The Best Fourth-of-July Movie: 'Independence Day,' Obviously

The American id, set to film, featuring aliens


At some point today, you may realize the futility of sweating uncontrollably in front of a grill and decide to venture indoors to celebrate the American dream in more comfortable surroundings. While you're sitting on the couch with the air conditioner on full blast, you should revel in your rights to leisure and excess with a ceremonial viewing of Independence Day, the 1996 alien invasion epic starring Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, and Bill Pullman.

The set-up is straightforward, alien-invasion fare. Everything on Earth is hunky dory. Bill Pullman is president, Will Smith is dating a stripper, and Jeff Goldblum is a divorced cable repair man. Freedom reigns until aliens fall out of the sky and start dropping burning death from above. After a brief period of intense hand-wringing, Bill Pullman delivers his classic speech, Earth's heroes rally, Goldblum and Smith give the aliens a computer virus and our extraterrestrial attackers are defeated, coincidentally, on the 4th of July (with fireworks to boot!).

Independence Day is in many ways, the ultimate American movie and the perfect backdrop to the brainless revelry of July 4th. The American idea, the essence of this great experiment and what we're seeking to accomplish through democracy is a question best addressed elsewhere. Independence Day surrenders any pretense of trying to define the American experience and chooses instead to create an epic, fantastical, and in some ways horrifying expression of the American id and its unyielding desire for an enemy it can pummel into dust without consequence or remorse.

"They're like locusts," says President Bill Pullman. The aliens in the film exist only to destroy us and consume our resources. Later scenes in inside their mother ship reveal them to be almost hive-like. They are without emotion or, as far as we're told, anything resembling family or social structure. They fulfill our need for that faceless "other," an enemy who can be exterminated (in this case, nuked) without any question of moral rightness. "Independence," in this case, is less about the questions surrounding our own existence, and more about the need to end theirs.

Of course, in 1996 it was still just mindless fun, but watching it now, it somehow feels even more outlandish. The idea that all conflicts can be solved through military action seems hopelessly outdated, even in the context of an interplanetary war (see: Battlestar Galactica). Though released in 1996, the film reads like some eerie Bush-era fantasy land: an unwarranted first strike by a faceless, sexless, mindless, clearly defined enemy, and a globally approved counter-strike led by none other than our own president flying an F-16. Even the film's iconic images of various national landmarks engulfed in flames, then considered genre-defining feats of visual excess, came to have a darker meaning.

Watching Independence Day today is like peering back through time to an era where we could overcome any obstacle simply by hurling a bunch of fighter jets at it and drop a few bombs. Of course, there was never a time when things were that simple, but there certainly a time when we thought they could be.