Forgive the on-the-nose timeliness of this entry (hoping to publish on or around July 4th), but I wanna talk about a 1990s guilty-as-hell pleasure called “Independence Day” (aka ID4). A movie I’m not entirely proud to say that I saw several times in theatrical release (hey, there was no Netflix in 1996, okay? So sue me…).
The movie in a nutshell: an all-star cast leads a counterattack after hordes of giant flying saucers situate themselves all over Earth and wipe out much of humankind by trashing cities (and landmarks). Counterattack is implausibly successful. The End.
It’s big, splashy, somewhat nonsensical and dammit, it’s also kinda fun. Dumb as a sack of mayonnaise, but fun nevertheless. It’s the kind of movie that plays best on a big screen. The overwhelming size of the UFO fleet, as well as the 1990s-era digital THX-rumble of their arrival, etc. are largely what the movie is about. That, and a colorful assortment of charming, wildly cliched characters that are as one-dimensional as the characters in an “Airport” movie; but I’ll be damned if they don’t work.
And ID4 is as much a time capsule of the 1990s as “Saturday Night Fever” was of the 1970s. ID4 couldn’t be more ‘90s if the cast of “Friends” drove through it on scooters while sipping frappuccinos and whistling Nirvana songs. There’s even R.E.M.’s “End of the World As We Know It” on the soundtrack (“Hammer? Meet anvil…”).
There’s Jeff Goldblum playing essentially the same nerdy geeky guy he played in “The Fly” and “Jurassic Park.” His “David Levinson” is a cable TV systems controller instead of a scientist, but no matter; he’s played with the same stammer, ticks and even a few of the same catchphrases (“Must go faster!”). He might as well be Dr. Ian Malcolm, cable guy.
There’s Will Smith playing the ‘Fresh Prince’ of USMC named Capt. Steve Hiller (this was a year before Smith became a sci-fi comedy staple in “Men In Black”). And yes, he gets in an “Aw HELL NO!” and a few other choice catchphrases (“Now that’s what I call a close encounter” “I coulda been at a barbecue!” “Kick the tires and light the fires”). Catchphrases litter this movie like popcorn on sticky theater floors.
There’s 1990s pop crooner Harry Connick Jr. playing a soon-to-die sidekick (aka “Jimmy”). He and Smith manage to get in one or two uncomfortably homophobic jokes before his chips are cashed in. Soon-to-die-sidekicks were all over ‘90s movies. If a guy in a ‘90s movie was, in any way, friends with the hero in a movie? That sidekick was dead. Period. Hero’s BFF = dead meat in a 1990s movie. I think that plot cliche was signed into law in those days…
There’s a 40-something Bill Clinton–esque US president “Thomas Whitmore” (played by “Spaceballs”/”Lost Highway” star Bill Pullman) who’s also a kick-ass Gulf War veteran fighter pilot. He’s married to a vaguely Hillary-esque wife, played by future Battlestar Galactica (2003) madame president, Mary McDonnell. He also gives the movie one hell of a a jingoistic, rabble-rousing speech, too (partly quoted in the title of this blog entry).
^ There are brick phones everywhere in the movie. And yes, most of them are that big…
There’s also Area 51 (Area 51 and UFO lore was HUGE in the 1990s) and even a passing reference to “The X-Files.”
There are also tons of explosions, as well as destruction of major world landmarks (the White House, the Statue of Liberty, and even the pyramids at Giza). L.A. takes a beating, too. Movies of mass destruction were big business then (as now).
There’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation”’s Brent Spiner playing a nerdy ex-hippie scientist with Jerry Garcia’s hair. ST-TNG hit its stride in the 1990s as well, and Spiner’s ‘Data’ was one of its most popular characters. ID4 offered Spiner a nice opportunity to do something genuinely different (though aliens couldn’t be far behind, right?).
There’s a Keanu Reeves’ clone/soundalike (James Duval) essaying the role of “Miguel,” the son of PTSD-suffering, alcoholic Vietnam vet/UFO abductee “Russell Case” (played by real-life eccentric Randy Quaid). UFO abductions/abductees were also a ‘90s staple. I remember channel-surfing in those days; every third ‘documentary’ on the A&E or History channels was about UFO abductions.
ID4 also has CGI and model FX work peacefully coexisting (CGI would soon usurp practical FX in a few short years). One of the movie’s saving graces; a relatively seamless blending of visually impressive practical and CGI FX work. It’s also one of the reasons that it was so successful at the movies… lots of eye candy.
In addition to being the most ‘90s movie ever made (and that includes 1994’s “Reality Bites”), ID4 is also an amusing throwback to the star-studded disaster movies of the 1970s, made famous by prodigious TV/film producer Irwin Allen.
The all-star cast livens up what is essentially a big budget remake of 1953’s version of “War of the Worlds.” And in case you missed that subtle-as-a-brick-to-the-face homage? A walking/talking collection of Jewish cliches masquerading as David’s father, “Julius Levinson” (played by “Taxi”/“Ordinary People”’s Judd Hirsch) reminds his son to take care in not catching a cold… thus inspiring David to create a computer virus.
See what they did there? The makers of ID4 used the proto-internet age’s answer to the common cold that felled H.G. Wells’ Martians. Oh, 1990s; you were so clever.
Never mind the fact that the idea of a 1990s Mac Powerbook being able to interface with, and upload a virus into an ALIEN COMPUTER SYSTEM is utterly preposterous. Not to mention it completely ignores little things like a language barrier between two different species from different worlds. These are but quibbles in the way of a good roller coaster ride…
So yes, the computer virus solution makes about as much sense as a Chia Pet mating with an alligator, but the filmmakers got away with it because computer literate moviegoers in 1996 were relatively scarce (the “world wide web” was only 5 years old at that time).
Anyway, Steve and David fly a downed alien fighter into the mothership; their preposterous virus is uploaded successfully, the aliens’ shields go down, the worldwide counterattack (led by former fighter jock President Whitmore himself, no less) is successful. Randy Quaid is sacrificed (someone in the main cast had to die besides Mary McDonnell, right?). Steve & David drop a nuclear warhead into the heart of the mothership, and voila! Instant mega-happy ending. Complete with shots of the two heroes, chomping cigars no less, swaggering into the arms of their waiting women folk (Vivica Fox as Smith’s new wife, and Margaret Spano as Goldblum’s reconciling ex…).
The women are the caregivers/worriers/nurturers (even the formerly powerful ones)… the men are the big, macho heroes (even the nerdy ones). So help me, this movie is downright pre-19th Amendment in its depiction of the sexes.
And, disturbingly (to me, at least) the very last shot of the movie is of alien debris (presumably highly radioactive) raining back into our atmosphere following the destruction of the mothership. Because Steve promised his stepson Dylan “fireworks” for the 4th of July. Thoughtful of the aliens to blow up on cue and mimic fireworks to coincide with the US holiday…
ID4 was (and is) visually impressive, and even a lot of dumb fun, but ultimately it’s a ‘70s disaster movie in ‘90s flannel and Doc Martins.
As ‘90s icon Jerry Seinfeld would say:
By all rights, I should hate the hell out of this movie. It’s dumb, it’s cliched, it’s shamelessly manipulative (almost mockingly so) and it’s about as substantive as a fart made of helium.
Yet it works. Despite all of those minuses, it still works. All the signs say NO, but the cast are all so game that they really put their backs into it. And the resulting esprit de corps molds ID4 into a blockbuster shape by sheer force of charm and willpower. This is not a smart science fiction film by any means, but as a good friend of mine said at the time we saw it, it’s an e-ticket ride.
Then 20 years later, Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich pushed their fragile-as-a-soap-bubble luck and made a sequel, 2016’s “Independence Day: Regurgitation–er, Resurgence” (2016).
About the only truly interesting thing about the movie is that it takes place in a curious alternate universe; a universe where the 1996 alien invasion of ID4 is recorded history, which has resulted in a more-or-less united humanity with advanced alien technology at its disposal. That is the ONLY interesting idea in this otherwise boring and unnecessary sequel.
Returning for this non-event are Jeff Goldblum (doing EXACTLY what he did before; it’s more like a recitation than a performance), Pullman (as a traumatized ex-president Whitmore), Brent Spiner (in an extended role as the previously comatose-but-revived Dr. Okun), Vivica Fox in a blink-and-she-dies cameo, and (most surprisingly) Judd Hirsch; whose kindly, 80-something rabbi-without-a-cause Julius Levinson is now an author and apparent first-aid responder whose specialty is aiding/rescuing whomever he comes across. The same doddering, bespectacled Julius who could barely drive an old sedan up to the legal speed limit in ID4 now pilots his friggin’ yacht out of harm’s way, and drives a gaggle of kids cross country (none of the kids are even remotely interesting characters, by the way…).
Was it in Hirsch’s contract that his character become an action hero? The sudden change of Julius character into a quasi-action guy combined with Hirsch’s gentle philosophizing just feels… weird. Like seeing Yoda jump around with a lightsaber in the Star Wars’ prequels (looking like a pissed off Kermit). A strange choice.
Anyway, thanks to the acquisition of all of that alien technology recovered from the first wave of invaders, the alternate Earth of 2016 now has lunar bases, world peace, and antigravity flight. Oh, and it also has a handful of less-charming new actors to fill the void by a sorely missing Will Smith.
The non-charismatic trio is led by one of the Hemsworths (the “Hunger Games” one, Liam). His character is a blank slate pretending to be a rugged rogue hero. Yeah, right.
There’s also a sexy Chinese space pilot (played by Chinese model/pop singer Angelababy, obviously added for that all-important overseas’ box office because a Chinese lunar base commander wasn’t quite enough) and Smith’s adopted son “Dylan” from the first movie, who is now an adult pilot and played with absolutely none of his stepdad’s charm by Jessie Usher. He’s little more than Hemsworth’s sidekick. But curiously he lives to the end of the movie (that ‘90s curse is apparently broken now), unlike his mother (a returning Vivica Fox; trading in her ‘90s stripper lingerie for a doctor’s lab coat).
The only cast member who actually seems to be having any fun with this big, boring, messy rerun is Brent Spiner’s formerly comatose Dr. Okun (his return is a bit of a cheat, as he seemed quite dead in ID4). Spiner gets to play an even more unhinged version of his character from the first movie. He gets to run around in a half-opened hospital gown, and has a previously unseen gay lover (who’s tended to him over the last 20 years). Spiner also gets the movie’s groaner of a final line, “Time to kick some serious alien ass.” It sounds like it was written by “Idiocracy”’s Dr. Lexus.
At least someone had some fun with this dimwitted, boring excuse for a sequel.
The glimpse into the alternate 2016 is the film’s only bright spot and innovative idea. Even the introduction of new aliens who offer hope of resistance for us poor humans is executed in a silly, clumsy way. The helpful aliens communicate via a chatty, spherical doodad that reminds me of something you’d see in a lesser Japanese anime (especially it’s voice…).
Personally, I would’ve been more interested in a sequel to ID4 that didn’t feature the return of the invading aliens. Maybe humanity, now armed with alien technology, becomes a dangerous force to be reckoned with in the galaxy. Maybe we invade an alien planet this time, and we need to be stopped by human (and alien?) heroes who are trying to bring humanity back to its, well, humanity.
That idea is hinted at in Spiner’s last line, and frankly it could’ve been a much more interesting and powerful statement that could’ve addressed US aggression and dominance around the world; that even the ‘good guys’ have the capacity to turn wrongheaded when armed with overwhelming power and technology.
But alas, the ID4 team preferred to keep things nice, big, shallow and stupid. Something tells me if there is an ID4-3, it’ll probably as deep and thought-provoking as a Sharknado sequel.
ID4-R tries to pull the same stunt twice, and that’s the core problem here. That peculiar, ‘90s brand of filmmaking alchemy worked once. The sequel’s powers-that-be really should’ve quit while they were ahead.
ID4 was a fun, dimwitted guilty pleasure. ID4-R is just dimwitted and guilty; but without much pleasure.