Aliens make for great villains -- more durable than the cocaine cartels, more universal than the I.R.A., and better targets on a grander scale than terrorists. (The visionary Orson Welles figured that out a long time ago and capitalized on the idea in his 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, the antecedent to which Independence Day owes its deepest debt.) It seems only logical that, in the post-Cold War era, filmmakers should stop targeting Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Hanoi and set their sights once again on invaders from beyond. Back at the height of the Red Scare in the Fifties, many Hollywood movies used aliens as stand-ins for communists, although the extraterrestrials were seldom actually depicted; Invaders from Mars (in which you do see aliens), Earth Versus the Flying Saucers, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and a film version of The War of the Worlds spring to mind.
Independence Day turbocharges a generic war movie plot -- bad guys attack, good guys counterattack -- with special-effects technology that nods to both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg even as it ups the ante on the former's Star Wars and the latter's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The new film gleefully pilfers from not only those two giants of the modern sci-fi genre, but also from 2001, Top Gun, Alien, The Towering Inferno, Planet of the Apes, and even The Bridge on the River Kwai. Real-life influences include the Clinton presidency, Operation Desert Storm, Vietnam, and that tabloid newspaper story that refuses to die about the downed UFO secretly held by the U.S. military. (Ironically, director Emmerich, whose previous film was the hokey sci-fi misfire Stargate, doesn't believe in UFOs, although he may once this film's box-office receipts go into orbit.)
Very likely Independence Day's spectacular, jaw-dropping special effects will leave you breathless; even Ed Wood's beloved turkey Plan 9 from Outer Space would have been a smash hit with stunning visuals like these. But Independence Day does not rely solely on computer-generated hocus-pocus; Emmerich and his co-writer/producer Dean Devlin continually come up with enough clever one-liners to balance the fireworks with humor. Add in a few ingratiating performances and you've got the summer of 1996's most entertaining blockbuster, if not its best film. On the downside, during lulls in the action the hackneyed sentimentality and stereotypical character development make one nostalgic for even the corny drivel of a schmaltz-fest like, say, Earthquake.
Will Smith stars as Capt. Steve Hiller, a cocky Marine fighter pilot (the Fresh Prince of Midair?) who teams up with Jeff Goldblum's brilliant but underachieving (until he cracks the invaders' electronic code and figures out a way to penetrate their defenses) electronics-engineer-turned-cable-television-troubleshooter David Levinson to, as Hiller puts it, "whup E.T.'s ass." Who cares if the aliens A who have elongated arms, legs, and fingers, resembling a cross between a giant squid and the creature from the movie Alien A kill off two-thirds of the earth's population and level all of the world's major cities? If we kick their asses, everyone rejoices. Luckily for our planet, these bad boys are far less ferocious and much easier to kill than Alien's tenacious extraterrestrial. You can terminate them with good old-fashioned bullets, and Hiller even knocks one out with a blow to its oversize head.
If this film sets the box-office records expected of it, Goldblum, playing a nerdier variation of his character from Jurassic Park, will enjoy the distinction of costarring in two out of the three top-grossing films of all time. Goldblum's Levinson is the brains of the anti-alien effort; Smith's pilot provides the wisecracking swagger. Bill Pullman's Clinton-cum-JFK beleaguered U.S. President Whitmore gives the film its soul; Pullman plays Whitmore as part Michael Douglas in The American President (basically looking snazzy in a suit) and part Luke Skywalker, capable of both rallying the troops with a galvanizing speech and of actually leading them into battle behind the throttle of a fighting aircraft. Pullman's chief executive's transition from indecisive waffler to cautious hawk to inspirational war hero parallels the nation's stunned reaction to the alien attack -- from shock to resignation to capitulation to rage to decisive action.
Disaster movie tradition dictates a big cast; this one is no exception. Judd Hirsch and Harvey Fierstein, as, respectively, the Goldblum character's kvetching Jewish father and panicky co-worker, have a few good moments but don't know when to quit. Harry Connick, Jr., fares much better in a short but sweet supporting turn as Hiller's fly buddy Jimmy. Brent Spiner (better known as the emotionless android Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation) brings his sci-fi credentials to the part of wild-eyed, squirrely Dr. Okun, a frizzy-haired scientist in charge of researching the government's captured aliens at a top-secret underground lab. And Randy Quaid elicits several of the film's biggest laughs as a drunken Vietnam vet turned Wrong-Way Corrigan crop-duster who believes he was abducted by aliens ten years earlier and seizes his big chance for payback.
While the men have lots of fun, this Independence Day harks back to 1776 in its treatment of women; all of the female roles boil down to the usual thankless stand-by-your-man crap. Not one woman plays a key part in the alien thrashing: not Mary McDonnell (First Lady Marilyn Whitmore), Margaret Colin (a presidential aide who happens to be Levinson's ex-wife), or Vivica Fox (the exotic dancer whose relationship with Hiller may be a factor in NASA's rejection of the pilot's application to enter the space program). The filmmakers' Neanderthal attitudes are shocking; their female characters exist only to provide soft sides for the triumvirate of leading men.
Can a film be sexist and annoyingly PC at the same time? Independence Day tries. The film's sappy "We Are the World" subtext -- black action hero teams with Jewish intellectual and WASP politician; Iraqis, Saudis, Brits, Ruskies, and Israelis all set aside national and religious differences to fight a common enemy -- is as cloying and transparent as those old "I'd like to teach the world to sing" Coca-Cola commercials.
But Independence Day steamrolls right over such niggling shortcomings. Make no mistake, this is a motion picture juggernaut that blows away Twister as easily as Hurricane Andrew flipped mobile homes. Visually, the film fulfills all the promise of its awe-inspiring promotional trailer, and delivers more thrills than a dozen generic sci-fi flicks combined. The epic mass destruction scenes that open the film are, in and of themselves, worth the price of admission. Maybe someday movie audiences will declare independence from the tyranny of special effects and rally around fresh, character-driven stories. But not yet. Technical wizardry still carries this Day. Just hope the aliens aren't watching.