I try to tell myself that if I'd only seen this film before reading Footfall, I would have enjoyed it more. In hindsight, it's obvious that one should never try to absorb hard science fiction by the likes of Larry Niven and Hollywood sci-fi in the same week. And it was intended to be summer blockbuster fare from the get-go: fancy special effects, an extensive and expensive cast list, and the Americans save the world in the end.
I don't think it really matters, though. I still hate this movie, and I don't hate it less each time I watch it.
Perhaps I just need to look at it from a different angle, though. When you get right down to it, Independence Day (affectionately known as ID4 to the movie's marketing agency, which is odd since "four" doesn't actually appear in the title anywhere) is just an up-to-date b-movie. And it deserves to be viewed as such. But darn it, there are so many people out there who think this was just the best thing to hit the screens in 1996 that I need to give it its due.
So let's start with the fundamentals:
Like I said, Independence Day is just a 1950s b-movie updated with modern special effects and a few more pop culture references. This means that the plot requires only a few basic elements:
- The aliens need to be ugly and, therefore, evil.
- Their goal must require the complete destruction of Earth, or at the very least all human life on it.
- The aliens must be utterly destroyed at the end, either by human opponents or, failing that, their own incompetence.
- No more than two humans, always males, must be responsible for triggering the destruction of the entire alien armada.
- The humans' heroics must win them the admiration of the beautiful girl(s) he (they) have been pursuing since the beginning of the movie, if not longer.
Independence Day covers all these points admirably, and throws in a few more "classic" plot points for good measure. To wit: the aliens travel in flying saucers with no visible means of propulsion; the U.S. President is a former military jet pilot who just has to lead the final battle from inside a cockpit; the heroes are men who have been denied their dreams for years only to be given the chance to fulfill them in battle with the aliens; and one character is given the chance to redeem past failures by defeating the aliens as a martyr.
Corny to the last. There's not a single remotely original device in the plot, except for the strategy of shoehorning them all into a single movie and naming it after America's number one patriotic holiday to give it an added 'oomph' in the audience's collective unconscious.
With this in mind, one would hope for redemption in the next most likely place:
No friggin' chance. The core cast is a collection of well-known and sort-of-well-known actors and actresses from across Hollywood: Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsch, Randy Quaid, Harvey Fierstein, Brent Spiner, Vivica Fox, Mary McDonnell. No one remembers the names of the characters they play, partly because there's too many to keep track of, but mostly because they're all so two-dimensional it doesn't justify the use of the viewer's otherwise valuable brain cells. Will Smith plays the young but capable fighter pilot who wants to be an astronaut, and (surprise!) finally gets to be one. Jeff Goldblum is the quirky programmer who just wants to enjoy what he does for a living, and saves the world because of it. Bill Pullman is the President who prefers to lead from the trenches and has more in common with the everyman than his fellow politicians. Randy Quaid is the father who was captured by aliens years ago and nobody believed... until now. Vivica Fox is Will Smith's stripper fiancee who only does what she does to support her baby boy.
You see the problem yet? Every last one of them is a variation on the guy or girl who everybody made fun of or disregarded until, one fateful day, an alien attack turned the whole world upside-down and gave these castoffs a chance to be heroes. They're all the same damn character! And it's a character we've all seen a thousand times, a hundred apiece for every last one of these boring shells of personality, except without any actual development.
Which leaves us one more refuge for the intelligent, reasoning viewer:
Yes, I saved the worst for last. This is because I honestly didn't know where to begin. When people attack the logic holes in this story, they usually start with Jeff Goldblum using an Apple Powerbook to upload a computer virus to the alien spaceship's computer. This is a fallacy, first because it's not a plot hole -- the scientists in Area 51 have had that ship for forty years, more than enough time to develop a few APIs for its computer -- and second because there are so, so many bigger holes to aim at.
Like the way the shadow of the ship is located below the viewer in the opening sequence while the Earth's shadow is off to the left, for starters. Or the way they managed to remain completely invisible to an entire planet full of telescopes until they were inside the moon's orbit. Or the way the saucers are able to levitate over major metropolitan centers without any propulsion or energy-related side effects, just good old-fashioned antigravity. Or the way they can take over Earth-built communications satellites without spending a second to decipher their systems. Or the fact that they use enormous energy beams to destroy buildings with spectacular explosions, presumably by transmuting anything it touches into TNT, since no other energy beam known to man can make stuff blow up on contact like that. Or the way the alien mothership launches the destroyer saucers, and the saucers launch the fighters, but the fighters are able to enter orbit all by themselves and dock with the mothership. Or the way the mothership computer lets just anybody piloting a fighter gain access to their computer network without so much as a password prompt.
Or -- this is Footfall talking -- why the aliens bother to come down to the cities at all when they clearly have the technology to do the job from orbit, no fighters, no chance of retaliation, just point and shoot. Blam, everybody gone.
Nope. Wouldn't be sporting of them that way. Gotta give the humans every possible chance to fight back, even if it requires bending the laws of physics and logic to the breaking point.
I mean, really. Aren't death rays just a little too retro for this day and age?
The Special Effects
Obviously, this is the only point where the movie shines, because that's the only point it was meant to. Independence Day deliberately went the route of miniature model spaceships, buildings and fighter jets when every other movie was using cutting-edge CGI. They used every last trick Hollywood had learned since Star Wars and then some to make the ship-to-ship and destroyer-to-building sequences as believable as possible. The alien craft are extravagantly detailed in the way only Star Trek: The Next Generation audiences have come to expect. The sound effects are loud, solid, and perfect. When everything starts blowing up, you know without a doubt that everything is blowing up, and blowing up good.
It's summertime eye candy from start to finish, and a lot of fun to watch. That's a good thing, because the effects are the only thing distracting you from the rest of it, and therefore the only thing that make the movie tolerable. In fact, most people still haven't noticed what's missing.
Which is a shame. Because that only encourages Hollywood to try it again.