It’s very encouraging here in the summer of 2021 to see the communal experience return to movie theaters. Sure, we might not be packed into the walls and aisles of auditoriums right next to complete strangers or close friends, but big and loud movies play better to full crowds. Getting back to that calls on a powerful memory of mine from 25 years ago that stands, to this day, as the best in-theater adventure of my life. The summer was 1996, and the movie was Independence Day.
Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s alien invasion blockbuster was timed for the July 4th holiday weekend. The massive pre-release hype was as measured and organic as they come, long before the days of infinite YouTube replays. The sly marketing began with a Super Bowl XXX spot in January that employed simple shadow work, an ominous voiceover, and that iconic shot of the destruction of The White House. That was all the “holy moly” teasing that was necessary, even as slightly more revealing teasers and trailers came later. Columbia Pictures kept it all very close to the vest and it worked. Twister had dazzled us two months earlier and folks were ready.
The night arrived. Independence Day’s official July 3rd debut fell on a Wednesday with midnight shows on Tuesday. I was nearly 17. I finished working a long day outside as an unglamorous YMCA lifeguard and was nursing a nasty sunburn across my back and shoulders. I had tickets set for the first show at the biggest theater in my area, the historic old-fashioned Paramount Theatre from Classic Cinemas in Kankakee, Illinois (about an hour south of Chicago), and knew to get there early for a good seat out of the 868 it had at the time, something we take for granted now with almost universal reserved seating setups.
Let me tell you. All 868 seats were filled and the audience was juiced. The crowd went bananas at every turn. Will Smith’s punches and punchlines popped everyone. Scalpel incisions jolted every heart and sprung every creaky chair in the room. Amazing sights had us agape and poignant losses hushed us with the same insane power as when later rousing speeches brought us to our hollering feet. Best of all, not a single person that night complained about any of those unhinged and decorum-breaking releases of elation. We were, hundreds as one, completely captivated, and that’s a special thing only full theaters and the right movie can do.
Independence Day, then and now, remains the epitome of a stand-up-and-cheer movie. That premiere was an electric wringer unlike anything I’ve felt before or since. I forgot about the time of night and that sunburn that was turning to a shell of blisters on my shoulders. Nothing, not a Star Wars marathon, a Matrix trilogy, or a full Avengers universe, has evoked anywhere close to that level of raucous collective energy lasting an entire movie.
When I look back on it, I’m gobsmacked about how Independence Day pulled that feat off. On paper, this movie looked ridiculously flimsy, even in casting. Jeff Goldblum was not exactly a headliner three years after Jurassic Park. Will Smith was an unproven mouthy cliche of his then-sitcom self with Bad Boys giving a taste of potential. Bill Pullman just finished a 1995 twin-bill being cute for women (While You Were Sleeping) and kids (Casper). None of the three, other than hints from Smith, screamed “action star.”
Independence Day surrounded those three with an old sitcom curmudgeon (Taxi’s Judd Hirsch), a genuine loon (Vacation film staple Randy Quaid), a then no-name love interest (Vivica A. Fox), the quiet buttoned-up spouse (Mary McDonnell), two requisite cute kids (Mae Whitman and Ross Bagley) and an array of go-to character actors (Robert Loggia, James Rebhorn, Harvey Fierstein, and a perfect Brent Spiner cameo, among others), and what happens? You find yourself rooting for the computer nerd, his dad, the cocky fighter pilot and his stripper girlfriend, President Lone Starr, and Cousin Eddie to save us all.
Folks, that is improbable and genius at the same time. That is Emmerich and Devlin becoming Rumpelstiltskins who weave straw into gold. Taking a cue from the Irwin Allen disaster movies that came before them, the filmmakers yoked the power of the everyman and filled an entire movie with nothing but them. If they would have put an obvious action star like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, or Willis in there, you have a walking foregone conclusion for success. Instead, the melodrama of all that heightened science fiction grandeur was enough for an audience to pull so hard for nobodies that could have been any one of them put in fantastical harm’s way.
Let’s talk about that grandeur. Boy, did Independence Day ever succeed in that regard, opening to huge numbers and becoming the highest grossing film of 1996. Any clever trailer can sell a few flashes of something giddy to put butts in seats with promised thrills, but a true extravaganza delivers the goods beyond the telegraphed teases. VFX supervisor Volker Engel, an eventual Oscar winner for this film, was very innovative for the movie’s 430 effects shots. Combine them with the alien creature designs and sets from then first-time production designer Patrick Tatopoulos (Zack Snyder’s Justice League), and otherworldly polish is all there.
The method to its madness was slow-playing every twist it had in its hand. Too often tentpole films today slam on the accelerator from the get-go with a sprint that is quickly exhausted and reduced to noise. Likewise, because the speed has been built up so much, those movies can’t, or don’t care to, carry us through in-between moments and downtime between set pieces.
In Independence Day, everything remained cloaked until the movie played. We knew a big ship or two was coming, but not as many as what came to arrive. They don’t show up until about the 25-minute mark of the movie. We knew an explosion or two was bound to happen, but not the immensity of city-leveling walls of fire. The aliens’ first strike doesn’t come until another 25 minutes later at the 50-minute mark. That’s masterful pacing of engineering feverish anticipation.
The beginning adeptly fills the time with clues of portended doom and little journeys of character development for these nobodies that stockpile the dread and personal connections. While the clock ticks, Independence Day never forgets to turn the charm on from all angles. We’re quick to forget how flat out funny this movie is. The humor comes from the circumstances and modest talents present more than anything, rather than from canned gags and self-aware references delivered by preening show-offs.
Smith’s Captain Steven Hiller brings that swagger as the man in uniform rightfully smitten with Fox. Goldblum’s frazzle as David Levinson keeps winning peers over as the smartest guy in the room, with Hirsch’s papa Julius stealing scenes as the fuddy-duddy in tow. Pullman plays the grim POTUS Thomas Whitmore, who is softened tenderly away from the cameras as the loving husband and father, and Quaid is just kooky enough to not be annoying. They win us over where we want these hodgepodge strangers to make it.
Once the world burns and our heroes initially lose, we sit there in the audience equally defeated. They’re crushed and we’re crushed because we have not been clued in any way how this will all turn out. There’s no comic book reference material or source novel. There’s no snippet from the lead-up trailers that promises a comeback victory. For a long while in that second hour, we are putty in Emmerich and Devlin’s hands as they guide us in complete darkness and suspense. Composer David Arnold orchestrates that marathon with a rowdy score of patriotic highs and soulful lows. Arnold’s work is one of the film’s most underappreciated strong suits.
Moreover, Independence Day lulls us into feelings of palpable desperation through the expansive middle section as the growing number of counterattacks fail. Just when we think things might turn around, they don’t. Along the way, each primary actor is given time and scenes to build individual staircases towards an important and earned rising-to-the-occasion future opportunity. They don’t have rockets strapped to their backs or convenient invincibility. They climb and stumble believably and with consequences.
Only at the precise peaks of the colossal finale, beginning after the two-hour mark, does all of that increasingly entertaining crisis and careful emotional investment pay off. Pullman unfurls a rallying speech for the ages that kicks off a parade of crowd-pleasing jubilation. Moment after moment, our heroes push away the doubts, play to their strengths, and climb their courageous mountains right on time, culminating with Quaid’s ultimate hero moment (as if there was any doubt).
That spin is part of the pom-pom-shaking allure of Independence Day, though. On a first viewing, like on that magical premiere night 25 years ago with a packed and volcanic crowd, Emmerich and Devlin (coming off of the ambitious Stargate) were able to manufacture tangible peril that had everyone on the edge of their seat towards a supremely satisfying ending. By the time Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum are strutting back to their waiting gals with lit cigars between their pearly white teeth, you are too as you saunter out of the euphoria barely contained by a movie screen. Maybe that buzz wears off over time and repeated viewings expose the B-movie cheese and silliness underneath, but I think memories made from huge experiences like that never fade. May Independence Day long be one of those movies.