Film Confessionals: Why I Love Independence Day

By Rob Keeling

Whether we like it or not, there are some films that we are all slightly ashamed of admitting we love. These films are, often, not the most thought-provoking or meaningful of movies, but there’s just something about them that keeps us going back for more.

Maybe it’s a mega-bucks blockbuster that is little more than a two hour fireworks extravaganza, but for those two hours it’s blissful, brainless entertainment. Perhaps it’s a forgotten childhood movie. If we watched them for the first time today a lot of the films we loved a children would barely warrant a cursory glance, it’s because they were special to us as a child that they stick with us. Sometimes, however, this guilty pleasure is derived solely through a film being so bad that it somehow becomes good. This is me, Rob Keeling, with my first film confessional…

Independence Day (1996):

My love for this film is thanks to a combination of all three of the guilty pleasure factors mentioned above. Firstly, Independence Day is arguably the ultimate fireworks extravaganza. The superb special effects were breathtaking then, and still stand up even now. The sight of that New York skyscraper being blown to bits was groundbreaking at the time and, up until that point, we had never really seen realistic large-scale destruction captured on-screen. The slew of armageddon and mass destruction movies that followed are all riding the trail blazed by Independence Day.

Secondly, as an 11-year-old at the time of its release, I was most definitely the film’s target audience. Alien spaceships and US military planes dog-fighting above American cities, Will Smith making witty one liners, and buildings being blown to smithereens. What more could an 11-year-old boy have wanted? At a time when visceral action and brash, amusing heroes were the be all and end all of a film, ID4 (as its marketing insisted it was called), ticked all the boxes.

It’s only with repeat viewing as a slightly more mature (only slightly mind) movie viewer, however, that you also start to realise the spectacular good-badness of Independence Day.

Flowing through the film is a hefty dose of flag-waving American patriotism.  Now this is not in itself an inherently bad thing of course, but then this isn’t a film that subtly hints at American superiority on the world stage, as much as it screams it loudly in the face of anyone watching using a star-spangled megaphone for added amplification. Throughout the movie, we see America bravely taking on the alien spacecraft whilst the rest of the world is shown sitting around, presumably twiddling its thumbs and desperately waiting for American leadership.

There is a truly brilliant scene where the oh-so heroic Americans have finally figured out a way to defeat the alien invaders and so set about using old Morse code to let the rest of the world know of the plan. What follows is a brief saunter through an array of helpful foreign stereotypes, just in case you were in any doubt that these were soldiers based outside of the U S of A. We have the English army boys in the desert, handsome young devils who greet the good news with a rambunctious “well it’s about bladdy time.” It would appear our army is populated entirely by Hugh Grant-alikes who are just too gosh darned polite to ask these thoroughly nice Alien chaps to jolly well leave earth. Next up we have the French, sat sulking and smoking in a rain-soaked castle, my memory may be playing tricks on me but I’m sure they were wearing stripy jumpers and berets as well. If they weren’t they might as well have been.  A necklace made of onions and a drawn on pencil thin moustache was all that was missing.

Later, as the Aliens are defeated and the various spacecraft are grounded by a computer virus (more on that later), we take a quick look around the world at the various people in a state of celebratory cheer. We have the Sydney Opera House for Australasia, yup, ok I’ll give them that one, now we see cheering Arabs  on a sand dune in the middle east, ok, slightly stereotypical but at least they look relatively contemporary and then for Africa…a tribe of nomads in full native dress with spears and shields. When is this film set again? Is it Rourkes Drift circa 1879? That’s what is apparently representative of the African continent in 1996.

We are left to assume assume that the various armed forces of the rest of the world staged likewise heroic battles to bring down the Alien crafts over their skies, as there’s no time for us to be shown that. Only the real battle, the American’s battle, matters here. They were good enough to let the rest of us know how to defeat the big bad space men, but they’ll be damned if they’ll allow us any more screen time than is absolutely necessary.

Of course the most infamous cheese-laden, flag-waving moment of the whole film comes courtesy of fictional President Thomas Whitmore’s rousing speech to his rag-tag band of pilots on the eve of battle. It really is fromage of the highest order. Quite how Bill Pullman got through it without visibly wincing is beyond me. Here’s the closing segment in all its glory:

“We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: “We will not go quietly into the night!” We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”

Here yet again, we are beholden to our great American overlords, this time for their good grace in allowing us to share in their holiday. I don’t doubt for a moment however  that several July 4th’s down the line, Americans the world over would be obnoxiously bemoaning foreign revellers, “Hey Buddy, I remember when this was a real goddamn holiday, before you guys hopped on board and turned it all fruity. We saved your ass again in ‘96. U-S-A, U-S-A.”

I have invented a great new game for this scene called ‘spot the over-acting extra’. Try it next time, it’s really quite entertaining. My two favourites are the bearded pilot who gives an enthusiastic arm-wave in order to beckon his fellow rabble to follow him over as the President starts his speech. Then secondly, there is the young pilot who salutes the President at the speech’s climax with such vigour I wouldn’t be surprised if he did himself a permanent mischief.  Nevertheless, a more impassioned salute you will never see.

There are also several glaringly ridiculous moments in the film that nudge it strongly towards the so-bad-it’s-good category. Plot holes that a lesser film may not get away with but that we allow of Independence Day, mainly because it’s just so ridiculous a film in the first place that to pull it up on a minor technicality like….the serving American President being allowed by his advisors to hop into an airplane and lead his men into battle just seems petty. It’s far easier to just go with it and revel in the overblown absurdity.

Other significant ridiculous moments that deserve a mention include Will Smith being able to knock out an alien with one punch; this is after it’s survived a high-speed interstellar crash with no visible seat belt or airbag to boot. That crash didn’t stop him, but a mean right hook from big Willy  knocked him out for a good few hours.

It’s impossible to ignore the most absurd element of the whole story which occurs when our two heroes are in the Alien mother ship at the film’s climax. In order to bring the aliens down, what does resident tech genius David Levinson, played by Jeff Goldblum, decide to do? That’s right; he gives them a computer virus. Wait…what? So these aliens have mastered the art of deep space travel and all its complexities, but they haven’t yet figured out a way to defend against a glorified Trojan horse. Are we to believe there is no alien version of AVG? No interstellar Norton Anti-Virus that could have let that alien in his central office know that there was a problem?  Also, how does Levinson log into the Alien computer in the first place? How is it in any way compatible with his laptop? They would not even have a remotely similar computer system to ours, they probably wouldn’t even have a drive as such that we could load a virus on to, let alone Windows ’95.

Despite these flaws however, I can’t help but enjoy ID4 (damn you clever marketing). It is just so unapologetically over the top and ridiculous that I get swept up in it every time. If it had stepped back for one moment, and scaled back the bravura set pieces or trimmed the oh so earnest dialogue, I might not have enjoyed it so much. It’s the unequivocal commitment to full blown American brashness that wins me over every time. Well, that and Judd Hirsch as David Levinson’s father Julius. Quite possibly the most Jewish man in film history. He steals every scene he is in and provides perhaps my favourite line in the film: “All you need is love, John Lennon, smart man, shot in the back very sad.” Endlessly quotable and ultimately the brains behind the whole final attack, Julius Levinson could redeem any film. Even if he does look like a schlemiel.

It is for all these reasons that I heartily confess…I love Independence Day.

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