The movie world is such a simpler and better place when you’re 13 years old. At that time in your life, as long as a film has explosions, then everything’s all fine and dandy. What do pesky things like plot and character development matter when some random building can be blown to smithereens every ten minutes? By that logic, schlockmeister Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day is an awesome movie because it has everything that a young adolescent can hope for in a film. But that’s the thing — Independence Day is the kind of movie that’s great when you’re 13 years old, but as you get older, the movie loses its “charm”, and what you’re left with is yet another soulless exercise in big-budget Hollywood filmmaking. That seems to be the area Emmerich is so adept in by now, that he can most likely do it in his sleep.
Independence Day is of course the sci-fi action epic that takes place on and around the titular holiday as a mysterious alien race invades our planet. The numerous characters in the film immediately begin to question whether or not these aliens are hostile, but of course, if they knew they were in a Roland Emmerich movie, that wouldn’t even be a question. Ultimately, it’s cable repairman David (Jeff Goldblum) who discovers that the aliens are using our own satellite system to time out a massive attack. Each ship is positioned ominously over many key locations all over the world, including the White House, which is where David and his father (Judd Hirsch) are headed to warn The President (Bill Pullman) of this information. And just how are they planning to walk right in? Why, because David’s ex-wife conveniently happens to be on The President’s staff. Meanwhile, military man Captain Steve Hiller (Will Smith) is called back from holiday leave to help combat this unknown alien force. Elsewhere (this is an ensemble cast, after all), crop duster Russell Case (Randy Quaid), who claims to have been abducted by aliens in the past, packs his family into their RV and heads for a safe place, wherever that may be. Over the course of this nearly 2 1/2 hour movie, the paths of all these characters will intersect as the race to save humanity becomes more heated after monuments such as the White House are demolished in Roland Emmerich fashion. And what a cast of characters this movie has; you’ve got Jewish stereotypes, heroic military figures, cute little kids, a drunken crop duster, a stripper, a flamboyant gay man and even a loopy scientist thrown in for good measure. Between all of that and the numerous explosions and other assorted action, Independence Day is really a package deal, isn’t it?
Alright, so yeah, I’m not a fan of this movie anymore. For me, what once was an exciting and entertaining movie is now an exceedingly below-average and cliche-ridden special effects extravaganza that is way too reliant on tired-out conventions for the entertainment value to win out. Some movies like this are able to succeed at being both dumb and entertaining, but Independence Day is just plain dumb. It would also be the first in a long line of films by Roland Emmerich in which city or world-wide disaster would be the main crux (although I’ll admit that his new film White House Down DOES look pretty fun), and none of them got any better. As a matter of fact, Emmerich’s subsequent disaster pics would take the problems present in Independence Day, and magnify them tenfold. So, thank you, Independence Day, for putting us through all that. What exactly are those problems, you ask? Well, let’s dive right in, shall we?
First things first, let’s start with the script. I know nobody was aiming for high drama or subtlety here, but man, this thing is so cheesy, I’m surprised there aren’t any holes punctured through it. There’s plenty of cornball dialogue and characterizations throughout this movie (remember Jeff Goldblum opening up his laptop with the countdown to all the destruction on it, seeing the numbers all hit zero, then give a trailer quote of “Time’s up”?), but as much of that kind of stuff as Independence Day has, I actually would have been okay with it if the script had more heart to it, but alas, it’s all just basest character construction. For the plethora of characters Independence Day has, none of them are developed well beyond what co-screenwriters Emmerich and Dean Devlin feel is enough. Frankly, it’s not enough, because all of these people are just cookie-cutter characters and none of them are all that interesting. But among this assorted cast is one character whom I did find genuinely charming, and that was Will Smith’s. Smith is the only one able to let his likability shine through; he gets a lot of the best moments, the best lines (“Just tell them I hit you”), and he has a definite on-screen presence. Everyone else, though, is weighed down by the fact that they’re just walking and talking stereotypes, no matter how hard they try. The film’s attempts to have heart and gain audience sympathy just fall flat.
One more thing that bugs me about the script: about halfway through, it’s revealed that the government has been housing aliens and spaceships from the same race down in Area 51, where they’ve been studying their technology. Gee, couldn’t any of that come in handy before the aliens started blowing shit up?
Despite the overabundance of cliches and overall spotty writing, though, Independence Day does have a pretty nice build-up to all of the mayhem. The first half of this film moves along reasonably well, and shows that Roland Emmerich is more adept at plot structuring and directing rather than actually writing scripts. While on the subject of him, I will also say this movie’s direction is perfectly competent. Emmerich sure knows how to blow stuff up real good and he’s more than capable of staging and executing other types of big set-pieces, like the admittedly rousing finale, but it all feels wasted on a script like this. When I re-watched the film for this review, I just had a hard time caring about anything that happened.
If you’re one of the many who still gets wrapped up in the excitement of this movie, then obviously these problems aren’t going to matter to you, and that’s perfectly understandable; I myself have, and still do, enjoy movies like this that are more focused on the entertainment value. But in the case of Independence Day, I just find it too flat and uninteresting to get invested in addition to being awed by the special effects and excited by the action. It’s by no means Roland Emmerich’s worst film to date, but it’s still pretty bad, too mired by lifeless cliched writing, bland performances and dull characters to even be considered a guilty pleasure.