Filmmaking duo Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich have built their inseparable careers by making big-budget Hollywood summer event films. For those who don’t know, “summer event films” are Hollywood big budget movies that arrives drowning in the latest special effects, hits the theaters in mass numbers, and brings with it a media blitz that includes enough product tie-ins (everything from clothes to toys to McDonald happy meals) to choke a horse. And according to their record over the last 5 summers or so, no one does summer event films better than Devlin and Emmerich.
The most likeable aspect of Team Devlin/Emmerich’s “Independence Day” (shortened to “ID4” in the ads) is just how unapologetically cheesy, simplistic, and brain dead it is. Not that those qualities are bad in a summer event film, as “Independence Day” is also a highly entertaining, action-packed, and special effects-laden production. In a word, it has all you can want. At least in the summertime.
The aliens of “Independence Day” make no bones about wanting to destroy mankind and keep the planet for themselves. You see, they’re not only an invasion force, but they’re a colonizing force! The bigheaded, tentacle-for-legs beings have journeyed a great distance over the divide of space and they like what they see in Earth. When confronted by American government officials who demand their purpose on our planet, a captive alien simply informs the officials that he wants them to “Die!” These are definitely not your daddy’s E.T.
Determined to save the day is dashing fighter pilot Will Smith, his stripper girlfriend Jasmine (played by Vivica A. Fox), and the handsome and much-too-young Bill Pullman as the President of the United States. It turns out the prez is an ex-fighterjock himself and is itching to climb back into the cockpit to kick some alien tail. Through it all, Earth is ravaged, cities are destroyed, and the human population exterminated en masse from the sky by the aliens in their gigantic spaceships (which though big are nothing compared to their gigantic, moon-sized motherships still in orbit over the Earth).
The movie starts out quite slow as it sloshes through its character introductions. Being a big budget movie with a lot of main characters, there is a lot of sloshing to be done. But by the end of Act One, when the aliens attack, things quickly pick up and rarely stop long enough for anything as inconvenient as character development.
The attack sequences are quite spectacular. Fireballs and explosions swarm the metropolis landscapes in a sea of fire and death and carnage. Cars go flying, people are evaporated, and buildings are decimated by giant, powerful alien blasts. It’s all done quite well, proving to the general moviegoing audience that Team Devlin/Emmerich knows what they’re doing.
Emmerich directs from a script by himself and Devlin. There is very little brain in the screenplay, and every single character, from Smith’s black ghetto-talking fighterpilot (I didn’t know they teach jive in fighterpilot school), to Randy Quaid’s white trailer park redneck, and to (most unforgivable of all is) Judd Hirsch’s stereotypical Jewish father, are directly from Central Stereotype Casting. Which leaves me to wonder if Emmerich and Devlin know any real Americans except those they’ve seen portrayed on TV or in the movies. (Emmerich is German and Devlin is Filipino.)
“Independence Day” has what it considers a neato solution to the alien infestation problem, but it’s neither all that neat nor smart. I wouldn’t presume to spoil the surprise for those who haven’t seen the film, but suffice it to say anyone with even an inkling of computer knowledge will snort at the absurdity of Jeff Goldblum’s computer expert’s plan. The word laughable comes to mind, followed shortly by, “Wow, that’s the best they could come up with?”
Regardless of its faults and brainless resolution, “Independence Day” is a highly entertaining film. There are no ambiguities to the situation — aliens bad, humans good — and definitely no character arcs worthy of its 3-hour running time. Worst of all, the actors seem to know they’re not in anything special, with Smith overacting all over the place. (This was 1996, and Smith’s idea of acting was still to talk jive as a matter of course and scream a lot.).
“Independence Day” is what it is, and for a movie that purports to be nothing more, it shines. In the summer, anyway.
Roland Emmerich (director) / Roland Emmerich, Dean Devlin (screenplay)
CAST: Will Smith …. Steven Hiller
Bill Pullman …. President
Jeff Goldblum …. David Levinson
Mary McDonnell …. First Lady
Judd Hirsch …. Julius Levinson
Robert Loggia …. General William Grey
Randy Quaid …. Russell Casse
Margaret Colin …. Constance Spano