It’s been 25 years since the first time I ever bought advanced tickets to see a movie. I know this because that movie was Independence Day, and it opened 25 years ago this week. After seeing its unforgettable Super Bowl commercial, I immediately became obsessed with the movie and knew I had to see it as soon as possible.
So on July 2, 1996, I walked into the theater optimistic I was going to see something special and the film delivered. In the 25 years since that day, I’ve probably seen it 25 times. Not only has it become my go-to film to watch over the U.S. holiday weekend, anytime it’s on TV, I have to keep it on. It’s funny, exciting, massive, I loved it. I still do, mainly because watching it brings me back to being that geeky teenager seeing an amazing movie on its opening night. Since July 2, 1996, that’s basically all Independence Day has been to me: an entertaining dose of nostalgia. But revisiting it last week in anticipation of its 25th anniversary I realized it’s so much more. It plays differently with a few decades of life experience under your belt and as much as I adored it in 1996, I may love it even more in 2021.
Directed and co-written by Roland Emmerich, Independence Day stars Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman and a slew of others in an epic tale of Earth being invaded and devastated by aliens, only for humanity to fight back. To this day, it still feels like the mother of all alien invasion films, simply because it shows the fascinating conceit on an unfathomable global scale. That the ships are the size of cities, and destroy such recognizable landmarks, is audacious and legendary. Plus, while most other alien invasion movies concentrated on a smaller story with bigger things happening off screen, Independence Day is the opposite. We see all of it. All the destruction, all the characters, all over the world, and all with an appropriate, impressive size and scope. There’s a tension, as well, to its contemporary setting that feels almost alien itself, two and a half decades later—cell phones weren’t ubiquitous, neither was access to the internet as we know it today. News played out in papers and on broadcast TV, not on social media that granted us the world at our fingertips in a moment. It adds a huge dose of tension and and, in that bullseye of high spectacle, huge scope and cultural specificity, I found myself coming away with two primary thoughts upon a rewatch.
The first is admittedly obvious, but something I didn’t fully appreciate until now. At its core and amid the bluster of its spectacle, Independence Day is all about unity, inclusivity and diversity. First watching the film as a teenager, I wasn’t really too familiar with the terrors happening in the world. As an adult, I see them on a daily basis, and it’s only gotten worse in the past few years, where, even amid our technological connectedness, even the most basic things have everyone at each other’s throats. To watch a movie like Independence Day where the entire world is forced to come together, and does so with little hesitance, feels oddly refreshing and disturbingly immediate in a world that has struggled to globally unite for a threat that’s a lot less bombastic. Maybe you forget this, but the first country the alien ships are shown in is Iraq, right on the heels of its real life conflict with the U.S. The first Americans to see them are homeless men. Those homeless people are quickly joined by black teenagers, middle age white people, Latino police officers and more. Anytime there’s an American crowd on screen in Independence Day, that crowd is vast and multicultural. That feeling even trickles down to the moment where, exotic dancer Jasmine (Vivica A. Fox) is ultra kind to the First Lady of the United States (Mary McDonnell) when she finds her, despite the fact she “voted for the other guy.” Once the aliens invade, we’re no longer defined by skin color, political affiliation or economic stability. We’re all just people.
This is also hammered home in one of the film’s most famous scenes. In the third act President Whitmore (Pullman) gives a rousing speech ending in the iconic line “Today we celebrate our Independence Day!” If you’re like me, even thinking about the moment gives you chills. But the rest of the speech is even more important. He talks about how though Independence Day is traditionally an American holiday, because this huge global battle is now happening on it, it will no longer just be an American holiday. It’ll be a holiday for the world. July 4 is the world’s Independence Day from the oppression of the alien invaders. Maybe I wasn’t really listening when I watched the movie the other 25 times, but a movie I always viewed as “Rah, rah, go USA” kind of...isn’t. Sure, it’s the Americans who figure out how to destroy the aliens and organize the whole thing, but they’re also the ones passing that knowledge to everyone else. It’s clear that the title Independence Day isn’t because of what happened in the real United States on July 4, it’s because of what happens in the fictional world in the film.
The other big takeaway is that Independence Day is a film about failure. Over the course of the film, the characters fail and fail and fail, and yet they never give up. First they fail in communicating with the aliens. Then fail in attacking them, leading to the complete decimation of Captain Hiller’s (Smith) squadron. They fail with the nuclear attack. And even in the final battle, before that the President’s missile gets through the alien defenses, everyone is so resigned to failure, they almost give up. Not only does that constant failure make the eventual, and long awaited, triumph that much more rewarding as an audience member, it’s a bigger reminder of life’s struggles. Nothing worth having comes easy. You have to work hard and sometimes fail to get what you want. Independence Day makes fact, one that can get lost in our modern era of instant gratification abundantly clear time and time again.
Did I expect to rewatch this movie I’ve seen dozens of times and find new, resonant themes of unity and failure in there? No, I didn’t. But that’s the beauty of Independence Day, a piece of blockbuster film making that still feels like it’s firing on all cylinders. Truly, almost everything in this movie works—the first act moves like a runaway train, with zero frills, all pushed by the odd, but successful, choice for many of the scene transitions to happen with a big explosion sound. Breaking the film into three distinct sections—taking place on July 2, July 3, and then July 4—gives the audience not only a much needed breather, but time to reflect on everything they’ve seen. First the world get blown to pieces by aliens. Second, a main character loses the woman he loves. And finally, the heroes celebrate an exciting victory, all with plenty of love and laughs along the way.
If there’s a weak link in the movie, it’s a few of the performances and characters when looked at individually. Some are excellent while others just aren’t. Jeff Goldblum, who plays the genius David Levinson, isn’t as over the top here as he was a few years prior in Jurassic Park, but what he loses in wackiness, he makes up for in confidence and swagger. Will Smith is nothing but confidence and swagger in the film, which ended up shooting him to mega star status. Bill Pullman’s performance as the President is can be pretty uneven, but he’s with so many great moments it’s one saved by the script. His communications director, and David’s ex-wife, Constance (Margaret Colin) is a breath of fresh air throughout, though she’s one of only a few smaller roles for women in the movie, along with Fox and McDonnell. As David’s father Julius, Judd Hirsch is almost offensively over the top, but ultimately very endearing and funny. There are a ton of other notable actors and characters too—played by the likes of Robert Loggia, James Rebhorn, Adam Baldwin, Brent Spiner, Harvey Fierstein—and it’s the massive size of that ensemble that ends up saving some of the weaker performances. That’s another thing about Independence Day’s sense of scale: the film gives you so many people, relationships, calls backs, and romances to invest in, there’s always something to enjoy.
25 years later, that’s how I feel about Independence Day, too. (Though definitely not how I feel about the actual Independence Day 2, Resurgence, which may be one of the worst, most misguided sequels ever and a true disappointment from a super fan like myself.) There’s always something to enjoy with endless rewards from beginning to end. A film that used to make me feel happy and enthusiastic and now does that while also sprinkling on nostalgia, introspection and aspiration. I’m nostalgic for the time in which the movie came out, introspective about what the film teaches us about failure, and aspirational for a world where our differences are celebrated. For a Hollywood blockbuster to still deliver those kinds of emotions a quarter century after its release, is what I call a close encounter... with my heart.
- I always appreciated the way too on the nose music choices in the film, specifically REM’s “It’s the End of the World” in the second scene. So good.
- As much as Independence Day is a sci-fi action movie, it’s probably also a great air combat movie. There’s so much flying in this movie that it’s almost Top Gun esque. Plus, all of the best moments in David Arnold’s score are when people are flying jets. Hiller is being chased by the alien in the canyons? Amazing.
- If there’s any doubt what Roland Emmerich and his co-writer Dean Devlin thought about Presidents, you need only look at the First Lady’s dialogue. She calls him a “liar” three times. Yes, it’s supposed to be a cute interaction between husband and wife but three times is a trend and when you call the leader of the free world a liar three times in a movie, it’s purposeful.
- Though there’s a ton going on in the movie, I really love all the little character touches and interactions that are set up and paid off later. Steven Hiller wanting to fly the spaceship, for example. The President’s rivalry with David. Jasmine’s kid wanting to see fireworks. Just really good screenwriting.
- When Independence Day was released, so much was made of the scenes of major landmarks like the White House, Capitol and Empire State Building being destroyed. They all still look incredible today thanks to their basis in practical effects, but 5 years before 9/11 and 25 years before the insurrection of January 6, it’s now jarring to try and find enjoyment in such recognizable destruction.
- I think the moment I knew I loved this movie was when the story brings the Area 51 mythology into it in such an organic, believable way. It’s linking this hugely fantastic, fictional story with reality and conspiracy theory and it’s just great.
- Big ups to Patrick Tatopoulos, the man who designed the film’s aliens. Both in and out of their eco skeletons, the aliens are a perfect mix of that unmistakable, classic alien aesthetic, with just enough new, gross, cool updates.
- In the film, the president’s daughter is played with much joy by actress Mae Whitman. Whitman, in later years, would rise to fame in projects such as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Arrested Development. And I’ll never forgive Emmerich from not bringing back the actress to play the character in the sequel. Just another reason Resurgence sucks, but this one doesn’t.
- I mentioned it in the main piece but the technology, or lack there of, in this film is wild. Internet and cell phones got so prominent so soon after this, upon release, it was almost instantly dated. So to see David put a CD-Rom into his laptop to get a phone number, or for the whole movie to hinge on a computer virus being delivered by a massive, phallic radio transmitter, is so perfectly cheesy. Independence Day is so dependent on technology, but completely failed to understand its development.
- One thing that always bothered me is the ship that David and Steve fly into space crashed on Earth in the 1950s. It’s now the 1990s. Has the alien technology really not changed in 40 years? How did they not notice this old jalopy flying back into the ship?
Independence Day is currently streaming on HBO Max.
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