“INDEPENDENCE DAY” (1996) Review

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“INDEPENDENCE DAY” (1996) Review

For six to seven years during the 1990s, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin were a very successful production team that created at least four successful movies. One of those movies was the 1996 blockbuster, “INDEPENDENCE DAY”

Written by Emmerich and Devlin, “INDEPENDENCE DAY” is a high octane, special-effects flick about a disparate group of people who struggle to survive a deadly alien invasion of Earth during the Fourth of July weekend. The story begins in three different areas – Washington D.C., New York City and Southern California. Following the aliens’ initial attack during the evening of July 2, the main characters flee as far as possible from the three areas and eventually converge upon an U.S. Air Force base in Nevada . . . known as “Area 51”.

The story begins during the early hours of July 2, when an alien mothership enters Earth’s orbit and sends several dozen “destroyer” spacecraft to some of Earth’s major cities. At first, President Thomas J. Whitmore and his staff are perplexed by the reason for the aliens’ arrival. So are other citizens – including U.S. Marine pilot Steven Hiller and his girlfriend Jasmine Dubrow. Realizing that he might be forced to put his holiday weekend on hold, Steven returns to the Marine Air Base at El Toro, California, to await further orders. An alcoholic crop duster and Vietnam War pilot named Russell Casse claims that he had been an alien abductee, ten years ago; and believes the aliens are back to take him for good. But David Levinson, a satellite technician and former MIT graduate, who works for a New York City cable company, discovers hidden satellite transmissions, revealing the aliens’ plans for a coordinated attack upon targeted cities. He and his father, Julius Levinson, head to Washington D.C. to warn David’s ex-wife, Constance Spano, who works as Whitmore’s Communications Director and the President. The latter orders large-scale evacuations of the cities, but the aliens attack before any evacuations can take place.

The following day, President Whitmore orders air strikes against the alien spacecrafts hovering over the cities that had been attacked. One of those air strikes are conducted by the Black Knights, a squadron of Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornets led by Steven Hiller, against the spacecraft over Los Angeles. The strike ends in failure, leaving Steven as the sole survivor of his squadron. After leading a single alien fighter to crash into the desert, Steven subdues and captures the injured fighter. During his trek across the desert, he encounters a large group of recreational vehicles fleeing the Pacific Coast and led by Russell Casse. Steven guide them toward the Air Force base known as “Area 51”. Meanwhile, Jasmine and her son Dylan survive the July 2 attack and spend the following day picking up Los Angeles survivors in a fire truck. They eventually come across the seriously wounded First Lady, Mrs. Whitmore, before heading for the devastated El Toro Air Station. Upon learning about the existence of “Area 51” from his annoying Secretary of Defense, Whitmore orders Air Force One to head for Nevada.

I will be the first to admit that I enjoyed “INDEPENDENCE DAY” a lot. For me, it seems like the epitome of the summer blockbuster film from the 1980s and 90s. When it comes to alien invasion movies, I am usually 50/50 on the genre. Thankfully,“INDEPENDENCE DAY” is one of my favorite alien invasion film. Even after seventeen years. First of all, Emmerich and Devlin did a pretty good job in not only setting up the story’s premise, but also its characters. In fact, I am impressed at how they allowed small groups of people from New York City, Washington D.C. and the Los Angeles area converge upon an Air Force base in Nevada for the big showdown. I was even impressed at how Emmerich and Devlin found a very plausible way for the heroes to take down the aliens in the end . . . at least for those scientifically ignorant.

If there is one thing about “INDEPENDENCE DAY” that really impressed me were its visual effects supervised by the team of Volker Engel, Douglas Smith, Clay Pinney and Joe Viskocil. Their work seemed to have impressed the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, as well. The movie won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Here is an example of not only their work, but also the photography of Karl Walter Lindenlaub:

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I may like “INDEPENDENCE DAY” a lot. But I cannot deny that it is also flawed. The movie featured a good deal of the cliches usually found in an Emmerich/Devlin production – a divorced couple, an American family fractured by the death of one parent and the other’s alcoholism, a newer romance, cheesy dialogue (especially from minor characters), questionable science, an annoying government official, a head of state – friendly or otherwise and a noble scientist in one of the leads. The most annoying flaw in “INDEPENDENCE DAY” for me turned out to be the dialogue. Aside from a few memorable one-liners, a good deal of the movie’s dialogue struck me as so cheesy and turgid that at times I caught myself wincing . . . a lot. I also grew weary of the movie’s more than numerous references to President Whitmore’s background as a former Air Force fighter pilot during the first Iraqi War. I can only assume that Emmerich and Devlin were setting up the character to be seen leading the last air strike against one of the alien space. They simply overdid it. Speaking of that last air strike, I found it odd that I saw more volunteers who were former military pilots than any current military pilots . . . especially since the movie’s finale was set at the Air Force base in Nevada. And why did the U.S. military send only a squad of U.S. Marine pilots in the movie’s first half? The El Toro Air Station (which later closed) was not the only air military base in Southern California. Why not send Air Force fighter planes from Edwards Air Force Base, as well? The worst aspect of “INDEPENDENCE DAY” turned out to be the flat score composed by David Arnold. It is a good thing I found the movie’s plot and characters compelling enough to keep me alert. Arnold’s score struck me as so uninspiring that I found it hard to believe this is the same man who had composed some pretty decent scores for the James Bond franchise between 1997 and 2008.

It is a miracle that Devlin and Emmerich managed to gather an impressive cast for this movie. Although there were times when many of them struggled to overcome the pair’s turgid dialogue, they still managed to inject enough energy into their performances to be memorable. Will Smith solidified his position as a future Hollywood leading man in his lively portrayal of Marine pilot Captain Steven Hiller. The role of satellite programmer/scientist David Levinson would prove to be one of the last two leading performances by Jeff Goldblum in a movie. He also gave, in my opinion, one of the movie’s better performances. Bill Pullman did a pretty good job as Thomas Whitmore, the U.S. President forced to make some tough decision during the alien invasion. Although I found some of his dialogue rather cheesy, I must admit that I found Randy Quaid’s performance as the alcoholic Russell Casse very entertaining. Equally entertaining were Judd Hirsch as David’s blunt-speaking father, Julius; and Margaret Colin as David’s ex-wife and President Whitmore’s communications director Connie Spano. Harry Connick Jr.’s portrayal of Steven’s friend, Captain Jimmy Wilder amusing at times, even if he seemed to be chewing the scenery. And Adam Baldwin proved to be a stable element in the story, due to his solid performance as Major Mitchell, the U.S. Air Force officer stationed at “Area 51”.

But aside from Goldblum, the other four performances that really impressed me came from Robert Loggia, who portrayed Whitmore’s Chief of Staff, U.S. Marine General William Grey; Vivica A. Fox as Steven’s resilient girlfriend Justine Dubrow; James Rebhorn as Secretary of Defense Albert Nimzicki; and Brent Spinner as “Area 51″ scientist Dr. Brackish Okun. Loggia was even more of a rock as one of the few truly sane voices for Whitmore during the alien invasion. Fox seemed to be one of the few cast members capable of rising above Emmerich and Devlin’s cheesy dialogue. And for that, she earned my vote as one of the movie’s better performers. Rebhorn gave a very entertaining, yet subtle performance as Whitmore’s sniveling Secretary of Defense. I never knew that ass kissing could be so interesting to watch. Brent Spinner gave a very funny performance as a geeky”Area 51” scientist without resorting to any hammy acting.

I cannot deny that “INDEPENDENCE DAY” is a flawed movie. It has cheesy dialogue that still makes me wince. It also featured an extremely bland score by David Arnold and also some story elements by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin that struck me as recycled. But the movie featured a first-rate cast led by Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. And Emmerich and Devlin also created a very entertaining and effective story, making “INDEPENDENCE DAY” one of the better alien invasion movies I have ever seen, even after eighteen years.

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