A review post that should surprise exactly no one!
First, let’s rip off the bandage: I freaking love Independence Day. As a youth I would have staunchly defended this like any diehard fangirl would, even going as far as to deflect or ignore legitimate criticism.
In this way, I am glad I have matured a tad.
I still enjoy the hell out of ID4, and really, even having used the term “guilty pleasure” in the title of this post, I don’t think one should feel guilty about enjoying a piece of media. Unless, you know, said piece is in endorsement of something heinous. Or is CBS Star Trek. The guilty part, I think, implies that you acknowledge that the thing is not all that great in a critical, objective sense, but you can still enjoy it with this awareness in mind.
ID4 was certainly not the first disaster movie, nor far from the first alien invasion flick, but it did serve as a catalyst for reinvigorating the big, overblown, explosion-ridden disaster film niche, and for better or worse the cinema experience has never been the same since. But unlike the productions that came in its wake, I think ID4 has certain charms that keep it from having aged too poorly, and allow it to remain watchable even decades later.
I mean, sure, this movie is full of cliches and tired tropes, to an embarrassing degree. There are pacing issues for sure; as an example, although I appreciate the script’s willingness to build some tension and take the first act slowly, you could cut out everything before Will Smith’s first scene and lose nothing critical to the plot. The tone drifts constantly between humor (much of it out of place) and drama, between despair and light-heartedness, between being a character piece or a plot piece, and almost never fully lands any of those aspects.
Yet it somehow still works. The script is nothing special, and there are many scenes that could and should have been cut, but the actors bring so much charisma to the screen that what should have been a mess becomes watchable and even enthralling. The practical effects have aged well and look great on the modern Blu-ray rerelease. The score isn’t among my favorites but does an adequate job of supporting the movie’s best scenes, and the cinematography is solid.
I like the characters, even though many of them are not allowed to develop much beyond the tropes they embody. The cast is excellent all around, but in particular I think Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, and Will Smith have enough presence and command of their characters to rise above the two dimensions the script saddled them with. Pullman gets the best scenes in the movie in my opinion, when he mourns the losses of the initial attack, agonizes over whether or not to use nuclear weapons, deals with the loss of his wife (and really he seems like the only person experiencing any sense of loss), and of course, the speech, one that on paper seems like it ought to be hackneyed and cheesy, but ends up coming across, to me, as one of the best inspirational speeches in cinema. I get frisson every time I hear it. Great stuff.
So, yes, ID4 is a cheesy ham of a movie, with the subtlety and nuance of a rock upside the head. But it does have charm, fun, and heart, enough to enjoy and enthrall. Of course the heroes win (in a way that is not as contrived as oft-cited; using the aliens’ binary communications against them is not all that far-fetched) and of course the United States leads the rest of the world to victory, but beneath those tropes there is nice sense of unity and hope missing from other disaster movies and many modern films in general. Yes, the characters and the aliens should have been better developed (if the aliens were shown to be scavengers who only stole technology instead of creating it themselves they’d make a hell of a lot more sense), but it was not to be, and the eventual sequel didn’t make things any better.
But hey, I still dig this movie and watch it every July 4th, and sometimes during the other 364 days as well. Back in the 90s, ID4 also inspired me to write my first novel; I never finished it, but a few scraps of it survived the decades and manifested in After Terra, so there’s that little fun fact for you too.
Until next time.