Few science-fiction movies have staying power beyond the decade in which they were conceived. Today’s movie-land acreage has been so miserably flooded with like-minded knock-offs of the ‘earthly invasion by unknown visitors from the farthest reaches of outer space’ that even to suggest the concept now sounds quaint to downright old hat. Proliferation is one thing. Over-saturation to the point of absurdity is quite another. Yet, Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996, and foreshortened to ID4) has endured the onslaught it helped to create two decades ago, perhaps because in hindsight it ushered in this new era of sci-fi sensationalism with a grandly amusing, unabashedly flag-waving, yahoo-spirited American fight to the finish, for which it reaped considerable rewards (an opening weekend gross of $50,228,264 in the U.S. practically earning back its entire outlay of $75 million, and, tipping the scales with a worldwide intake of $817,400,891). It stands to reason when a movie is this successful it becomes an easy target for scathing criticism. Rita Kempley of the Washington Post led the charge in 1996, suggesting Emmerich’s much anticipated juggernaut had been fueled “not by cosmic imagination, but plain, old-fashioned ballyhoo; an overgrown hybrid of the disaster epic, can-do combat adventure and '50s sci-fi movie (with a) titanium bumper sticker that reads, ‘Been There. Done That. Beam Me Up, Scotty.’”
In hindsight, there is some truth to Kempley’s diatribe, more fraught with narrow-minded indecision over Emmerich’s lack of originality than appreciative of the impressive vision he hath wrought with efficiency, well-grounded use of his top-heavy all-star cast and mind-boggling array of then state-of-the-art special effects. And, it is saying quite enough of Emmerich’s direction – also, of the screenplay co-authored with Dean Devlin – that ID4 rarely lapses into the sort of SFX-laden, wide-eyed and silly cliché long-since typifying the sci-fi genre, even as it tends to lean rather heavily on just about every chestnut from this back catalog. What sets Emmerich’s movie apart and makes it stand out from its imitators two decades into the future are the haunting vignettes seared into our subconscious. Beginning with that first disturbing shadow creeping across the rough gray surface of the moon, heightened by David Arnold’s evocative underscore, right on through to our first glimpse of these super craft separating from their mother ship and descending from on high as fiery Olympian thunderbolts ready to strike with a dark purpose, to the epic deluge capping off the first hour (a stellar combination of old school model work, full scale pyrotechnics shot in slo-mo and cleverly obscured CGI); the complete decimation of Washington, Manhattan and Los Angeles; each metropolitan center engulfed in a nuclear holocaust, ID4 creates spectacular unease bordering on 1950’s Cold War paranoia, arguably, not brought to the screen with such awesome discipline since Robert Wise’s iconic The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951).
Emmerich’s precisely manufactured introduction to ID4 is nothing short of a revisionist’s take on this classic sci-fi thriller, capably bottling, then releasing our collected anxiety about what – and who – may lie beyond our meager comprehension of the universe, if and when the day arrives two such civilizations should collide. The first hour of ID4 is of such perfection, topped off by (at least in hindsight) a prolific and bone-chilling matte painting, depicting lower Manhattan in flames (the tops of the World Trade Center decapitated and burning, Lady Liberty half submerged in the foreground) it is rather too easy to dismiss what follows in the next hour and 25 min. (hour and thirty-three in the Special Edition cut) as mere fanciful tripe. Realistically, the high stakes drama has nowhere to go but down after this monumental start and Emmerich somewhat fumbles the ball thereafter; his intergalactic powerhouse becoming earthbound and landlocked in a series of romantic entanglements, meant to provide back story, but otherwise delaying hot-shot pilot, Capt. Steven Hiller (Will Smith) and cable TV programmer, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) from becoming the unlikely patriots of a new Independence Day to prevent the alien blitzkrieg from consuming the world.
ID4 is oft criticized for its’ ethnocentric eccentricity. Okay, it is difficult, if not altogether impossible, to argue against this point as, according the film, only American optimism and ingenuity are shovel-ready and technologically advanced, enough to give these tenacious leviathans a run for the galaxy; Emmerich and Devlin pooling their creative resources from that perennial wellspring of conspiracy theories swirling around the infamously remote desert location, cryptically known as Area 51, Roswell, New Mexico. ID4 is not terribly concerned with looking beyond the boundaries of the United States for inspiration or outside help. In the days before 9-11 and the presidency of Barak Obama, American ingenuity in general, though particularly of the ilk perpetuated in Hollywood, seemed virtually limitless. Were that it were true or, at least, plausibly believable. In some ways, I would sincerely have this patriotic naiveté again, as viewing ID4 from our present era, chronically apologizing for its own exceptionalism – and even going so far as to intimate it never existed to begin with – has since rendered ID4 itself, as something of a blind-sided relic, gleaned from an epoch far removed, though undeniably less jaded than our present.
Since ID4, ‘what if’ scenarios, variations on a theme - our hemisphere felled by intergalactic invasion from hostile visitors – has proven insidiously popular. As a supposedly advanced and intelligent race of creatures, we require virtually no outside help to systematically wipe ourselves off the face of this tiny planet we begrudgingly share, yet rail against, with thought-numbing – and thoughtless – incongruity to conquer ourselves from within. Even more certain, the mood and sentiment of one nation triumphing over no less a threat than this marauding interplanetary foe, hell-bent on conquering, populating and eventually decimating its annexed food supply, rings hollow with its conformism: disparate surviving factions of humanity, briefly brought together in service of destroying something greater than themselves. Yet, Emmerich's take on the traditionalist sci-fi thriller is far more chancy than most. His first act bates us with awe-inspiring foretastes of apocalyptic fire clouds gathering on the horizon, and, grainy video images of unidentified objects looming overhead. Emmerich juxtaposes our limited understanding of the violent opera soon to follow, with omnipotent vistas from the alien perspective bearing down on this island earth, piercing the sound barrier with low frequency hums, first picked up by radar satellite and thereafter ever-present and growing louder until the countdown to an unholy phenomenon sounds the first death knell for the earth-shattering dismemberment of all mankind.
The pacing of Emmerich second act needs work; chiefly because after establishing a formidable cast of characters with expertly staged snippets and sound bites precisely laid out to inform us ‘who’ and ‘what’ each member of this ensemble is all about, Emmerich is forced to move like a crab, sideways, into his back story – keeping everyone’s narrative arc moving in a forward trajectory. Despite some fleeting moments of high drama, herein Emmerich’s brainchild occasionally stumbles like a clumsy infant learning to take its’ first heroic steps into the light. This is not quite the deal breaker some critics have suggested, and yet it diffuses the overall adventurist spirit of the piece; ‘us vs. them’ taking a backseat as warring factions among this handful of survivors desperately struggle to iron out the kinks in a daredevil’s comeback; in tandem, tossing F-1 jetfighters and primitive crop-dusting biplanes at the mothership in an all-or-nothing aerial assault meant to sabotage the total alien annihilation of the human race. Difficult to assess whether there is too much exposition, or, even more ironically, not nearly enough to keep us interested; President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman), a sort of better-looking though just as liberal Jimmy Carter, and, First Lady Marilyn (Mary McDonnell) the least clearly drawn characters in this piece. The President and his wife are the perfect couple…boring! So Emmerich would much rather revel in the playfully adversarial rapport between estranged marrieds; cable programmer, David Levinson and Whitmore’s White House attaché, Constance Spano (Margaret Colin) whom David erroneously suspects of having a schoolgirl crush on her boss. For added comic relief, Judd Hirsch as David’s caustic proto-Jewish father, Julius is stirred to patriarchal fervor in David’s defense after Whitmore’s advisor, Albert Nimziki (James Rebhorn) tries to diminish his contributions after their narrow escape from the hellish fireball that leveled the city and almost engulfed Air Force One.
While the first half of Independence Day is clever enough to avoid virtually every cliché in the sci-fi playbook, its second act steadily falls prey to the retreads and standardized conventions; both, of traditional sci-fi movie-land lore and the ‘love among the ruins’ romantic entanglements inherent in a traditional disaster flick. These involve two couples; the aforementioned David and Constance, and the as yet discussed, unessential alliance of a nightclub stripper, Jasmine Dubrow (Vivica A. Fox) with Capt. Hiller. Jasmine’s profession has impugned Steven’s ability to step up his rank, despite a flawless record as a hotshot pilot. The Devlin/Emmerich screenplay is constantly looking for ways to keep these couples apart, presumably to remind both us and them of the importance in human solidarity. Predictably, it all leads to tearful/fearful goodbyes midway through and smiling/happy reunions in the end. Having survived the alien holocaust that decimated Los Angeles, idiotically by taking refuge in a cement storage bunker with her young son, Dylan (Ross Bagley) and their beloved golden retriever, Boomer; Jasmine adopts an almost warrior-esque Scarlett O’Hara stance on life – to never (go hungry) be without her man again. Meanwhile, Steven gets involved in a series of atypically butch and chest-thumping skirmishes with the enemy. Along the way, sacrifices are made. But victory is at hand – and, predictably, turbo-infused with American jingoism elevated to WWII Teutonic heights.
Emmerich has not forgotten how to tell a good story. But he does deviate considerably by inserting video-game flavored dogfights between passionate embraces and silly bits of tongue-in-cheek comedy; moments of traditionally male-bonding camaraderie involving doomed copilot, Capt. Jimmy Wilder (Harry Connick Jr.) and other turgid bits devoted to Dr. Brackish Okun – a NASA egghead, more ‘nutty professor/hippy brain child (as performed by Brent Spiner). The best of these screen teams comes late in the third act; a burgeoning, cigar-chomping buddy/buddy bro-mance between Steven and David, each exercising the mettle of their character, while egregiously delaying the Spielberg-esque satisfaction Emmerich is so transparently aiming for; the kind that gave us such masterpieces as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. (1982). That the rest of Emmerich's opus magnum gradually disintegrates under this pressured race against time is a shame and, even more undeniably, hardly imaginative. The story clings together, even heroically so, primarily because the cast sells their triviality with great conviction. Alas, the immediacy of their peril, that nail-biting grace note of terror Emmerich has so feverishly concocted to kick off his movie, is now inexplicably absent, replaced by a stifling array of state-of-the-art visual effects to manage the necessary business of muddling through to the last hurrah.
Our story begins July 2, 1996 with an Area 51 sighting of a large circular object rapidly moving towards the earth. U.S. President Thomas Whitmore is informed of a possible other worldly invasion by his military advisers. While Whitmore recognizes the urgency in this unprecedented turn of events, particularly as factions from this outer space colossus separate and descend upon the metropolitan centers of Washington, L.A. and Manhattan, evacuating the populace is delayed for fear of inciting a universal panic. If ID4 has a misfire, it must be Emmerich’s cutaway to the remote desert town where we are introduced to alcoholic crop duster, Russell Case (Randy Quaid), the brunt of cruel jokes from a bunch of rednecks, and, an embarrassment to his children; Miguel (James Duval), Alicia (Lisa Jakub) and Troy (Giuseppe Andrews). But ole Russell is about to be exonerated of his claim he was abducted by aliens some years ago when a portentous silhouette passes overhead, creating intense vibrations in the earth as it heads toward Los Angeles.
Meanwhile in Manhattan, cable TV programmer, David Levinson has discovered a dim countdown signal imbedded in the cryptic alien transmissions. Suspecting the worst is yet to come, David urges his boss, Marty Gilbert (Harvey Fierstein) to get out of town. Next, David rushes to New Jersey to collect his stubborn dad, Julius. Now, the unlikely father/son team risks their safety to drive to D.C. and forewarn David’s ex, Constance of the epic deluge about to befall each city. Constance is reluctant to buy into David’s nervous fear-mongering, as is Whitmore, who once suffered the wrong end of an altercation with David over a presumed infidelity with his wife. The President’s chief advisors, General William Grey (Robert Loggia) and Albert Nimziki add their vote of condescension; at least, until David reveals the countdown code intercepted from the alien hovercraft. These visitors are coordinating an attack. Alas, sounding the general alarm comes much too late to spare everyone. Lost in the firestorm are the First Lady, the Vice President and Marty, along with millions of gridlocked bystanders.
In the aftermath, the President, Constance, Julius and David are flown to relative safety; Whitmore debriefed by Nimziki. Area 51 does exist. Moreover, the Roswell location has been home to alien autopsies and spacecraft technologies recovered and thereafter endlessly researched since the mid-1950s by elfin Dr. Brakish Okun and his small entourage of gooney eggheads. In the desert, an alien dogfight utterly decimates the remote military airbase where Steven is posted. In the ensuing foxfire, Steven manages to take out an alien pilot; its stinky remains brought back to Area 51 for dissection. Regrettably, the pilot is not dead; merely wounded and stirred to retaliate as Okun begins his autopsy. The creature murders Okun and his colleagues; then, invades Okun’s mind, using him to lure Whitmore to the bullet-proof glass in the hopes of freeing itself from the laboratory. The President, however, is not so easily fooled. After discovering Okun is already dead, his body merely being contorted like a puppet by this foreign life force, Whitmore orders a full-on assault that destroys the creature for good.
Steven is reunited with Jasmine who, having stolen a dump truck stocked full of refugee survivors, has made her way to Roswell. The couple rekindles their love, vowing to never again let differences stand in the way of their happiness. In a private ceremony, Steven weds Jasmine before being called to his most perilous mission: to fly the captured alien attacker back to the mothership with David aboard. Once docked, David will download a computer virus to disable the ship’s protective shields and render contact with their earthbound destroyers useless. Aside: I have read far too many critical diatribes on how idiotic a notion it is to believe earthbound computer technologies – arguably, more primitive – would have the capacity to wipe out such an advanced communication system; other reviews pointing to a glaring transparency in the argument that any man-made tech support could interface with this alien platform, much less infect it with a virus. At some point, one has to simply run with Hitchcock’s logic, “it’s only a movie” and move on from there…or, adopt Steve Martin’s glorious explication from 1991’s Grand Canyon; “You know what your problem is? You haven't seen enough movies. All of life's riddles are answered in the movies!” After downloading the lethal virus to the mothership, Steven and David stage a daring escape moments before it implodes. On earth, the alien vessels are immobilized and/or downed by U.S. fighter pilots; Russell redeeming himself in the eyes of his children by sacrificing himself; his biplane, loaded with explosives and bound for a kamikaze collision course with the alien cruiser. At the victory celebration that follows, Whitmore congratulates Steven and David for their heroism and Jasmine and Constance rejoining their men with a communal sense of pride.
Emmerich's pie-eyed patriotism aside, the final act of Independence Day is pretty par for the course of what constitutes a good sci-fi thriller these days. We have seen all this before and occasionally, done with more originality, though arguably, not with as much finesse, elsewhere. It is difficult to discount the picture in its entirety, despite such artistic failings and loopholes, even less to remain disgruntled with, or virtually unmoved by, the clean humor thrown in for good measure. Hitchcock implicitly understood that even a dark thriller needs its gags. And Emmerich has taken this sentiment to heart if – as some may argue – somewhat too far. I disagree. The laughs are properly placed and evenly maintained throughout ID4. They neither suffer from, nor destabilize, the set piece action sequences. Example: as Steven and David prepare to engage the mothership in outer space, Julius invites the refugees huddled in an underground bunker inside Area 51 to partake in a vigilant prayer. When Nimzicki, taking notice of the yarmulke atop Julius' head, suggests, “But I'm not Jewish”, Julius’ sly rebuttal, “Well...Nobody's perfect” brings levity to the hour of their retribution.
Even more admirable, Emmerich has foregone using CGI SFX as his crutch. While ID4 is loaded with miracle-inducing special effects, virtually all are put into servicing toward the story. Employing detailed miniatures of famous U.S. landmarks, among them the Capital Building, the Statue of Liberty and the White House, Emmerich has devised an ingenious and seamless pseudo-reality; the models imploded with advanced pyrotechnics shot at high film speeds and only augmented in the editing process by CGI enhancements to add depth and scope to the effect itself. The results are uncanny and far more convincing. Too many like-minded endeavors have suffered from CGI overkill. ID4 holds up because we can clearly see these effects have been achieved full scale rather than artificially reproduced wholesale inside the clinical realm of a computer hard drive. Karl Walter Lindenlaub's cinematography has also torn a page from the film maker’s playbook of yesteryear. Today, it has all but become unfashionable to establish the cinema space in long shot. But ID4 is a movie of exquisite visual panache. Lindenlaub gives us many master shots throughout that go so far as to hint of an almost David Lean quality if Lean himself were ever prone to exploring sci-fi up close and personal; the spaceship that ominously advances at a snail’s pace on the tiny isle of Manhattan, as example, viewed from a multitude of angles; the craft’s laser dart centrifuge resting atop a cleverly designed miniature of the famed Empire State Building. Herein, we ought to applaud Lindenlaub and Emmerich for their artistic restraint; the lack of lazy/shaky handheld camerawork commendable in achieving a high key-lit level of sophistication.
In the days following the real-life tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, rumors swirled 2oth Century-Fox was contemplating re-editing this New York sequence; particularly, to remove and/or alter the static master shot, illustrating a lower Manhattan afire with both World Trade towers decapitated and burning. Thankfully, cooler heads at Fox prevailed - as they should. Film is a cultural artifact of its own time and should never be tampered with to suit contemporary tastes and sensibilities. Generations from now, the mood, temperament and collective cultural mindset of a pre-9-11 America will be on full display in ID4 to be studied, judged and interpreted on its own terms; our insatiable appetite to witness our own demise from afar perhaps adopting a perverse catharsis from which this even more repugnant reality was spawned. It is difficult to impossible, if not entirely foolhardy, to suggest such art gave terrorists their grand ideas for the nauseating attack that brought down New York’s Twin Towers. In retrospect only, ID4’s visuals distort the reminder of that thought-numbing moment of cowardice from afar when terror struck at the heart of this metropolis, never to be quite the same ever again.
In 1998, Independence Day became one of Fox Home Video’s first 2-disc Five Star DVD Editions to hit the market, containing both the theatrical and extended cuts of the film; to say nothing of the formidable girth in extras afforded its debut. Alas, when the new Blu-Ray from Fox arrived in 2008, fans were outraged to discover a bare-bones affair; only the theatrical cut, and an audio commentary surviving this cost-cutting effort. With Independence Day: Resurgence about to make its debut in June, Fox has seen fit to rectify this sin with a new 2-disc Blu-ray of the original movie to mark its’ 20th anniversary. The results are not without their curiosities. For starters, the old Blu-ray release in ‘08 held to a far more vibrant level of color saturation, especially favoring bright, candy-apple reds, rich earth tones and deep azure blues. By direct comparison, this 20th anniversary reissue has a duller palette; reds, adopting a slightly ruddy orange patina; the earth tones more brown/beige than orange/brown, and the azure blues slightly leaning toward teal. Contrast is another issue. The old Blu-ray appears darker by comparison; blacks inky and rich. It has been a while since I saw ID4 in a theater, so my recollections of how it looked projected on a screen could only be vague at best. However, I wouldn’t chuck the old Blu-ray just yet and, in fact, in many ways I prefer it to this re-release. The one betterment comes down to film grain and image sharpness. While the old Blu-ray now appears to have been artificially boosted to eradicate grain – not to the egregious levels some of Fox’s earliest Blu-rays suffered from untoward DNR tinkering – this new Blu-ray exposes a grainier patina that appears truer to its film-based source material. Fine details pop as they should. As before, Fox has afforded us ample chapter stops – 57 all told.
I will assume the advertised 7.1 DTS audio is a misprint since I could only get my system to decode anything but a new DTS 5.1 mix from either the theatrical or extended cuts. Never fear: the 5.1 is superb with plenty of girth in the mid to low range; explosions rattling the subwoofer to its core and dialogue always crisp, clean and heightened by an ambient sound field. So, good stuff. Better still, Fox has reinstated a lot of the retired extras: two audio commentaries for starters: a rather tepid one by Roland Emmerich and producer/co-writer, Dean Devlin; the second, fleshing out lots more details, cohosted by Oscar-winning SFX supervisors, Volker Engel and Doug Smith. We also get the old pop up ID4 Trivia Track on the theatrical cut. Shameless bit of promotion, each cut is preceded by a trailer for Independence Day: Resurgance. The best of the extras is Independence Day: A Legacy Surging Forward, a brand new documentary weighing in at just a little over 30 minutes with remembrances culled from the old extra features and new reflections from Emmerich, Devlin, Engel and Smith, production designer, Patrick Tatopoulos, and actors, Brent Spiner, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsch and Vivica Fox, as well as a few choice bits of consideration by the new stars of the upcoming sequel.
Fox has also deigned to give us the old extras in their original edit: Creating Reality – a half hour promo on how the SFX were created; ID4 Invasion Mockumentary – at just under a half hour, showcasing the unedited ‘news’ accounts used to chart the alien invasion; The Making of ID4 – again hovering around the 30 minute mark with Jeff Goldblum as the MC to this backstage look; and finally, Monitor Earth Broadcasts – almost an hour of simulated around-the-world broadcasts charting the alien invasion. We also get extensive galleries with a lot of stills, teaser trailers, the original theatrical trailer, TV spots and an UltraViolet code to access a portable copy. In short, Fox Home Video has finally come around to doing a long overdue justice to this contemporary classic. Let us sincerely hope they are already in the midst of the arduous task to satisfy fans for a similar investment in hi-def debuts of James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989) and True Lies (1994). But perhaps, now, I am hoping for too much! Bottom line: for its’ formidable girth of extras, ID4 20th Anniversary Blu-ray is highly recommended. I still prefer the color scheme of the original Blu-ray to this reissue, but otherwise, the mastering effort is quite solid and will certainly satisfy.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)