I first saw Independence Day opening night in 1997 with my friends, Nick and Matty. It was probably the most excited I had ever been to see a film up to that point. Obviously we loved it and went and saw it a few more times. It was funny and exciting and had mind-blowing special effects and a rousing battle speech in it. What more could any self-respecting 12-year-old want?
There was a big gap in viewings and then I saw it on TV when I was in my early twenties. And it was okay. It was cheesy and overwrought, but I had a few laughs watching it and it passed the time.
So for this article the question is: Independence Day – Is it still good/okay?
Unfortunately, no. This movie is an abomination. Where to begin?
I’ll actually start with the good. Will Smith kills it in this movie. This is 1997 so he is at peak Will Smith. He’s charming, handsome, and funny. Any scene with him in it is elevated. It makes me think that using the Godzilla (2014) template of focusing on the military rather than bullshit human interest stories would have vastly improved this movie. Make Will Smith the full lead rather than co-lead and drop out some of the fattier parts of this movie, and my opinion of the whole endeavour would be vastly improved.
I think my main problem is that this movie is cluttered with characters who have no depth, no drives, no arcs, no point, and no one gets enough screen time. Each character gets about ten scenes tops so we never get to latch onto one story and run with it. I understand that this is summer blockbuster nonsense so I shouldn’t be expecting a masterclass in writing, but look at a different summer blockbuster of around the same time: Jurassic Park. Jurassic Park has a ton of characters, but manages to focus its attentions on a small handful who are given enough back story to make their actions meaningful. Here, there is none of that. Jeff Goldblum’s character’s traits are that he recycles, knows computers, and talks in dramatic chess metaphors. He then uses his skill with computers to save the world. As a character, he doesn’t grow or change or face much in the way of obstacles. He starts the movie smarter than everyone else and proves that throughout. To use Jurassic Park as an example again, look at Sam Neill’s character in that. He is a child-hating palaeontologist who finds himself forced to navigate an island of dinosaurs with a pair of scared children. At the end of the movie, he has learnt that kids aren’t all that bad and it’s probably made him a better person (and a better character).
My earlier point about clutter extends to the many, many supporting characters who add nothing. Randy Quaid’s family aren’t in the movie enough to make his sacrifice particularly meaningful, and neither is the First Lady, who has four scenes (1) on the phone with the president 2) evacuated 3) found in the rubble 4) dead), and yet we are expected to give a shit when she dies. Once dead she is never mentioned again, much like Harry Connick Jr’s character and the majority of the Earth’s population who are wiped out and barely mourned. The scene where the air force pilots are preparing to fly against the spaceship after the big attack and they are joking around made me furious. These aliens had not shown up and played loud music or broadcast Game of Thrones spoilers, they had committed genocide on a global scale. This is not the time for jokes.
My wife made a good point while we watched it (her first time watching it). The movie feels rushed but there is no urgency. Scenes whizz by with awful dialogue and exposition, but no one ever seems like they’re in a hurry. If you started watching the movie halfway through, you wouldn’t think that the Earth was under threat of annihilation. You would see the president talking to his aides and think that you were watching a very boring West Wing episode with some high-calibre (for 1997 at least) guest stars. The scenes of the evacuation before all the kickass explosions is the only time people really rush around. Other than that, things happen at a leisurely pace and everyone strolls around and talks rubbish.
Now you might be thinking that I’m being harsh, or that I’m a cynic, but I love a good bit of cheese with my movies. I love a bad movie if it’s at least not boring. The problem with Independence Day was that it was just bad. It had aged terribly (some of the special effects are laughable); for a movie only eighteen years old, it looks like a relic. Consider again Jurassic Park, A movie four years older than Independence Day which (barring some of its computer stuff) still looks fresh and interesting twenty years later. I saw it in the cinema for the twentieth anniversary and it is still a masterclass in summer movie making.
Oh, and as an Englishman, the scene of the two Englishmen talking with super posh accents about how the US were going to save us all was deeply, deeply offensive to me.
To fix Independence Day would be easy. Drop out a bunch of characters (the whole Randy Quaid thing can go), move the focus onto Will Smith’s character, and if you wanted to make the most pro-American movie ever, have the president be the one who sacrifices himself at the end, flying into the maw of the mother ship singing “Hail to the Chief”. The end.