Independence Day in the United States is celebrated on 4 July. It is the celebration of the anniversary of the official adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Seems simple, but as is common in the case of history, there are some interesting side notes to be mentioned.

2 July 1776
It was on this date that Congress actually voted to declare independence. So significant was this that John Adams (who was part of the committee working on the Declaration) wrote the following day to his wife Abigail Adams:

Yesterday, the greatest question was decided, which ever was debated and a greater, perhaps, never was nor will be decided among men. A resolution was passed without one dissenting colony [noder's note: New York abstained but changed to a vote of approval several days later], "that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, find as such they have, and of right ought to have, full power to make war," conclude peace, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which other States may rightfully do." You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the causes which have impelled us to this mighty revolution, and the reasons which will justify it in the sight of God and man. A plan of confederation will be taken up in a few days....

But the day is past. The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore.

Of course, that's not how things turned out.

4 July 1776
Congress continued to work and revise the Declaration—some 39 additional revisions before it was officially adopted (New York delayed until 9 July). Once adopted, Congress had a printer make copies of this epochal document. There are still 24 known copies extant from this original printing. John Hancock (president of the Continental Congress) and Charles Thomson (Secretary of Congress) both signed it.

5 July 1776
They began (by order of Hancock) distributing copies to various military leaders and politicians. In particular, copies were sent to the New Jersey and Delaware legislatures.

6 July 1776
The first newspaper version appeared in the Pennsylvania Evening Post and George Washington was sent a copy.

8 July 1776
The Declaration was publicly read (for the first time) in Philadelphia. There was a celebration held.

9 July 1776
Washington had a copy read to the army in New York.

19 July 1776
Congress ordered an officially inscribed (called " engrossed") parchment copy for the members of the Continental Congress to sign.

2 August 1776
Congress actually began to sign the official copy of the Declaration. Most of the delegates signed then, some a bit later .

24 August 1776
London finally heard about the America's Declaration.

(Sources:;, Adams quote;;

"Let’s celebrate the Fourth with a Fifth."

I think this was the first time I ever associated liquor with humor. It had just been a nightmare in my house for so long, and yet here was my best friend making a joke about it.

We told our parents that we were spending the night with each other. I wonder how many times this lie has been told to how many parents? In fact (of course) we were spending the night on the hard ground somewhere with a makeshift campfire and a couple of bottles of Ezra Brooks. I guess we were around fifteen.

I had tried to drink beer a couple of times before, but it had just not worked out. I wound up pouring the beer out because it tasted so rank. This evening's entertainment, brought to me by my buddy, was to be sanctioned by the god of bourbon whiskey. His older brother had told him that this was the road to take when beer held no attraction for the young wannabe drinker. I was intrigued.

The third party to our suburban crime was the only one old enough to drive. His name was Durrant Hembree. Why would I mention his name? Only in memory, I guess. Durrant was one of the first of us to die. He moved to Australia after high school and somehow died mysteriously on a ship there. ToasterLeavings was just a wee sprat at the time, so I don't blame him. But it has been a mystery for all of us just what went wrong Down Under, oh so long ago. Have you ever known anyone named Durrant?

So Durrant picked us up in his yellow Studebaker and acted all so charming with the parents, as we were to be taken to this cold, hard square of soil for our first taste of John Barleycorn. I should have realized that my mom wasn't buying this shit for one second, after what she'd gone thru with my dad's little "situation" with alcohol. But I was so caught up in the moment that reason had left the building.

We drove to the site and built a fire. Durrant, Johnny and me. We were men now, by God. And men deserved to drink firewater, didn't they? So let's have that bottle 'round, boys, and tip it up and let it do it's will. We didn't even chase it with Cokes. We just drank it straight out of the bottle, like little men are supposed to do. Like our daddies before us. Like a bunch of fucking idiots.

The daze comes on softly at first, and then accelerates. As you know, if you've been through this ordeal, you go from rational human at 00:10 to mindless beast at 00:40.

I have no idea what happened between 1:00 AM and 6:00 AM when my mom found me walking along the side of the road back to my house. I do know that she attempted something that she'd never done since my dad had left home a year before: She got a belt and tried to whip me like he used to. It was a feeble attempt. And I was still drunk. It didn't hurt me, but God only knows how much it hurt that poor woman.

Every Fourth of July, I'm reminded of my friend Johnny smiling at me at school that afternoon, so long ago, and saying casually, "Let's celebrate the Fourth with a fifth!" And how eager I was to go along with that idea.

And how much trouble I've been in ever since.

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:

The Plot

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:

The Characters

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:

The Science

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.

In defence of the Apple Mac thing

In the movie Independence Day, alien invaders are successfully repelled when plucky geek Jeff Goldblum uploads a computer virus to the alien mothership, disabling the attacking ships' protective force fields and allowing the combined military of the entire world to take them all down at once.

Goldblum's character does this using an Apple Macintosh Powerbook 5300.

The fact that the operating systems of an alien mothership over 500 kilometres wide, thousands of years more advanced than anything humanity has yet created, large and sophisticated enough to support an entire alien civilisation, should be compatible with Mac OS is regarded by the majority of commentators as one of the most egregious misrepresentations of computing technology in cinematic history.

I, however, disagree.

Why it could work

In the movie, it's revealed that first contact with the aliens occurred in 1947 with the interception of an alien scout ship over Roswell, New Mexico; the Roswell incident. Alien technology does not advance significantly over the intervening 50-odd years which makes the downed advance scout identical to the fighters deployed during the main invasion. That means its systems are still compatible with those of the alien mothership. Evidence for this is provided when Brent Spiner's character explains that following the arrival of the mothership, all the subsidiary systems of the scout have been automatically reactivating themselves.

This is not to say that the scientists at Area 51 responsible for studying the scout had no success activating - or at least studying - the systems by themselves. Having had 50 years to investigate the scout's onboard systems it is entirely plausible that they would have figured out roughly how they should work - if the interfaces are reasonably simple then they could have done this without even activating them. The mothership wasn't around so the scout remained resolutely dormant in the absence of some sort of wake-up code which the scientists never figured out, but even so, it seems preposterous that after decades of work they would NOT be able to jury-rig a pretty sophisticated set of hardware adapters and software interpreters to allow their computers (presumably Apple Macs) to interface with the scout.

Now, we know alien scouts are usually deployed by the City Destroyers which means they must have some capability to pass through the Destroyers' shields - either slipping through them by modulating their own onboard shields or (more likely) by interfacing with the Destroyers' shield systems to open gaps as and when required. So we can surmise that alien fighters have at least some level of access to the Destroyer shield systems. Therefore, so do the scientists. (They possibly never realised it, due to the absence of any Destroyers for them to remotely interface with via the downed scout during the 50-year gap.)

Also bear in mind that simply being staggeringly advanced technologically does not guarantee that your software will be impregnable. In fact, the more complex the software, the more likely it is to have holes in it, and this software runs an entire civilisation. These aliens could be using the cosmic equivalent of Microsoft Outlook Express for all we know. Also, there is no evidence to suggest that they have ever had to deal with anything other than direct physical assaults - hence the lack of security in their shield protocols and the intrinsically weak single-point-of-failure network structure (even if said point of failure is a gigantic near-indestructible spacecraft).

The final piece of the puzzle is Jeff Goldblum's character. He is a "TV repairman" but clearly significantly more technically able than this title would suggest. He is MIT-educated, able to craft and use directional microphones, and, most importantly, has had direct experience of the aliens' internal communications protocols, having successfully decoded their strike countdown from TV satellite signals on July 2nd. He has a Macintosh of his own... and, presumably, extensive programming/hacking/phreaking experience. He has a brain.

Now let's paint the picture. Late at night on July 3rd he randomly stumbles across the virus idea. He assembles all of the above facts in his head - most likely, in a matter of seconds - he pulls up the Area 51 Mac OS/alien OS interface suite, plugs his Powerbook in, and puts in the hardest night's work in history, discovering a security hole first in the scout's shield systems and then in the entire alien shield network. (The first security hole may possibly have been discovered by the scientists before him, but it is certainly he who first figures out a way to deploy it fleet-wide.)

Of course, the shields will only be deactivated briefly before the alien generals on the mothership realise what has happened and reactivate them manually, so the nuke has to be placed at the same moment as the virus is deployed into the heart of the mothership and something something worldwide defence forces blah blah blah... you know the rest.

The key link in the chain (bah, far too many metaphors) is the pre-existing interface technology. Once you have that, the only major hurdles that your suspension of disbelief must overcome are Jeff Goldblum's apparently lightning-fast coding skillz. Perfectly within the bounds of reason - at least, for Hollywood.

Remaining issues

It is admittedly preposterous that the aliens would let a poorly-flown, uncommunicative, long-lost scout ship right into their lair... or that a nuclear bomb of ANY size could completely annihilate an object with 1/4 the mass of the Moon... or that you can escape from a ship 550 kilometres in diameter in 30 seconds without being crushed by acceleration... and so on. We knew all this from the start. Independence Day is still a ridiculously stupid movie.

But. BUT. This particular objection, this Mac/alien incompatibility thing - I don't buy it! And nor should you. You want movies with stupid computers? Please. Go watch The Net.

In`de*pend"ence Day.

In the United States, a holiday, the 4th of July, commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on that day in 1776.


© Webster 1913

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