INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Destruction and Violence

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Directed by: Roland Emmerich

Written by: Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich

Starring: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, Randy Quaid, Margaret Colin & Vivica A. Fox

Though it’s simply a dumb popcorn flick, INDEPENDENCE DAY caused shock waves in the cinematic world that resonated years after its initial release. This summer blockbuster kicked off the “tradition” of tentpole movies being marketed during the Superbowl, also birthed a trend of large-scale disaster films and science fiction epics that took up theater screens through the late 90’s, and showcased groundbreaking special effects. Besides causing all of those latter effects, INDEPENDENCE DAY broke records and became one of the biggest movies of the 90’s (in box office terms). While the story is flimsy, the characters are thin, and there’s an undeniable cheesiness to the entire film, INDEPENDENCE DAY rocks in terms of entertainment and spectacle. I am surprised by how well it has stood the test of time. This is 145 minutes of pure fun!

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July 2, 1996. A massive UFO approaches Earth. As millions of Americans prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July and people around the world go about their daily lives, something very threatening waits on the horizon. The question of whether or not we’re alone in the universe has been answered in a massive way. A group of huge spaceships surround the world and it appears that these aliens don’t come in peace. Fiery craters erupt. Famous landmarks are reduced to ash. A large amount of the planet’s population is lost. Still, hope emerges when various individuals from different backgrounds come together to take these aliens down!

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Fighter pilot Steve Hiller (Will Smith) takes to the skies, while his girlfriend (Vivica A. Fox) and her son (Ross Bagley) make their way across a hopeless landscape of destruction. President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) attempts to do all he can with different tactics and combat strategies, but at the end of the day his inspirational words may be the most powerful weapons of all. Computer geek David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) desperately searches for a technological way to stop the spaceship’s powerful shields. Meanwhile, redneck Russell Casse (Randy Quaid) tries to keep his children safe. These characters will all encounter one another in different ways and they will have to face seemingly impossible odds if they wish to save the day…and Earth as we know it.

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Though it’s over two hours long, there’s hardly a dull moment in INDEPENDENCE DAY. The first scene kicks off with the massive approaching spacecraft and the President being informed about the extraterrestrial situation. Though the characters are mostly thin in that there’s a President, a geek, the geek’s ex-wife, a pilot, the pilot’s family, a drunken redneck, his family, and a few other side characters, there are moments that try to develop them further…even though these scenes mostly show how these people connect to one another. This large cast’s three main standouts are easily Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman. However, Judd Hirsch, Randy Quaid, Vivica Fox, and Margaret Colin all receive a substantial amount of screen time as well.

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During its slower scenes and so-so attempts at character development, INDEPENDENCE DAY remains entertaining thanks to a sense of humor and the impending threat of giant alien ships hovering over major cities. Once the action kicks in, the film has copious amounts of large-scale destruction, intense battles, and lots of alien lore. The film could have simply left its plot at aliens attacking the Earth and humans being unprepared…but still saving the day regardless. Instead, past urban legends, conspiracy theories, and strange occurrences in our country’s history serve as fun plot points.

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Director/co-writer Roland Emmerich wisely decides to keep the aliens in the dark for a majority of the film’s running time. We see lots of UFOs, but know little about their intergalactic inhabitants…until one annoying comic relief character pops in to throw a ton of exposition at the viewer. We’re about halfway into the action before we get a long look at one of these freaky tentacled beasties. Their appearance is reminiscent enough of the “little green men,” but also incorporates small creative details. There’s actually a jump scare in this movie that still holds up perfectly. Even after showing us the otherworldly menace, Emmerich doesn’t seem to revel much in the hordes of invading aliens. We mostly get glowing ships and flying spacecraft.

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INDEPENDENCE DAY weaves multiple storylines in and out of each other and thus creates a large-scale feeling, even if all of the main characters happen to live in one nation and the threat spans across the entire planet. There’s a definite patriotic feeling going strong through this movie and it revels in moments of people from different backgrounds uniting as one force. As cheesy as that may be, it’s something to be praised. Bill Pullman’s inspirational speech near the film’s finale still serves as a genuinely powerful moment in a movie that’s basically about aliens shooting green light at earthlings.

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INDEPENDENCE DAY has plenty of clichés and silly moments, but those ultimately become part of the fun. The characters are thin and the plot is predictable, but that doesn’t really matter when the entertainment factor is amazingly strong and the spectacle still wows audiences today. I happened to catch INDEPENDENCE DAY on the big screen right before its sequel and there were plenty of cheers, applause and laughs to be had from modern audience watching this film over two decades after its original release. The film is definitely flawed and far from perfect, but it’s so damn enjoyable that you might not even care. Simply put, INDEPENDENCE DAY is a silly B-flick that was given A-level spectacle and fun. There’s something oddly inspiring about that in and of itself.

Grade: B+

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