Independence Day (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Credit the marketing masters at Twentieth Century Fox -- they've managed to make Independence Day the most eagerly-anticipated motion picture of a potentially record- breaking summer. Tantalizing shots of the White House and Empire State Building being destroyed by alien ships have been shown in multiplexes since last Christmas. It's a saturation philosophy: show the previews before every movie and tell people that this is "the event" of 1996, and they will come. Whether Independence Day takes in $30 million, $50 million, or $80 million during its first weekend is irrelevant -- it will make a huge splash. Unfortunately, and perhaps not unexpectedly, it doesn't live up to the hype.

From the beginning, there have been reasons to doubt Independence Day's creative foundation. After all, it comes from Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, the team responsible for Stargate, one of the most disappointing and derivative science fiction films of the decade. Theirs is not a pedigree to inspire confidence, and, as it turns out, Independence Day is no better than Stargate.

For mindless action, the first hour is right up there with Twister. The special effects are impressive and the movie is suitably noisy. But, this summer especially, we've had all we need of explosions and flashes; the fireworks have lost their zing. Perhaps if Independence Day had come out earlier, before all the tornadoes, flying dragons, Chunnel helicopter-and-train chases, Rail Guns, and escapes into Alcatraz, I might have welcomed it more warmly. At this point, however, action -- even of the science fiction variety -- has become a stale, overused commodity. Almost everyone loves chocolate, but, if you eat a lot of it, you start feeling sick. I'm sure you understand the comparison.

Worse still, Independence Day gets mired in syrupy, artificial character development, and this bogs down the entire middle act. Once the aliens have blasted their way through New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, this film doesn't offer much in the way of compelling viewing. With its hackneyed plot, feeble attempts at characterization, and predictable finale, the second half of Independence Day becomes an extremely dull and lifeless affair.

In case you haven't figured it out by now, the story centers around an alien invasion. After emerging from the dark side of the moon, a dozen fifteen-mile diameter spaceships enter a hovering patterns over Earth's major cities. In Los Angeles, a marine officer, Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith), has been recalled from holiday leave to "kick E.T.'s butt." In Washington, President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is concerned about creating a widespread panic by ordering evacuations. And, in New York City, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) has just broken one of the aliens' secret codes, and it leads him to believe that an attack is imminent. As it turns out, he's right, and the human race is soon embroiled in a desperate struggle to survive. The aliens' ships are shielded, and nothing, not even nuclear weapons, can penetrate their defenses.

The excessive number of characters is in part responsible for the movie's unnecessarily long running time. Had Independence Day been a half hour shorter, it would have been more tightly paced and less tedious. Among the superfluous characters are the First Lady (Mary McDonnell), a mentally unstable crop duster (Randy Quaid), and a sneaky Secretary of Defense (James Rebhorn). Since these people have no dramatic impact, all they manage to do is eat up screen time.

Like Stargate, Independence Day cannibalizes heavily from past science fiction ventures, including The Day the Earth Stood Still, Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Close Encounters, V, The X-Files, and about another half-dozen TV programs and movies. It's legitimate to question whether Emmerich and Devlin are capable of doing anything remotely original. There's a distressing sameness and familiarity to both of their big budget science fiction extravaganzas.

It's useless to advise people not to see Independence Day, so I'll issue a warning instead: curb your enthusiasm and don't expect much. With suitably low expectations, you're likely not to be too disappointed, unless you make the mistake of actually thinking about what's taking place on-screen while it's going on. The last half hour is built on a series of contrivances and implausibilities that even a six-year old could find serious flaw with, so be prepared to use the "brain off" switch. But Independence Day isn't about logic and intelligence. It's about space battles, mass destruction, and a laughably "rousing" speech by the President. This is a spectacle, pure and simple. Unfortunately, because the film makers mistakenly tried to inject a load of weak dramatic elements, Independence Day turns out to be overlong, overblown, and overdone. For alien invasions this summer, give me The Arrival instead.

Independence Day (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 2:22
U.S. Release Date: 1996-07-02
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1