Original US release date: July 3, 1996
Production budget: $75,000,000
Worldwide gross: $817,400,891
Will Smith was once known as the king of the Independence Day weekend and it all started here, with Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day. Released around the world in the middle of the week to coincide with the dates on which the film, itself, occurs (July 2-4, 1996), the film was a massive success and broke multiple box office records on its way to a worldwide total topping $800 million, more than ten times its production budget. The movie launched the movie career of Smith into the stratosphere, cemented Jeff Goldblum’s status as a geek icon, and gave added career boosts to other stars, such as Bill Pullman and Vivica A. Fox. But does financial success equate to creative success? Oftentimes, yes. But this time? Not in my opinion.
Here’s where I typically give a brief synopsis of the film’s premise. I can still do that, here, but it’s about as brief a synopsis as I’ve done, because the script is as simple as any I can recall. You likely already know this, but the film centers around a massive alien invasion of Earth in the days approaching Independence Day in 1996. That’s it. There’s really nothing more to it. In and of itself, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. How often have I said that it’s best to keep these genre films (sci-fi, comic book, horror, etc.) relatively simple whenever possible? Complex characters, themes, and subtext are fine; but the narratives should generally be pretty straightforward in order to achieve the optimal artistry-to-entertainment ratio.
My major issue with the film lies not in its structural simplicity, but rather in its narrative laziness. Director Emmerich co-wrote the script with Dean Devlin over the course of a brisk four weeks and I couldn’t be less impressed with Emmerich’s writing or directing on this film. While I’m not going to go so far as to qualify the script’s basic skeletal structure as “bad”, I will confidently describe it as pedestrian. It’s as if a thirteen-year-old was laying on their couch and decided they could write an alien invasion film and then proceeded to do so, using every predictable visual, obvious trope, and lackluster “twist” that they could spit out in about forty-five seconds. This is paint-by-numbers screenwriting at its most banal, with never a fresh idea to be found.
Consider this: the film’s only true memorable visual is the destruction of the White House – and that was plastered all over the marketing, burning it into the public consciousness weeks or months before the film ever saw release. Without the omnipresent marketing campaign, would even that moment be strongly associated with this movie? Beyond that, we got uneventful explosions, conventional creature designs, tired spaceships, boring gun-play, and lots of aircraft action that could have happened in any war film – even if it had nothing to do with aliens, at all. The script builds up this massive extraterrestrial invasion and then goes to great lengths to avoid direct interaction between the humans and the aliens, restricting their face-to-face contact to only a few brief instances. How many of you even remember what these aliens look like without looking them up?
The film does a little better when it comes to its characters, but that’s mostly because of the talented cast. Not everyone makes it out alive, including some of the bigger names, and that’s a credit to the film because at least it possesses true stakes. But the viewer wants the characters to survive because the cast makes them genuinely endearing and unique to each other. They aren’t especially unique when compared to other characters these actors have played, though. Will Smith is Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum is Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman is Bill Pullman, and so on. But much of the dialogue was improvised so, if nothing else, the actors were able to inject their own creative voices into these roles and give audiences the best versions of themselves that they could muster. Even if every single one of them were typecast and given cookie-cutter archetypes to portray (and they essentially were given just that), they all did their best to make them entertaining and compelling. The cast was the saving grace of Independence Day.
Despite all of that, audiences responded and the film was one of the most successful in history, at the time. Perhaps it was just due to the overwhelming marketing campaign and the curiosity generated by the image of the White House being obliterated that got people into their local theaters. I went on opening night after being asked by a friend and, while I didn’t outright dislike the film, I walked out feeling underwhelmed. I wanted unpredictability and surprises, both in terms of the action and the story. But I got none of that. Neither did anyone else, yet they inexplicably kept going back for more. So, again, I have to roll my eyes whenever I hear anyone (I repeat, falsely) bemoan the so-called lack of originality in Hollywood. This is the least-original blockbuster film ever made and it did big business. I’ve said it before (and to great success in this column – still one of my most-read to date) and I’ll keep on saying it: general audiences hate originality. Let’s stop pretending otherwise.
My personal misgivings aside, I suppose the film is considered a modern sci-fi classic (is it still modern? It feels modern to me.). Yet, something to consider is that the film’s goodwill with audiences clearly didn’t persevere, as the 2016 sequel (which I reviewed here) flopped, coming approximately $30 million or so short of breaking even and making less than half of this original film’s worldwide box office . . . twenty years later. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the franchise. Funnily enough, I preferred that sequel to this original, as it provided some of the outside-the-box thinking and exciting and inventive action sequences that this film so sorely lacked. But none of that matters. The end has likely come for this series that, once upon a time, with the right timing, might have been unstoppable. Looking back now, if you were to ask me (and I’ll pretend you are), I would say that the legacy of Independence Day is that of a subpar film that launched one career, buoyed a few others, and revealed a lot about casual moviegoers, for better or for worse. No, no, wait. Just for worse on that one. I guess a place in infamy is better than no place, at all.
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