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Classic Films

Independence Day at 25

Aliens blow up the White House in the trailer for 1996’s Independence Day. ( 20th Century Studios via YouTube)

There are certain complaints one can make of Independence Day, the 1996 Roland Emmerich alien-invasion blockbuster. The most common one is: How does super-genius Jeff Goldblum (yes, his character has a name, but I choose to believe Jeff Goldblum is just Jeff Goldblum in all of his movies) manage to save the day by uploading a computer virus onto an alien mothership? It can be hard to work between a Mac and a PC; surely there would be some interoperability issues between different species’ hardware. Another complaint: Why do people keep laughing at Randy Quaid (like Jeff Goldblum, simply Randy Quaid in most of his movies), thought a nutjob for claiming to have been abducted by aliens, when he swears revenge on them after the whole world knows they’re real? And does anybody other than Governor Patrick Stevens care that the president (Bill Pullman) nuked Houston?

Etc. But the now-25-year-old movie is such a fine example of big-screen fun that it inclines you to ignore these things. Especially if you love America. Because, fittingly for a movie first released the day before Independence Day and in the middle of the “unipolar moment,” in which this country stood alone, uncontested as the dominant actor on the world stage, Independence Day is an American movie through and through. (Despite the improbable oddity of its being made by a left-wing German.) As Sonny Bunch put in his 2016 review of Independence Day‘s misbegotten sequel (which, out of principle, I have not seen):

It shouldn’t be particularly difficult to understand why Independence Day appealed (and appeals) to your typical warmongering young (and, now, early-middle-aged) Republican sort. It is, after all, a movie about aliens blowing up hippies and busybody liberals learning to love smoking while a GOP president* and the United States military is forced to come up with a plan to save the world, the rest of which happily falls into line behind the rightful rulers of this godforsaken rock. It is a movie that celebrates the most American holiday and makes it one that the rest of the world celebrates alongside us after we save their ass.

You see this throughout the movie. The first we see of the alien invasion is an ominous shadow over the American flag planted on the moon. (Yes, the plaque there reads we went there “for all mankind,” but it ain’t the U.N. flag up there.) Then, the movie focuses almost exclusively on the United States. The world simply assumes that the U.S. will have the plan for counterattack, and defers to it entirely. Then you have the president himself leading the climactic assault against the alien invaders — but only after a rousing pre-battle speech so famous I won’t bother to quote it here; if you can’t play it in your head on command, you should just watch it now:

All of this would be more than enough for a thoroughly American spectacle. But then you have, in a peak Will Smith performance, American swagger personified. One of the other things people often mock about Independence Day is what Smith’s character says after he — let this be emphasized — punches one of the alien invaders in the face: “Welcome to earth.” (It’s typically derided as, “Welcome to earf,” which . . . it doesn’t sound like to me.) But let’s remember what we’ve just seen in the moments preceding that: an American airman engages in a dogfight with an alien craft literally lightyears more advanced than what he’s flying . . . and he wins. That’s the kind of audacity that this country was built on. It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine Neil Armstrong or Chuck Yeager, or, going further back, John Paul Jones or a legion of similar can-do spirits acting similarly under the same circumstances.

And say what you will about that much-mocked virus upload. The collaboration between Goldblum, fresh off defeating dinosaurs, and Smithian Swagger is a perfect representation in miniature of the combination of brains and brawn that made, and still make, this country great.

Together, all of this helps make Independence Day, whatever its flaws, a fun watch anytime. But especially on the Fourth of July. Is it “jingoistic”? Maybe. But that didn’t hurt its worldwide box office at the time, whereas its more global-focused sequel made half as much in unadjusted dollars. A useful reminder, perhaps, of the spirit we could soon have to embody . . .


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