Independence Day: Better or Worse Than You Remember?

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Looking back at the original 20-years later, on the eve of its sequel’s release.

The fact that Hollywood continues to bring franchises back from the dead after decades is a source of great ire for many fans. For us, it’s an excuse to look back at the original and ask the most important question of all: is it any good, or were we simply too young to be discerning? We asked the same question in January about James Cameron’s Avatar.

This week, with Independence Day: Resurgence hitting theaters without screening in advance for press, we’ve got some extra time on our hands. So we’re holding our first ever FSR Slack Chat. We’ve gathered a panel of our own contributors to discuss the merits of 1996’s highest grossing, Oscar-winning alien invasion film 20-years later, on the eve of its sequel’s release.

Neil Miller: When it hits theaters this coming weekend, Independence Day: Resurgence will be the next in a long line of Legacyquels: sequels that have come decades after the original. In the world of 1996, Independence Day was the biggest, baddest movie on the block. Not only was it the highest grossing film of 1996 – raking in $817 million worldwide – it went on to win an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. It was both the pinnacle of 1996’s blockbusters and its visual innovation. In trying to determine whether or not it’s actually a good movie, that seems like a fine place to start. So let’s begin with the way it looks: how well do the visual effects of Independence Day hold up 20 years later?

Max Covill: The physical aliens? Not so much. Although the explosion of the White House is still an iconic shot.

Neil Miller: Having just rewatched it this week, I love the look of those physical aliens. Especially during the dissection scene and in the tubes that are being inspected by President Handsome and his advisers. The tentacles were a weird touch, but without them we might not get one of the film’s more iconic lines in which Will Smith bemoans the fact that the aliens dreads are hanging out the back of his parachute. One thing I did notice in my rewatch: the compositing of the alien ships above the cities during the initial invasion looks hilariously incongruous by today’s standards.

Jamie Righetti: I agree, the White House shot is still pretty iconic. But the film is pretty dated from an SFX standpoint. During Will Smith’s canyon chase scene I kept thinking it didn’t even stand up to the original Star Wars. And the aliens kinda look like pale Predator/Xenomorphs hybrids. And the spaceships look like spray-painted styrofoam. But I can respect the Oscar win. It was certainly a huge achievement in its time.

Neil Miller: And Star Wars was 20 years before ID4. Then again, do you think there are people for which ID4 is a Star Wars-level memory from their childhood? It’s certainly one of my big ones. I was 13 at the time.

Jamie Righetti: Definitely, I was the same age and I remember this being THE film to see. And I remember being excited in the theater. But I also remember being excited to see Batman and Robin at that age so it’s a mixed bag.

Max Covill: There were few movies as big as ID4 in 1996. Especially ones that had the “must-see” hype around them. It can be argued that ID4, along with Twister and Mission: Impossible, really started the trend of summer blockbusters. At least how we currently view them today. As for my experience with ID4, it was the film all my friends were talking about. Being 10 at the time, the film made a very strong and frightening impression on me. I can see people having strong nostalgic feelings for it a la Star Wars and that is perhaps the biggest reason we are getting a sequel.

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Neil Miller: I’m interested in this idea of “the trend of summer blockbuster as we view them today.” What do you mean by that?

Max Covill: It was mentioned on Flavorwire, that this time was a change in how studios promoted movies. Pick a date, add in a killer trailer, and then market it to excess. Every studio wants a tentpole these days, so much so, that every feature that comes out has to hit that target or it is considered a failure.

Jamie Righetti: This film really does check all the boxes: big stars, explosions, underdogs achieving the impossible, the rousing speech that name drops the title. One thing that interests me is have these types of blockbusters changed post-9/11? Upon re-watching I wondered if we would see the casualties the way we do in the earlier part of this movie. I feel like a lot of films now have tidied this up a bit.

Jacob Oller: There’s still a lot of explosions in highly populated zones, but rarely in America. The Avengers movies (and Captain America: Civil War) made a meta-stink about this when aliens and superheroes blew up New York. But in something like Battleship, a similarly sloppy military rah-rah film but post-9/11, the major attack happens in Hong Kong. There’s no way we’d let the First Lady be this seriously injured and then die just for a plot point. Our movie presidents are gun-toting action heroes now a la London Has Fallen.

Jamie Righetti: Definitely true, but I feel like even in Avengers you don’t see civilian casualties like we see in this film, we just see explosions. But good point about the First Lady.

Max Covill: Every disaster movie before 9/11 had to have a scene where the World Trade Center suffered some kind of massive damage. New York is mostly avoided in modern day disaster films or if they must attack New York, it is by a giant alien like Watchmen.

Christopher Campbell: In the words of Albert Nimzicki, “That’s not entirely accurate.” The latest being X-Men: Apocalypse. I’ll admit that I was 19 when this movie came out so I have no childhood affection for it. There was really only one thing I liked back then: Randy Quaid. I still like him now, but maybe a little bit less (and why does Spiner play a second Randy Quaid in a movie with Randy Quaid already in it?). The one stand out I have to acknowledge now is Will Smith. It’s easy to see why he shot to stardom with this. I think it might even be his best blockbuster performance. He’s never obnoxiously cocky. It’s hard to even see how this guy was still the Fresh Prince goofball just a couple months earlier.

It took me a while to get into the movie this time around, but I’m into the spread out narratives going on for a while. Smith’s bit with Connick Jr. (who I really thought lived longer), all the stuff with Quaid and his kids, which is such a strange little ensemble of characters within this movie. Quaid’s drunk aside, the rest of them are unrecognizable as far as movie character stereotypes go, especially compared to all the walking cliches abound in the film. I kind of wish all the different groups didn’t converge as they do, because that’s where and when too many characters get lost in the more plot-focused third act.

If anyone became turned onto James Duvall and then ’90s Gregg Araki movies thanks to ID4 than the whole thing was worth existing. (By the way, look on IMDb at how many movies that guy still does these days.)

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Neil Miller: Is Randy Quaid coming back for the sequel? Or has he been institutionalized?

Jamie Righetti: Is it lame that I’m excited Judd Hirsch is back for the sequel?

Christopher Campbell: I couldn’t stand him in my re-watch. Hirsch that is. Quaid was fine.

Max Covill: Out of all the characters coming back for the new film, I was most surprised to see the area 51 doctor played by Brent Spiner. They do everything outside of burying him during ID4, but yet he is still alive for the sequel.

Christopher Campbell: And yet they couldn’t bring back Mae Whitman (but did bring back her character). I haven’t seen Resurgence yet but after my re-watch I’m more shocked and disappointed they bothered to make a sequel without Smith.

Neil Miller: Will Smith is really the key to everything in that original, isn’t he? At the time, he was just starting to break out of his Fresh Prince box and get into serious blockbuster territory, having starred in Bad Boys a year earlier. Looking back at ID4, it’s hard to imagine it’s as quotable or charming without him. Despite being perpetually misquoted – her really did articulate “Welcome to Earth” perfectly – Smith is half of the heart of this movie alongside Jeff Goldblum. It’s another notch in Independence Day’s legacy belt: it really was the movie that allowed for the Will Smith takeover of summer blockbusters. In the six years that followed ID4, Smith would dominate July 4th weekend 3 separate times – inasmuch as Wild Wild West could dominate anything.

Jamie Righetti: I’m surprised about the Area 51 doctor. But yeah, can we talk about Will Smith? I couldn’t remember the film so I assumed he died but he doesn’t. So I guess he didn’t want to do the sequel? The trailer implies he died.

Christopher Campbell: I always forget he did Bad Boys first, but I also don’t remember that movie being a big hit or as much of a breakthrough star-wise as this.

Jacob Oller: He probably rewatched the first movie. Smith is so much better than every other part of this film, it’s no wonder that Men in Black milked the same basic character. This was also a much whiter film (if I remember correctly) than Bad Boys, though I remember thinking that ID4 looked like Michael Bay’s “Directing For Dummies”.

Max Covill: I have to side with Neil that Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum were the heart and soul of ID4. It was their chemistry together that brings many of ID4’s most memorable sequences.

Christopher Campbell: Bad Boys also had Tea Leoni, who has historically been box office poison. I don’t think Smith is anything like his MIB character here or many others. He’s not a newcomer to anything, neither his goofy novice nor his cocky know-it-all. It’s so interesting that Harry Connick is the goofy one in their pairing. Smith here shows he could have been mr. serious action star rather than comedic action star. It’s like Chris Pratt in Jurassic World. But I’d rather Smith do that than Pratt.

Jacob Oller: Connick is a blight and Smith is dripping with swagger. Both Smith roles are funny action hero though, more Die Hard than Taken. The difference is that in MiB, there’s the recognition that Smith’s jokes – which he has a ton of in ID4 – do even better bouncing off of a grump. Smith’s funniest moments in ID4 are when he’s acting against a silent alien in the middle of the desert.

Christopher Campbell: I’ll agree he has swagger, and he offers the movie as much humor as it’s interested in, but it’s still very different from the Smith star persona he went with afterward.

Neil Miller: Alright, so we’ve got peak Will Smith, peak handsome Jeff Goldblum, effects that were ahead of its time (but still slightly behind Star Wars), and a movie that scored a 61% on Rotten Tomatoes, a 59 on Metacritic, a 6.9/10 IMDB user rating. The evidence says this is an above-average movie. Perhaps even a “good” movie. But here’s a better question: where does Independence Day rank among the great summer blockbusters of all-time? Surely that list is topped by Star Wars, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Raiders, Empire, and Alien. Does ID4 get into the Top 10? Top 15?

Christopher Campbell: I doubt it’d be in my top 20. But I was surprised that I didn’t dislike it as much as expected this time around. Once Harvey Fierstein died my groaning decreased substantially.

Neil Miller: He let his lawyer die! (So did Jurassic Park, for the record. Spoiler alert.)

Christopher Campbell: But I am kind of surprised about how significant this movie became outside of just being a crowd pleasing good time for its time. It’s really not good enough for that. But I also don’t think Jurassic Park deserves its legacy either, so I just hate blockbusters of the 1990s.

Neil Miller: And with that, Chris has been ejected from this chat. Bye, Chris!

Christopher Campbell: To me, both movies are more about the effects achievements than anything else. And both have a lot of shots of people staring at something in amazement. Spielberg is a far better director, at least. And I think the way ID4 ends, as implausible as the details are, is much more satisfying than the climactic T-Rex-Machina of Jurassic Park.

Max Covill: Most blockbusters can be judged solely by the basis of their special effects achievements. I mean just look at Avatar.

Christopher Campbell: Right, and I guess for ID4 as well as Avatar many people are kinda like we don’t need a sequel. This was fun when it came out, but it’s no Star Wars saga.

Max Covill: As for whether or not ID4 has legendary status…I’m not so sure. I think plenty of people hold it in higher regards than it deserves, whether it be 90s nostalgia or the aforementioned combination of Smith/Goldblum. I believe most people revisiting ID4 in anticipation of the sequel will find that it just doesn’t hold up.

Christopher Campbell: ID:R should be a comic book, the barest of effort to just show the curious fans what happened since the 1996 events. ID4 isn’t even the best alien invasion movie of the summer of 1996. But I don’t want to harp on the negative, because again I did enjoy the first one upon re-watch.

Jamie Righetti: I have to agree with Chris and Max, I found ID4 didn’t hold up and it was difficult to get through upon rewatching. Even the Smith/Goldblum combo isn’t enough really, it’s actually fairly short compared to the entire film. So I don’t think it should be included in that Top 10 list either.

Christopher Campbell: Yeah the praise for Smith/Goldblum chemistry above seemed weird to me considering how brief it is. I guess it’s notable that it’s so good that it seems like more and also manages to keep us enjoying a section of the movie that doesn’t make a lot of sense. But that’s them separately up until then, as well.

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Jamie Righetti: But if that’s one of the top selling points of the original, this doesn’t bode well for ID:R.

Christopher Campbell: I think they really are overselling Goldblum as the reason to come back. Not that he isn’t but he can’t be the only thing.

Jamie Righetti: But will he have the same chemistry with the off brand Hemsworth? I doubt it.

Christopher Campbell: The new movie doesn’t look to me to have that same scattered narratives dynamic of the original that I love, even if some of those narratives and their characters aren’t all great. To go in another direction a bit, one thing I thought about while re-watching ID4 is how it really keeps the aliens as villains, to the point that there’s no background or personality let alone empathy for them whatsoever. And that was sort of rare for that time. There’s a minor mention of how they’re sweeping planets for resources, which for uber liberal Emmerich would seem to be a bigger point of interest as an ironic take on the Americans (and West) getting what they deserve. It’s a theme much more pertinent in the same year’s The Arrival. And in general around that time, and in 1996 especially, we had a lot of villains who were made to seem somewhat just in their motives. Not here. It’s all rah rah patriotism against the foreigners.

Jamie Righetti: Although, patriotism that unites the world against the invasion. Admittedly, we see very little of this compared to the Americans.

Max Covill: I think the recently released extended edition showcases some of the other countries getting involved in the war. Although there is still little mention about their effort to defeat the alien threat.

Neil Miller: Let’s close with a quick poll of our panel: Following your rewatch, is Independence Day better or worse than you remember?

Christopher Campbell: I’d say that except for all the crazy flash cuts in the first act (which thankfully go away), much better. I was not a fan 20 years ago but could now appreciate certain elements as they should be.

Max Covill: ID4 is a little worse than I remember. Perhaps it was (for the time) the cutting edge special effects or Will Smith’s swagger, but I was much more enamored with it 20 years ago. Against other films of the mid-90s it is a success, but doesn’t fair as well today.

Jacob Oller: I’d never seen it before so it was worse than its legendary legacy had led me to believe.

Jamie Righetti: It’s certainly not one of the worst films I’ve seen but it didn’t match my memory either. So worse I suppose but I feel even that is a bit harsh to say.

Neil Miller: It’s nostalgic armor is a little worse for wear, but there’s no denying that ID4 is still a behemoth. It’s brilliance is in the less-robust elements – its charming cast, quotability, and effects craftiness. We remember the shot of the White House blowing up, but it’s Will Smith’s tirade about how he’d rather be at a BBQ that makes it work.

Tell us what you think about Independence Day in the Responses area below. Do you think it lives up to its legacy 20-years later?

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