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Independence Day (1996)

Alien invasion movies have had a long and illustrious history since the fifties, when flying saucers menaced the military, or alien shapeshifters copied your friends and family. In every case, however, the aliens would invade in relative secrecy, quietly trying to take over a small town before (presumably) moving on to the rest of the planet.

Then Roland Emmerich came along and said, “You know, that’s kind of stupid.” This movie is what resulted.

Independence Day (Roland Emmerich Breaks Shit Part I) is a science fiction movie directed by the king of monumental damage, Roland Emmerich, who co-wrote the film with Dean Devlin. It stars Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Margaret Colin, Vivica A. Fox, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, and Randy Quaid. This movie sparked a minor wave of disaster movies throughout the 1990’s.

On July 2, a massive alien ship sets up housekeeping near Earth’s moon and sends out a series of 15-mile-wide ships, positioning them around Earth. While this is happening, television broadcasts around the world start suffering from rhythmic patterns of interference. In New York City, cable technician and chess enthusiast David Levinson (Goldblum) discovers that the interference is due to a signal being sent through the world’s satellites; at first he thinks the interference is harmless and can be filtered out – but then he notices the numerous broadcasts covering the arriving spaceships and suspects a darker purpose. With the aid of his father Julius (Hirsch), he races towards Washington D.C. to warn President Whitmore (Pullman) of the attack. When his evidence is presented, the White House is evacuated aboard Air Force One, narrowly avoiding fiery death as the aliens strike. The coordinated attack takes out Washington D.C., Los Angeles, New York, and a lot of other major cities around the world. Boy, does it suck being right.

Military attempts at a counterattack meet with failure, as the huge city-destroying ships are protected by an impenetrable force field. However, a single fighter pilot, Captain Steve Hiller (Smith) manages to outfly and outwit one of the attack saucers sent out after Earth’s forces, netting a minor victory and one unconscious alien pilot. Hiller joins a caravan of refugees and leads them to the infamous Area 51, where it is discovered that (surprise!) the military has known about the existence of aliens since the late 50’s, and has been studying both the dead pilots from previous landings and the technology they brought with them when they crashed. The President is naturally Not Happy that he was kept out of the loop for the same of national security, but optimistic that they might be able to discover a weak spot in the alien technology. Their only hope is that the alien computers are compatible with MacOS…

Independence Day was a fun little movie and my personal introduction to the sort of widespread destruction that Emmerich would adopt as his trademark in later disaster movies (see my review of 2012). Gaining his inspiration for an open alien invasion while he was working on Stargate, Emmerich pulls out all the stops to establish the tactics used by an alien race that seriously doesn’t give a damn about us and wants us all to die in a fire, which they helpfully provide, free of charge. While they are roughly humanoid and share many of our weaknesses, their motivations are terrifying and alien: we cannot reason with them or strike up a compromise. Their technology is frightening and efficient. And they want our planet. The ultimate solution is also a sly nod to War of the Worlds, if you really think about it.

On the human side of things, the cast was interesting and diverse. Jeff Goldblum is effective as the twitchy genius (that is, every role he’s ever played since the remake of The Fly), and Will Smith, in his first major Hollywood role, quickly establishes himself as a major actor and a force to be reckoned with. Randy Quaid plays… Randy Quaid, really, but with a troubled past and a true heart that manages to avoid his usual tendency to be a magnet for slapstick buffoonery. The supporting cast is also engaging, especially One Scene Wonder Dr. Okun, manifesting closer to Brent Spiner’s true personality than he ever was as Lieutenant Commander Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

If you’re looking for a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat alien invasion movie with widespread destruction of recognizeable landmarks and memorable characters, check out Independence Day. Roland Emmerich definitely delivers.

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