In this age of political correctness and calculated verbal restraint, it’s refreshing to think that when faced with an alien invasion, the President of the United States would simply respond “Let’s nuke the bastards.” Well, that’s exactly what the President does in Independence Day – this summer’s surefire blockbuster and a stunning example of cinematic overkill.
Unless you’ve been abducted by the aforementioned aliens for the past few months, you know the plotline – gigantic alien ships appear over selected cities one July morning. After failed attempts by naïve Earthlings to communicate, the ships start vaporizing metro areas. Among the newly incinerated are New York, Washington, and Moscow, and we’re not even a third of the way through the film. The aftermath finds our characters trying to survive and struggling to find a weakness in the seemingly invulnerable visitors.
At the center of the literal firestorm is U.S. President Whitmore, credibly played by Bill Pullman. Trying to coordinate a defense proves virtually impossible as one attempt after another fails to have any effect – that is until an intense cable repairman played by Jeff Goldblum stumbles onto humanity’s last hope. Will Smith – quickly becoming a bonafide action star – jumps into the fray as Marine fighter pilot and hopeful astronaut Steve Hiller.
The remainder of the considerable cast is regulated to supporting roles. Mary McDonnell plays the first lady; Judd Hirsch is hysterical as Goldblum’s crotchety Jewish father; Randy Quaid is a drunk crop-duster who claims to have been abducted by aliens 10 years prior (quite accurately, it turns out); Brent Spiner is a hippie scientist who’s been studying a UFO that crash landed in the Nevada desert 40 years ago; and Harry Connick Jr. is Will Smith’s fellow pilot and wingman.
This many characters leads to perhaps an overabundance of sub-plots – I counted at least five – and amid all the commotion of the end of the world, our characters seem to have retained their sense of humor as one-liners abound. Will Smith gets the lion’s share as he waxes sentimental about “kicking E.T.'s little ass” and welcomes an alien to Earth by punching it in the face.
Essentially an updated version of several classic scenarios – part War of the Worlds, part Earthquake!, part Top Gun – ID4 boasts the best battle scenes this side of the Star Wars trilogy. ID4's visual effects are so slick it could probably be renamed WD40. The last half of the film is bracketed by two fighter/spaceship battles that leave the senses reeling.
If the film has a misstep, it’s in the final third. As if an alien invasion wasn’t far-fetched enough, the audience has to watch the President strap himself into an F-18 to take on the bad guys – he’s an ex-fighter pilot, naturally – and our cable guy uses his Powerbook to hack his way into the aliens’ computer system as if it were America Online. But by this point ID4 has built up a line of credit about 100 minutes long so no one is keeping track of nagging details like how much damage a spacecraft one-quarter the size of our moon would do to Earth when it exploded in orbit.
Independence Day sticks to a tried-and-true formula – make the odds seem insurmountable until the human mind discovers an exploitable weakness in the obviously superior enemy and then rocket the film to the finale where Earth is saved and everyone cheers and trades high-fives. While it isn’t terribly original, in the end ID4 successfully diminishes your ability to disbelieve and allows you to wash away in a flood of feel-good, rah-rah implausibilities. And when you think about it, what else do we go to the movies for?