RECAP: Independence Day

Independence Day (1996): Roland Emmerich

Today, we celebrate, Independence Day, not because it is a good movie, but because it is an AWESOME movie. Director Roland Emmerich has given us hits and misses, but the 1996 popcorn flick about an alien invasion starred Will Smith at the height of his powers and Jeff Goldblum at the apex of his, er, Goldblumness. Every eight-year-old boy’s fantasies of alien invasions were brought to the screen in theaters that July.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Belligerent space aliens are “welcomed” to Earth. 

Hero (8/10)

Will Smith plays Captain Steven Hiller of the United States Marine Corps. If you thought that, in playing a US Marine, Smith might tamp down the silly playfulness that made him a star, you’d be wrong. Fortunately for viewers, Hiller spends little time in a normal combat situation.

Hiller is a pilot, so he lives on the edge. He’s also busy wooing Vivica A. Fox and her young son. He is going to pop the question, complete with dolphin-encircled diamond engagement ring. There’s just one problem, as his friend points out, NASA will never let him fly the space shuttle if he marries a stripper.

Such a denial is what Hiller receives before the aliens attack. Luckily for him, he will end up in Area 51 and fly an alien spaceship without any training at all. And he’s great at it, once he figures out that the alien ship has controls reversed from human ships. He’s got it, no problem.

After Hiller crashes in the desert canyon following his dogfight with an alien fighter, Smith unleashes his full powers. He yells, grunts, yowls, and taunts as charmingly as anyone ever did it. Smith’s best scene occurs after he has nearly shattered his legs in a parachute landing. He yells, “That’s right!” and “Wait till I get me another plane,” as he approaches a wrecked enemy fighter.

He somehow opens the hatch and gets this sneer on his face like “Ugh,” and the alien pops out in all its tentacular menace. Hiller punches him and says, “Welcome to Earth.” That’s a canon line for Smith’s career. Then he follows it up with “That’s what I call a close encounter.” Perfect. Two perfect lines back to back.

Hiller’s chief skill might be managing the nebbish David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) as the former flies the Trojan Spaceship to the alien mothership. Levinson gets motion sickness on Air Force One, so an exit velocity coupled by zero gravity won’t do much good to his insides. And they’ll probably die, but Hiller’s confidence is unshakable.

The captain manages to squeeze in a quickie wedding to Jazmine in Area 51. He’s a winning pilot with a saint’s heart and some great lines to back it all up.

Villain (7/10)

A huge mothership approaches Earth. At first, scientists wonder if this is some giant space object set to destroy the planet. The last time a huge space rock chipped off part of our planet we got a moon out of it.

Soon the powers that be on Earth learn something about the space object that chills them–it’s slowing down.

The aliens attack Earth for apparently no reason. They know which of our cities are largest and most important, and they even know which buildings to symbolically target.

The 36 mini ships that have broken from the mothership park above our cultural landmarks and wait for the signal to countdown to zero. And when it does–BANG.

It is not until the president reaches Area 51 that we learn the enemy’s plan. President Whitmore telepathically communicates with one, interrogating it, learning the history of the species.

The aliens are like locusts, hopping from world to world, sucking up all the natural resources. I don’t buy it. I think they just wanted to kill humans, for sport, and that makes them very scary.

The aliens wear huge exosuits to protect them from the Earth’s atmosphere. These suits make them appear as if their heads are shaped wide and mostly flat, like their ships. Humans should start designing space craft based on our anatomy. Oh wait, we already do. What’s more phallic than a giant tan cylinder of fuel?

The aliens possess technology is far superior to humanity’s. They’ve traveled unknown distances. They use our satellites to communicate. Their ships have force fields. But they can’t out-engineer a computer virus.

Independence Day‘s aliens are unmatched in malice. We see them little, and their only designs are total annihilation of Earth’s sentient species. Like horror movies, the filmmakers understood than fear lies in not knowing.

Action/Effects (9/10)

July 2: The aliens position their incomprehensibly sized ships above the world’s great cities. Thirty-six craft engulf the skies above New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, London, Moscow, New Delhi, Berlin, and other cities not named and less significant to an international audience.

When the satellite signal Levinson found expires, the ships open their doors and evoke the Death Star by generating an energy pulse from eight constituent parts. The blasts create an expanding circle of flame that kills millions in seconds.

The Statue of Liberty collapses, the White House explodes, and the tunnels of Los Angeles burn. It’s like Planet of the Apes, Daylight, and White House Down around the world.

The explosion scene lasted several minutes and with barely any dialogue. The unstoppable fire walls (the bad kind) were enough to sustain the drama.

July 3: America’s Black Knights strike back. Dozens of F-14s and F-18s fly to attack the ship menacing Los Angeles. In a great screen-filling scene, each jet shoots a missile at the spaceship. They all detonate 107 meters from the target, illuminating the green shield that dominates the alien color palate.

The Marine Corps tries again with the same result. Then the aliens launch their fighters with their miniature shields. Why do these aliens bother with aircraft? They don’t need them, as long as they have the shields and the Death Star guns on their invasion craft.

The pilots are ordered to abort their mission, because, despite Hiller’s lament, they did shoot that green shit at them, and a lot. We assume the aliens have much more ammo, as if their lasers are like the bullets on the jets, but packing the power of the missiles.

Hiller and his buddy Harry Connick, Jr. blow the scene with two bogeys on their tails. Harry dies pretty soon, because he made one too many jokes. But Hiller knows the best place to escape a foe is in a huge canyon.

In the unnamed canyon Hiller dodges falling rock and lasers, dishing out more quips than shots, gems like: “Hope you got an airbag,” and “You can’t hit nothing,” before he ejects at the canyon rim.

The explosion and parachute block the alien vision and cause the bogey to crash. Hiller, who smashes the ground like a rag doll, taunts the alien all the way to its ship. He opens the hatch, watches an nasty face with Ramen arms pop out, punches it, and says, “Welcome to Earth.”

Independence Day hinged on terrific effects. Aliens have many times before invaded Earth and smothered its cities. In 1996 they did again, but the CGI people really got the ships right. The 15-mile behemoths covered the skies, and were always menacing and present. Twenty years later they still intimidate.

Sidekicks (5/8)

Jeff Goldblum plays David Levinson, an MIT grad who works for a cable company and beats his father at chess. He is every bit as important as Will Smith’s character, but Smith got first billing so Goldblum goes here.

Levinson discovers the alien countdown signal embedded in Earth’s orbital satellites and begs his father to drive them both from New York to Washington to warn his ex-wife of his discovery. Levinson is a bit full of himself, because he believes he’s the only person to know about the signal. It turns out that he’s right, and probably not for the last time.


Levinson loves to recycle and rides his bike to work. He cares deeply for the planet, so the alien invasion offends him to his core.

In Area 51, Levinson cooks up the computer virus that will convince the alien ships to drop there menacing green shields. After only one try at writing the code, it works.

Could hackers today do this? Wouldn’t they need to know the alien operating system? In 1996, no one, including the screenwriters, understood coding enough to ask these sorts of questions.

Levinson volunteers for the final mission with Hiller to upload his virus into alien mainframe. Such an idea is so insane that they would never imagine the humans would do it, despite knowing so much about our societies.


Any huge world-beating film like Independence Day will be full of supporting characters. I’ll just mention a couple of the most important ones.

Russell Casse (Randy Quaid) is a crop duster living in California’s Imperial Valley. Living might not be the best word. Enduring, as a drunk, a guy who fought in Vietnam and was abducted by the same aliens currently invading the Earth.

Casse is hardly the man to obstruct them, since he can’t even dust the right fields. He might be the world’s only drunk to sober up AFTER the aliens arrive. He goes from zero to hero, taking out the first alien invasion ship above Area 51.

Fox’s Jasmine Dubrow is a stripper with a good head on her shoulders, and proud of her job. When not talking colleagues out of alien welcome parties, she’s rescuing the First Lady.

Both Dubrow and Hiller think the other dead halfway through the movie, but Jasmine’s a survivor. She commandeers a large red truck to ferry around survivors and drives to El Toro, which was destroyed while she wasn’t looking. She also loves dolphins, and is gonna just LOOOOVE that dolphin engagement ring Hiller got her.

Dr. Okun is a big weirdo who isn’t “let out much.” He gets a mention for great hair and being played by Data from Star Trek.

Except for Fox, the lesser sidekicks annoyed me. It’s hard to say why. I’m not crazy about Quaid, making a drunk Quaid worse. They are dragging Goldblum down, but don’t we all?

Henchmen (0/8)

The aliens show up with no warning and want humans to do one thing for them. Die. They don’t need any help from lesser beings, because they are all equally bad.

Stunts (1/6)

Most of the fighting occurs in the CGI labs. The fireballs are obviously CGI and the humans escaping them clearly escape on a green screen. I’ll throw in a pity point.

Climax (4/6)

July 4: It’s been a long two days for Earth. But there’s a plan. The president’s gonna lead a fighter formation, America’s last, toward the megaship on its way to blast Area 51 and the remainder of the American government and military leadership.

They will coordinate the strike with the virus upload in the mothership. If all this sounds insane, it is. But these are desperate people at the end of their capacity to fight. Before the attack launches, US military capabilities are down to 15%, so the rest of the world is hurting a lot worse.

The two heroes fly into space. The mothership brings it in on tractor beam. So far, so good.

Hiller and Levinson reach the central hub in the green air inside the ship. Those aliens love that green motif. It’s their only color. Two things stand out about the ship: it has enormous interiors and is foggy, like they need to turn down the thermostat.

The virus upload works easily. Nothing in the movie is more shocking than this. What kind of OS do the aliens use? What if they don’t use binary? We know David is world class in deciphering, and presumably enciphering, codes, but the mothership virus upload must be outside his wheelhouse.

Hey, I’m no programmer. Perhaps a virus is easy enough to make if all you want is chaos or to induce hosts to drop their firewalls. Of course, the movie premiered in 1996, so maybe five people in Hollywood had any idea what programmers did and none of them worked on Independence Day.

The aliens say nothing to the humans, but they are unable to speak, as we learned earlier, and must communicate telepathically. Don’t they know then that there are no aliens in the ship? Perhaps, if they do, they want to see what humans are crazy enough to fly the ship into the heart of the enemy, but that idea is not pursued.

Back on Earth, the president tries to shoot the alien battleship. His first shot connects with the shield. Everyone is ordered back, but the president wants another go of it, and he tries again. The missile, or “fox,” connects with the ship. Humans are back in business! In seconds, dozens of missiles streak toward history’s biggest and easiest turkey shoot.

The alien fighters stream toward the F-18s, and the humans shoot them down with some skill. Problem is, they are running out of missiles because the battleship is far too large to destroy with sidewinders. They need lions, not foxes. Also, the alien fighter craft are lasering up the RVs parked at Area 51.

Back in space, Hiller and Levinson are exposed for the humans they are. The virus worked, but they can’t get out. Their plan? Shoot the nuke strapped beneath them and hope they are let go.

Back on Earth, President Whitmore tries his last missile against the primary weapon preparing to annihilate Area 51. His shot hits an outer edge and affects nothing.

Whitmore’s wingman says, “I’m on it,” and is shot down so fast as to be comical, as that character never appeared before that moment. He was the most disposable character in a film in which millions of people died.

The missiles are all gone, except for one belonging to Russell Casse’s jet. He tries to fire his last missile, but it’s jammed. Then he delivers the most heartfelt moment of the movie.

Casse asks the Air Force to tell his kids, “Tell them I love them very much.” Then he flies his jet right into the assembling laser, crashing into the battleship at the precise moment the laser fires. A chain reaction starts which destroys the entire ship. Piece o’ cake.

Back in space, “Checkmate,” Levinson says. The fat lady is singing, but it ain’t their tune. So Hiller and Levinson light their cigars and shoot the nuke. They are set loose and scream their way out of the mothership. The nuke detonates and the screen goes white. Did they survive?

Around the world, battleships are going down beside iconic monuments, so you know where they are. Everyone’s happy, but what about the two “delivery boys?” Cue the radar guy, the drive to the desert, and an all-time cocky walk from the irradiated heroes.

We were promised fireworks. We got ’em.

Jokes (4/4)

When you cast Will Smith, just out of Fresh Prince, and Jeff Goldblum, just being himself, your movie better have good lines. And this one does.

Judd Hirsch plays Goldblum’s father. Randy Quaid is in there. Emmerich and company knew that the best way to play to a huge audience was to give them a little levity with their preposterous invasions. Or, better yet, a little Levinson.

Jews get star treatment in Independence Day. Hirsch plays practicing Jew Julius Levinson. His son has relapsed, but the guilt and nervous ticks remain. We’re talking about Jeff Goldblum, after all.

Elder Levinson is full of fatherly rambles. He talks to his ex-daughter-in-law about why her marriage to his son broke up. She says that love was never the problem. He says, “All you need is love. John Lennon. Smart man. Shot in the back, very sad.” Later, when he leads a prayer circle and invites a Gentile to join, the Gentile says, “I’m not Jewish.” Levinson answers, “Nobody’s perfect.

Jeff Goldblum was one of America’s most endearing weirdo in the mid ’90s. He was funny in the way you have to see. His tics and quirks made him a unique piece of performance comedy.

David Levinson says to Hiller at movie’s end, “Forget the fat lady. You’re obsessed with the fat lady. Just get us out of here.”

But you came to see Smith whoop alien ass (if they have asses). Hiller shoots as many zingers as missiles. “Elvis has left the building!” “Your dreadlocks hanging out.” “Welcome to Earth.” “That’s what I call a close encounter.”

These lines might not read funny, and they might come off corny, but Smith makes them work. He didn’t open eight straight number one movies without the charisma to pull off those lines.

Setting (2/4)

One fun thing about world-beating movies like this one are the crazy places all the characters travel. Los Angeles, New York, and Washington are the first three places we see, and also the locations of the three primary players.

Those cities are great, and exactly why the aliens targeted them. But they don’t simply stop at the fringes. The alien ships plop their big ray guns right over the most famous landmarks of the cities.

Contrast the population centers to the desert bases. El Toro is the base of Steven Hiller. Area 51 is the launch point of the final invasion. Hiller drags an alien conquest through the white deserts of…say…Death Valley? It’s hard to say. He comes across an RV convoy there. The deserts shine, and offer a vision of Earth’s bleak future, should humans not defeat the aliens.

Commentary (0/2)

America saves the world again. (Shoulder shrug). America’s enormous military strength could find a way to defeat the aliens. If the aliens are the fire, America has most of the water to douse the flames.

Still, the movie has nothing to say about the society it nearly destroys, beyond “We all must come together to save ourselves.” That’s too general and bland a statement.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Nothing too bad here. Consider that the movie has a stripper as a prominent character and allows her dignity. She survives the attacks, unlike the First Lady. Interesting.


  • Goldblum’s freakout when he starts trashing the planet is funny in a Goldblum way.
  • No such thing as bad publicity: Shoot the Coke can.
  • Bill Pullman’s speech on July 4 is well liked, but something about the cadence of his voice doesn’t rile me up.
  • President Whitmore says, “I’m a combat pilot. I belong in the air.” That’s true, but the vice president and cabinet are dead. Who is next in line if he dies? No mention is made of the Speaker of the House, so that’s reassuring only in its omission. Heroic gesture, president, but think of the consequences.
  • (-1) Act III has too much buildup to the final attack scene. Jasmine and Steve marry, they gather some pilots, David says goodbye to his ex and father. It’s too long.

Summary (39/68): 57%

Independence Day was the highest grossing movie of 1996. It was such a smash that only two other movies even reached half its box office total.

The combination of cock-sure Will Smith and skittish Jeff Goldblum worked perfectly for the cosmically silly situations the script forced upon them. They brought the exact right amount of levity to the role, and certainly provided the a huge box office boost. The movie’s most shocking aspect? It took 20 years to give us a sequel.