Independence Day is a tough movie for me to objectively analyze, as far as cultural significance goes. I can imagine an older audience, adults at the time of its release, lumping it in with the Michael Bay/Transformers wave, what with its bombast and global destruction-porn and near-absurd jingoism. For younger viewers, on the other hand, it might as well be A Trip to the Moon; its digital effects, while groundbreaking at the time, can’t help but look a little rickety after two decades of advancements. Ah, but I was born in the 1980s, and for the millions like me who saw it in theaters at age 12, Independence Day is the summer blockbuster.
Independence Day (or ID4, as it was awkwardly dubbed by its promotional materials) came at a heady time for Hollywood. We as a nation were still high on blockbusters like Jurassic Park and The Lion King, and had not yet been burned out by the likes of Godzilla and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Will Smith was just beginning to make the transition from sitcom star/novelty rapper to Hollywood A-lister, and we were still under the shared national delusion that Jeff Goldblum made sense as a viable action star. It was precisely the perfect moment for a blockbuster to come along and embody the Fourth of July, with all the bombast and spectacle that implies.
And oh, that bombast. It’s been widely reported that overseas moviegoers viewed ID4 as an ironic satire; by the time floppy-haired president Bill Pullman gave his big tarmac speech (which would be eerily echoed a few years later), European audiences were rolling in the aisles. In fact, Independence Day does have a healthy sense of humor about itself, as evidenced in the supporting turns from Randy Quaid, Judd Hirsch, and Harvey Fierstein (to say nothing of Smith and Goldblum themselves). But that humor is goofy, not ironic; it’s clear from the outset that we’re supposed to side with the hawkish military figures played by Robert Loggia and Adam Baldwin over weenyish defense secretary James Rebhorn. And Pullman’s speech, while undeniably ludicrous, is genuinely rousing, in a President-hopping-in-a-fighter-plane-to-shoot-aliens kind of way. In the end, Independence Day is like the best kind of drunken barbecue: everyone’s drunk and silly, but when the fireworks start up, they can’t help but love it. Welcome to Earth.
dir. Roland Emmerich