20 years later, ‘Independence Day’ still worth celebrating (Movie review)

Released in 1996, “Independence Day” falls almost exactly halfway between “Star Wars” (1977) and present day. Appropriately, it’s perched on a fulcrum between the dawn of blockbuster special-effects movies – when only the cream of the crop, like “Star Wars” and “Jaws,” knew how to do it right — and modern day, when the very concept of an effects-driven movie is a thing of the past. After years of filmmakers insisting that “special effects are just a tool,” most of them now believe it.

“Independence Day” sits at that turning point. The special effects were (and are) a purposeful spectacle at the center of the film. At the 51-minute mark, perfectly cropped in the 2.35:1 rectangle of the screen, we see the Empire State Building, the White House and the Capitol with alien saucers hovering precisely above them. Then the ships’ laser beams, at a precise right angle into the center of their respective targets, spectacularly destroy each monument and the surrounding area. Stone, wood and glass – along with the occasional human being and an absolute bevy of cars – go flying for moviegoers’ enjoyment over the span of two minutes, and our heroes on Air Force One barely escape a fireball in the sequence’s grand finale. Chaos has never been so masterfully controlled; to take a bathroom break here is to miss the movie’s whole reason for being.

Today’s movies are less likely to have such a clearly delineated sequence of spectacle, and generally that’s for the better. But still, there is something nostalgic about the idea that we bought tickets in 1996 to see monuments get spectacularly blown up – and that we got our money’s worth.

And also, Will Smith’s one-liners were a big deal. “Welcome to Earth!” “Now that’s what I call a close encounter.” “I have got to get me one-a these!” Lines like this are the entry point where we discover that “ID4” isn’t ALL special effects. I’m not saying it’s a masterful exploration of the human psyche in wartime, but I am saying it possesses abundant humanity.

Twenty years ago, there was a thrill to be had watching TV stars (Smith’s “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” ran from 1990-96) transition to movie stars. Today, there is no line of demarcation between the two media; actually, a movie star landing a TV series is more likely to be cause for excitement. Smith’s coming-out party is another tasty nostalgic element of “ID4.”

But he’s not a one-man show. “Independence Day” marks a confluence of familiar-then and now-familiar faces. As hero tech geek David Levinson, Jeff Goldblum, who remarked that “We must go faster” three years earlier in “Jurassic Park,” says the same thing in “Independence Day.” Bill Pullman plays President Whitmore with one degree less camp than Lone Star in “Spaceballs” (1987). It’s a similar case with Randy Quaid, whose alcoholic crop duster on a redemptive arc isn’t far removed from Cousin Eddie in the “Vacation” films. (The moment when he accidentally triggers the missile launch in the bay, then fumbles to cancel it, saying “I picked a helluva day to quit drinking,” is a master class in comedic timing.)

Lisa Jakub, as crop duster’s daughter Alicia, seemed like she’d be a future star between this role and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” but the actress would abandon acting a few years later. (As highly billed as she is, one wonders if a lot of her scenes ended up on the cutting-room floor.) Alicia’s boyfriend is played by Devon Gummersall, who many teens in the audience knew as the underdog half of “My So-Called Life’s” “Brian Krakow vs. Jordan Catalano” debate.

In addition to Smith — who would soon become “Mr. Fourth of July” at the Cineplex (the “Men in Black” franchise launched one year later) — another star on the rise is “Firefly’s” Adam Baldwin, who has a more-substantial-than-you-remember role as a by-the-book military man. He kills the captive alien after it announces it wants humanity to die. Later, he assures Levinson’s wife that they’ll be safe from the attack in their underground base, forgetting all the civilians on the tarmac outside.

And the president’s little girl is Mae Whitman, later of “Arrested Development” and “Parenthood” fame.

Admittedly, the clichés are all present and accounted for in “ID4.” When random people on the street peer up at the spaceships, and then run from the disaster, it’s in the tradition of the earliest “Godzilla” films (not coincidentally, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s next movie would be 1998’s “Godzilla”), and one that would be continued in disaster flicks thereafter.

The timing of a movie about evil alien invaders was fortuitous. Just as the Vietnam War and the bleak sci-fi films of the 1970s primed the masses for Steven Spielberg’s good aliens and happy endings in the late 1970s and early ’80s (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and even more so, “E.T.”), the pendulum had swung back to evil aliens by 1996 as a thrilling contrast to a world where the economy seemed decent and wars didn’t seem perpetual. Even though we know what’s gonna happen (and knew even on the first viewing), it’s still shocking when big-hearted stripper Tiffany, who waves a welcome sign to the aliens, gets blasted into dust along with her fellow optimists. And to a lesser extent, the deaths of Harvey Fierstein’s and Harry Connick Jr.’s (“Let’s kick the tires and light the fires!”) characters spell out the cost of war.

Part of what makes me feel warmer toward “ID4” than many similar films is that it’s not a cynical blockbuster – or at least it hides its cynicism well. The movie features no human bad guys who exist for the sake of a cheap moment of satisfaction when they get what’s coming to them. The closest to a human villain is Secretary of Defense Nimziki (James Rebhorn), but even he’s just a naysaying foil for the president’s can-do heroism.

Other than him, all the humans are likable. The film displays no cynicism toward institutions, either. Awareness of reality, sure: Levinson’s dad (Judd Hirsch) points out that $30,000 toilet-seat requisitions might have been a clue that something like Area 51 existed. And there’s that aforementioned moment when Baldwin’s character forgets about the civvies on the tarmac. But the individuals within the government – Nimziki notwithstanding – are generally admirable.

President Whitmore refuses to hide in a bunker – and tellingly, those that do (the VP, the cabinet and the joint chiefs of staff) get killed anyway – and he pilots a fighter jet in the climactic battle. He’s a combat pilot first, a president second. I think there truly is something meritorious about a president who sees himself as presiding – and leading when necessary – but not ruling. Credit to “ID4” for making such a person seem tantalizingly plausible.

Indeed, it is abundantly clear that “ID4” is set in a pre-Snowden world when the caravan of RVs crosses the salt flats and the Area 51 guards let them through on the say-so of Smith’s Capt. Steven Hiller. Later, the Air Force – with plenty of jets but not enough pilots — asks for volunteers among the citizenry. And the president and his team don’t have a problem with bringing several civilians into the formerly top-secret Area 51. While the NSA did exist in 1996, it was still an age when the U.S. government did not view its citizens as the enemy – at least not as openly as it does today. There was no Department of Homeland Security, no TSA, and it wasn’t an environment where fearmongering stump speeches could win elections.

The comfortable, reasonable relationship between the government and the citizenry seems natural to the point where I don’t think Devlin and Emmerich were even trying to make a statement on the subject. It’s just the way it was at the time. Similarly, the fact that Hiller and Levinson smoke cigars, and that Levinson’s extreme environmentalism gets played more as a joke as the film goes on, seems subversive against the ultra-politically-correct backdrop of 2016. But the case is simply this: The movie was made before the PC era crept in and smoking disappeared from wide-audience films.

On the other hand, “ID4” does feel like it’s making a statement on race relations. It’s not blunt about it, but there is a preponderance of evidence. Black kids playing street basketball look up at the alien ship, to be joined by a white-collar white professional. Jasmine (Vivica A. Fox) explains to the First Lady that being an exotic dancer is a great way to make a living, and nothing to be sorry about. And she drives a fire truck through the ruins of L.A., smashing stereotypes along with the rubble. I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that the casting team purposefully sought out a black guy and a white guy for the two hero roles.

Then when we get a peek at the non-U.S. military forces, we see Israeli and Palestinian fighter jets side-by-side on the tarmac, getting ready to face a common foe. I’m not cynical about races intermingling in America – only the media and Donald Trump seem to be keeping racism alive today – but the militaries of Israel and Palestine? I can’t help but think they resumed their never-ending war as soon as the aliens were out of the way. (The “War of 1996” featurette, a tie-in to the upcoming “Independence Day: Resurgence,” tells me otherwise. As it turns out, the aftermath of the world’s Independence Day saw immediate world peace.)

While a viewer can chuckle at the occasional humorous moment that wasn’t intended to be humorous (see Jasmine’s dog leaping to safety just ahead of a fireball, in a rare visual effect that’s not quite on-point), most of “ID4” is smartly crafted. The occasionally glimpsed aliens follow the horror-movie principle of “It’s what you don’t see that’s scary” (even if they do end up in the ballpark of “Alien” aliens).

Many people hold that “ID4” hasn’t aged well, and it’s a popular pastime on the IMDB threads – where it rates a pedestrian 6.9 — to pick it apart. But it’s not even close to being the dumbest blockbuster out there. A lot of folks can’t get past the idea that Levinson uploads a virus to the alien mothership, citing computer incompatibility, but it’s not like Levinson plugs a cord into a USB port on the ship. It’s obvious that he uses an airwave frequency – and from the film’s outset, it’s clear that the aliens are making use of humanity’s satellites.

“Independence Day’s” existence offends some people in Hollywood. Chris Carter had Mulder urinate on an “ID4” poster two years later in the “X-Files” movie, obviously a headier brand of alien-invasion science fiction. But by the same token, “The X-Files” should be above that kind of easy jab, especially since “ID4” includes a throwaway line where someone says they love “The X-Files.” I hate to be the “movies are just for entertainment” guy, because purposeful stupidity should not be excused. But “Independence Day” is a template for what a summer blockbuster should be: Fun and funny, with characters who seem real, and with a hint of big ideas. Appealing to everyone, by the necessity of market forces, yet respectful of the intelligence of the poor guy who was dragged to the theater by his friends.

It’s a fair argument to say that “ID4” is just another entry in the box-office record books: a mega-blockbuster from that bygone era when a blockbuster was a few-times-per-summer rarity, rather than a weekly thing as it is today (usually starring comic-book superheroes). It was the top-grossing movie of 1996, and now stands as the No. 51 movie of all time, ranked behind many films you’ve never seen. It’s a blockbuster we all saw in the theater – and can remember seeing for the first time — but it’s not exactly “Terminator 2” or “Jurassic Park” or “Titanic.” Objectively, it’s not as good as “Armageddon,” which is almost the same movie, but less tentative about being this kind of movie.

But a sequel will be released on June 24, two decades after the original, with some performers (Pullman and Goldblum) returning and even more characters (Hiller’s stepson and the president’s daughter) coming back, played by new actors. I can’t say with a straight face that the course of film history would be any different if the biggest movie of 1996 never existed. Yet with both nostalgia and strong technical moviemaking going for it, “ID4” has a place in history that still resonates.

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