In 1996, Independence Day opened in the midst of Bob Dole's auto-subversive post-modern campaign for the Presidency, so he decided to swing by the multiplex and catch it. His speechwriters had already written him a speech saying how much he liked it, but he had a couple of hours to kill so figured he might as well see it anyway. Afterwards, he summed up the movie with his customary pithiness: 'Diversity, leadership, America,' he announced approvingly. Later, he was asked to amplify this rave review and examine the film's qualities in greater depth: 'We won, the end, leadership, America, good over evil,' he declared.
That's really all the précis you need, though it's worth observing that, unlike Dole, the fictional President in Independence Day knows how to deploy a verb: Bill Pullman's eve-of-battle speech to his troops in the Nevada desert is the sort of address John Wayne might have given at Agincourt, and any presidential candidate could learn from it. Dole might also have noted the film's unerring sense of iconography, beginning with its first eerily formal image — an ominous shadow passing over the Stars and Stripes planted on the moon. Most invading aliens would knock out, say, the electric grids, but these guys want to make a point: they zap the Statue of Liberty, they shatter the Empire State Building, and best of all they blow up the White House. It was this shot in the trailer that had American audiences cheering months before the film's release. It was weird to revisit this slick bit of unfelt crowd-pleasing after 9/11, and it would be weirder still to revisit it another decade on: My bet is that audiences would be cheering anew, having once again disconnected the cheap thrills of the summer blockbuster from anything that might actually happen.
At the time of the trailer, the film hadn't been completed, but director Roland Emmerich and his co-writer/producer Dean Devlin wisely took their cue from the promotional tease. It was, without doubt, the most successful trailer ever: even before the film was released, its signature image — the flying saucers big as cities hovering over New York and Los Angeles and plunging them into night — was being parodied in the trailers for the Brady Bunch sequel.
After which, is there anything to be said for the film itself? Dole picked up on the 'diversity'. Who could miss it? The aliens who destroy the world's great cities are eventually overcome by an array of archetypes — a black air ace (Will Smith), a brainy Jew (Jeff Goldblum), a stripper with a heart of gold... More problematic stereotypes — like the whiney gay — are dispatched early on. As in The American President, the Hillary Clinton problem is solved by killing off the First Lady, thereby allowing the President to get in touch with his masculine side, don his helmet and fly off to vanquish the foe. Ultimately, the fate of the American dream hinges on the fortuitous fact that, in the most spectacular product placement in history, Jeff Goldblum's Mac happens to be compatible with the aliens' master computer. Countries with less literally universal technology get left out in the cold - and, indeed, Her Majesty's forces are restricted to a brief cameo of two plummy chaps in the Iraqi desert. (As I recall, the British computer technology of the day was something called 'Amstrad', which I'm not sure worked if you took it on a day trip to Calais and tried to plug it in. So I doubt the aliens would have been impressed.)
The odd thing about Independence Day is that it isn't ever scary, and it's hardly ever thrilling. It revels in a peculiarly parochial invincibility. Once upon a time, space inspired man to reveries ('one small step' et al); now, man drags space invaders down to earth and treats them like guys who cut you up on the turnpike: when the hordes are eventually repulsed, it's to the stirring poetry of 'Up yours, alien assholes!' Think back to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with its furtive, creeping takeover of a small town, its citizenry reduced to empty, soulless husks: a metaphor for McCarthyite control or stultifying 1950s conformity, supposedly. There are no metaphors or subtexts here. The striking thing about this picture is its lack of genuine human impulse; machines and effects are all. Who needs an invasion? The husks are already here. In Hollywood at least, the bodysnatchers have taken over.
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