The above is one of the most inspirational and motivational speeches ever recorded on film. It’s from President Whitmore, speaking on the eve of humanity’s final throw of the dice to defeat the alien invasion. Put down your cynicism; it’s tremendous. It’s the perfect slice of over-the-top triumphalism rarely celebrated and shown in today’s movies. I love Independence Day for this – and for much more. This is a love letter to a film I have cherished, triumphed and defended since we first met on VHS back in 2001.
72.5 hours. 4,170 minutes. 250,200 seconds. That’s how you measure how this writer’s affection for Roland Emmerich’s 1996 sci-fi classic. Having seen it almost 35 times, Independence Day (ID) is, for me, beyond everyday criticism. The qualities pouring from it enamour me afresh every time we meet. There’s always something that’s been missed or an aspect that has been accepted as excellent without true appreciation of it.
ID is a guilty pleasure of the highest accord. It’s a charming beast with an unrelenting ’90s swagger. Through its formidable cast, effects and prodigious plot, ID wants you to enjoy yourself. Roland Emmerich’s epic understands the necessity of a blockbuster to delight in every department; he makes no claims for it to make perfect sense. After my first round with it, a smile was smacked across my face; a smile that was shared across all of America, as upon release it grossed an incredible $100 million domestic box office in its first weekend. The film might as well have been called Apocalypse Wow.
So why is love in the air? Everyone enjoys a good blockbuster. With a plethora of explosions and one-liners, it’s hard to avoid their undeniable charm; but ID stands above the rest as the most lovable for an unrelenting ability to entertain, an unimpeachable ability to impress, and an adroitness that goes beyond its genre. Independence Day is a guilty pleasure to many, but look beyond its face values and you’ll discover the qualities that have enthralled me for so many years.
19th century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote, “in character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.” Independence Day lacks the finesse of these words but the idea powers its very core. This simplicity is found within our protagonists, the saviours of the human race: Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith), a pilot who dreams of becoming an astronaut but is held back by his relationship with an exotic dancer, and David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), an MIT-educated computer expert and environmentalist failing to fulfill his true potential. They have two of the most simplistic characters arcs in cinema, yet what they stand for, what they achieve within their roles and how they make us feel, is simplistic beauty.
Let’s take the former. Captain Hiller is a cigar-chomping handsome hunk who’s everything I want to be. He delivers hilarious one-liners to no one, in the middle of the desert. He welcomes aliens with a punch to the face and dry, cool wit. There’s an effervescent level of cool whenever Smith is on screen. In the film that made him a star, it becomes clear why he rose to the highest tiers of Hollywood. He’s funny, witty, action-ready and has the right level of emotion to create a human connection. Smith is on fire and delivers one of the finest action-comedy-blockbuster performances of the decade. If the world is going to end, you want to witness it with Will Smith handing you a cigar.
Levinson’s character has a more personal connection. A nerd fumbling and bumbling through life, unsure of his massive intelligence (perhaps scratch that part for me) – when I first watched the film, it showed me that brains and book smarts were the key factors to success. Geek isn’t just chic; it is a genuinely desirable lifestyle. By the film’s conclusion, Levinson’s come out of his shell and is the quiet hero of the human race. He’s the closest thing to a Jewish superhero. I mean, how often do the nerds get to save the day? Without derision? Independence Day‘s triumphant championing of the nineties’ brainy = sexy ethos is terrific, and for an impressionable young boy with glasses and asthma it made for an inspiring watch.
Looking beyond our leads, Independence Day’s status within my heart is again confirmed; there’s the wisest Jew in cinema (Judd Hirsch), there’s Randy Quaid’s loser-turned-winner storyline, and there’s President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) who finally becomes the President he wanted to be. When you strip Independence Day down to its very core, it’s a good story with good characters who all get their happy endings. Life doesn’t always have a happy ending, but is it crime to enjoy a film that does?
Allow me to explore deeper. Independence Day does not merely cement its status due to terrific characters (although it does help) – its reverence to the films of old makes it a nostalgic joy. Behind all the pomp and circumstance nostalgia pumps through the veins of this film; to those who have ever adored the 1950s red-or-dead thrillers, the ambition and audacity of Kubrick and Planet of the Apes in the 1960s, the destruction of 1970s disaster movies, and the patriotism and triumphs of 1980s cinema. Nowadays this nostalgia exudes from the film as it bursts with REM, Macs and lawyer jokes. The gusto and enthusiasm imbued in the project is infectious, and you can’t help but be swept up by its endless energy.
Consider when its energy can be classified as over-the-top. Thousands of humans are obliterated in an all-consuming fireball, yet Boomer the dog survives thanks to an open subway door. The world sits on its hands until America sends an ingenious plan via morse code, saving the day. There’s a man still at work despite the complete annihilation of the city around him. The White House just got blown up by an alien spaceship. This can only be achieved when you throw everything at it. Your enthusiasm enraptures others, and it has caught me since I first watched it.
Many disaster blockbusters attempted to mimic ID‘s qualities – Armageddon, Deep Impact, Volcano – yet none ever reached its heady heights. Armageddon – too much. Volcano – where are the jokes? More than that, many films – 20 years on – cannot improve upon ID‘s action scenes. This far past 9/11, where it’s once again acceptable to blow up American landmarks, the recent crop of Olympus Has Fallen and White House Downs all simply echoing ID’s most iconic scene.
Inspirational and fun is a path that is largely untrod within today’s cinema; today, blockbusters are serious business. Their Nolafication has ensured that the era of big and dumb is no more. Maybe that’s for the best, but sometimes you want to enjoy yourself; in your darkest hour, it can be good to reach out to some old-fashioned values of hope, joy and America saving the day. It’s stupid, illogical and flawed – but I wouldn’t have it any other way.