As the aliens are set to reinvade the planet today in Independence Day: Resurgence, it seems like a good time to revisit the original action classic Independence Day from 1996.
This sci-fi adventure exploded onto the big screen with all of the adrenaline and excitement of the zeitgeist of the 1990s. Generation X was feeling its oats and hitting its stride. Aliens, government conspiracies, a booming economy, a booming tech sector and a drumbeat of “post-racial” unity were already everywhere in the media, entertainment and society. Director Roland Emmerich combined them into one fast-paced, high-flying, alien-butt-kicking thrill ride that struck box office gold—capturing that fear, optimism and cynicism in the American public at the time.
He did it so well you are probably reading this thinking, “Where the Hell did you get all of that from? Those were the best special effects ever up until then. And it was so over-the-top and earnest, it now is more campy fun than a serious sci-fi action flick.”
Maybe, but we are getting to all of that.
For those who need a refresher about the film: A heap-ton of gigantic alien spaceships break off from a gargantuan alien spaceship and begin obliterating the largest cities on earth. Several character storylines converge as America leads the charge in defeating the alien menace. Those characters include Capt. Steven Hiller (my favorite, played by Will Smith) a Marine fighter pilot with a dream of becoming an astronaut with N.A.S.A. and marrying his pole-dancing girlfriend Jasmine (Vivica A. Fox). (Oh, yeah. Remember. In the ’90s, strippers were all the rage. I think there was a law that required a least one stripper per movie back then.)
Jeff Goldblum was a tech genius named David Levinson. With his stereotypical Old-World Jewish father (Judd Hirsch) in tow, he chases his ex-wife while discovering that the alien technology is Apple compatible and easily hacked. His ex-wife is an important advisor to the president. President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is conveniently an ex-fighter pilot who struggles to lead the besieged planet. And that leaves the story arc of Randy Quaid, an alcoholic crop duster who was both a former Vietnam fighter pilot ANNND an alien abductee who was anally probed and looking for some payback. Oh, and he has a bizarre little family of three kids who look nothing alike and hate his guts. The youngest of them has an irrelevant mysterious illness known only as “Old Movie Disease.” (Undefined and potentially fatal in many a Hollywood film.)
The special effects were breathtaking on the big screen. We got a prurient thrill from watching Washington D.C., New York and L.A. simultaneously detonated and burned off the face of the earth. It was one of the first times computer-generated images were embraced for large-scale, realistic effects. Previously, CGI only really worked on smaller scale effects and not the leveling of entire cities…which is now common in many action flicks such as in the Transformers franchise.
Of course, it is fun to look back on the technology in the film. Cellphones and laptops were just emerging from the Electronic Stone Age. The world wide web was still mostly just called the world wide web and not the internet. No Facebook, no Google for another 2 years, Amazon was in its infancy, no flying cars… dammit, we still don’t have those. Anyhow, it is neat for us middle-aged folks and older to look back into the recent past and see so many differences from today.
However, I love today’s technology.
What truly makes me nostalgic are several elements that this film and its era represent. It wasn’t something as schmaltzy as “my youth.” I’m not dead, yet.
No. What I remember is an era in which we had won the Cold War. We had no known natural enemies. We were good friends and neighbors to the nations of the world, including our former enemies. There was a can-do spirit and a relaxed, easy confidence about life being good. Our big battles at the time were in fighting spouse abuse and breast cancer, saving the environment and maybe taking on the excesses of globalization. To create a great action flick, Emmerich had to invent a credible threat that could possibly beat us.
We had never heard of al Qaida, ISIS, the Taliban or Muslim extremism. They existed, but they weren’t on our radar. Virtually nobody believed that deregulating Wall Street and the banking industry would lead to global economic collapse. Global warming was something we figured we’d have under control by now…not something we’d be just starting to acknowledge and understand and deal with on a limited basis.
We were at peace. The Gulf War was over, and we weren’t going back. People would have laughed at the mere prospect of the rise of fascism in Europe and America. It could never happen. The 8-year debacle of Vietnam was still fresh in the minds of the public, and nobody would have thought we could ever again enter a long-term war with no end in sight. Yet, after 15 years of fighting the war on terrorism, nobody seems to think twice about its continuance without end.
This isn’t a political diatribe. Nor am I intending it to make a statement other than, “Holy schnikes! The world of 1996 and Independence Day makes a stunning illustration of contrast with 2016.”
Previews for Resurgence already show that stark contrast in attitude, as played out through the almost parallel universe within and without the movie. The people of earth are struggling and working toward another cataclysmic confrontation with the aliens, just as many people today are bracing for the next economic shockwave and terrorist event. There’s a gritty feel to both universes, and I can’t wait to see how “we” save the day this time around.
Nathaniel Cerf fantasizes about writing the next great dystopian novel such as 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World. You can reach him in this world at Nathaniel.Cerf@aent.com.