The Last of the Great Escapist Blockbusters

Independence Day, Roland Emmerich’s 1996 alien invasion fantasy, was supremely silly, which is precisely what made it awesome.

David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), perhaps realizing how little sense can be made of Independence Day's plot (20th Century Fox)

There are many, many complaints you could make about Independence Day—the original one, the only one that matters, the one released at the height of the summer of 1996. There’s the fact that several of its key elements, production- and otherwise, were lifted from War of the Worlds, Alien, Star Wars, Top Gun, and Planet of the Apes. And that its plot, when picked apart, makes no sense at all. (Roger Ebert, reviewing both the film and the plan its characters concoct for saving the world: “My theory is that any aliens who could be taken in by this particular plan probably arrived here after peddling across space on bicycles.”) There’s also its blithe reliance on tired stereotypes. (“Look at me, I look like a schlemiel!” a character says at one point.) Its shameless product placement (Coke, Reebok, Apple, etc.). Its Team America-but-without-the-irony militarism. And its decidedly poor grasp of how humans might react, psychologically, to the world’s major cities and their occupants being destroyed by aliens.

And yet. Ohhhh, and yet. Independence Day ages, its storyline’s heavy reliance on the battery life of a Mac PowerBook 5300 notwithstanding, surprisingly well. It remains what they refer to in the jargon of critical theory as “a delightful romp.” And that’s not just because the film features Will Smith at Peak Charm, or Jeff Goldblum at Peak Goldblum, or Egg from Arrested Development, or the mom from Gossip Girl, or the dad from The Wonder Years, or a psychologically satisfying message about the enduring power of teamwork. Independence Day ages well not because it transcends its time, but instead because it is so deeply a relic of it. It’s a dumb movie that came along right before even dumb movies were expected to be smart.

Today, the trend in summer blockbusters is toward a kind of contextual ambiguity. Comic-book heroes, animals, cartoons—characters who are either superhuman or sub—populate plots that march toward balletic fights and gymnastic chases and enormous explosions. Whether their formulas result from the demands of “global box office” or from a more artistic impulse toward allusion and allegory, the result is generally the same: movies that evade the specificities of the world beyond the movie. Films that prefer to dwell, pleasantly and invitingly, in the realm of the figurative. Zootopia and profiling, Finding Dory and disability, Civil War and regulation, Batman versus Superman, Captain America versus Iron Man, even Aliens versus Robots—recent blockbusters, for all their explosion-happy antics, have invited and in some sense have demanded a measure of thought and extrapolation and analysis. They require some work on the part of their audiences. They are, on some level, smart.

Independence Day, though? It is many, many things; smart, however—all the film’s talk of mid-’90s computer science notwithstanding—is not one of them. There is very little allegory to be considered here. There is very little ambiguity. There is, overall, very little art.

And that, too, is one of the movie’s selling points: Independence Day is refreshingly straightforward and, in the best sense, simplistic. It is a movie about the world—under the leadership of the United States via a youthful president who is also, because of course, a former fighter pilot—saving itself from an alien invasion. The end. There is no Nolanian moodiness; there is no Whedonian irony. There is only problem, adversity, another problem, more adversity, and ultimate triumph, all capped with a funny line from Will Smith comparing a sparks-shooting spaceship to a Fourth of July fireworks display. Bim, bam, literal boom. The good guys are good; the bad guys are bad; the boy will get the girl, and vice versa, and then everyone will get on with their lives.

The simplicity is there even at the most fundamental levels. Independence Day may begin with a basic David-and-Goliath framework—Earthlings, outmatched by an extraterrestrial civilization that is, through no fault of our own, more technologically advanced than we are—but that premise quickly evolves into an even more basic tale: one of military, and planetary, triumphalism. Because, according to the film’s emotional climax if not its narrative: “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!

Hell, yeah! U-S-A! U-S-A! And also HU-MAN-I-TY! Wooooo!

Even President Whitmore (Bill Pullman)’s speech—one so rousing in its rhetoric that one of Independence Day’s eager extras greeted it with a salute that was shoulder-dislocation-level in its enthusiasm—is reassuringly, if ridiculously, simple. We’re gonna LIVE.

There’s another form of simplicity at play here, too: Whitmore’s words may pay lip service to the notion, per the tropic demands of the alien-invasion movie, that “we can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore.” But of course the real message it carries is that the “we” in question is, comprehensively, under the control of one “I”: President Whitmore, and by extension the nation he leads. The world will wait, patiently and utterly passively, for the U.S. to save it. (British soldier 1, having received a Morse-coded message about the U.S.’s plan to defeat the aliens by “giving them a cold”: “It’s from the Americans! They want to organize a counter-offensive!” British soldier 2: “It’s about bloody time!”)

And this is another way that Independence Day was so supremely of-its-time: The film was, in the era before cowboy diplomacy and the isolationist impulses that sprang from it, a comically blithe rendering of American exceptionalism. It narrowed the world, with all its complexities, to one country—and then to one president, one ad hoc airfield, one drunken cropduster. The arrogance of all that is astounding, and amusing; it is also, in its way, comforting. So myopic and self-contained is Independence Day, so narrow in its scope, that if you dare to think beyond the confines of the film itself—to scientific fact, to political faction, to geopolitical reality—everything falls apart.

Independence Day was released five years before 9/11, which is also to say that it arrived during the cinematic period in which a building being blown up onscreen could still be experienced, for the most part, only as “a building being blown up onscreen.” It reveled in that one-dimensionality. And as for any other anxieties that might be at play in a movie about alien invasion and planetary protection? It downplayed them, and in fact mocked them. (The movie, at the beginning, makes it clear that David is an environmentalist; it spends its second half mocking his zealous attempts to recycle (Coke cans, natch) through various jokes about spaceship-piloting being “the way you can actually save the world.”)

With all that, Independence Day found the escapism that is the putative goal of any summer blockbuster by being, in its own way, escapist. It was content to be what it was, and nothing more: a big movie that was comfortingly small. And it remains that way today: unapologetically entertaining, occasionally charming, often inspiring, and always absurd—to the extent that, far from requiring thought on the part of its audience, it actively punishes thinking. It crumples under any intellectual scrutiny, and there is a kind of joy to be found in that. Roger Ebert, assessing Independence Day in 1996, panned it. But his review—a litany of very valid objections—ended with the following admission: “Still, Independence Day is in the tradition of silly summer fun, and on that level I kind of liked it.”