreciated around the world because the enemy isn’t another country, but another species. It’s a patriotic film that works under the guise of human survival, which set the tone for later disaster contemporaries Armageddon (1998), Deep Impact (1998) or even Emmerich’s later effort The Day After Tomorrow (2004). It’s a film that still gets heavy rotation on television and a lot of love, enough to merit a sequel 13 years later. It remains a modern classic and a strong contender for the public’s favourite alien film.
An odd couple for the ages: Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum as Steven Hiller and David Levinson
Featuring series curator, Euan Foley, and Neon Eye's Calum Mowatt.
Where to watch
The full version of Independence Day is available online or in stores across the UK.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Euan is the editor of Wrap Party Media, contributor at Discovery Music, freelance writer, and popular on instagram as @cinematographersparty. He’s examining alien cinema for his love of science fiction and to track the innovation of the last 50 years within the genre. His other writings can be found at https://wrappartymedia.com/author/euanfoley/
ABOUT NEON EYE
Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.