1996: Independence Day
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich
It’s become a bit of a punchline these days, mostly thanks to Roland Emmerich’s output in the years since its release, but a lot of people forget just what a big deal Independence Day was when it first came out. It was huge. We’re talking Steven Spielberg/James Cameron huge. It broke the opening records set by Jurassic Park, and was second only to that film for total gross until Titanic came along the following year. It was one of those increasingly rare blockbusters that defined the summer, and remained in the top ten almost until Halloween. We might joke about, “Welcome to Earth!” today, but in 1996, this movie was no joke.
A big part of it was the spectacle. We’d never seen an alien invasion movie on this scale before, and for all their other shortcomings, Devlin and Emmerich know how to do a build-up (even the mostly forgettable Godzilla does a nice job ramping up to the Big G’s first appearance). Things just kept getting worse and worse, the countdown shorter and shorter, and even though we all knew what was coming — the money shot had been in trailers and on posters for months — the actual attack still managed to be awe-inspiring in its scope. In order for the rah-rah jingoism of the finale to really work, Devlin and Emmerich had to hit us as hard and as brutally as possible; destroying New York, Los Angeles and Washington was just the trick.
And yes, the finale was pure cheese. But it was earnestly endearing cheese, hitting all the right patriotic buttons at a time when we were feeling pretty good about ourselves. If it was maybe a little egotistical to think all the other nations of the world were just sitting around waiting for the U.S. to get its act together and tell them what to do, well, the movie wasn’t called Bastille Day, you know. All it wanted to do was knock us down so we could have the vicarious thrill of watching us get back up again, and if sometimes the dialogue was corny and sometimes the plot didn’t make the most sense, there we were up on screen not giving up even when things looked hopeless, and saving the day with good old-fashioned guts and determination. When David Arnold’s soaring fanfare kicked in just as the credits rolled, every damn one of us was ready to go enlist in the Air Force, even if we were too old or out of shape to have a prayer of climbing into one of those jets.
It also helped that Emmerich had probably the most likeable cast he’d ever worked with. Jeff Goldblum was the unlikely blockbuster star hot off the heels of Jurassic Park. Will Smith was just on the verge of turning into WILL SMITH. Bill Pullman was the perfect everyman president who somehow managed to make that speech sound sincere. And the rest of the cast were all familiar faces we generally felt pretty positively about. The characters were all sketched pretty broadly, but it was a broad film; subtlety was not the approach needed here. They all hit the big, recognizable notes, investing just enough personality to keep this from becoming the biggest Roger Corman film ever made.
I remember being at work the day after the film came out. We’d all been anticipating it, but I hadn’t seen it yet. Someone else had, and when I asked them what they thought, they got a big stupid grin on their face and said, “That thing is going to make so much goddamn money.” And of course, they were right. Now it’s become one of the go-to movies for the Fourth of July (although mine is and will always be Jaws). Appropriate that a film and a holiday about Americans being the best at blowing stuff up should find each other.