Independence Day (1996). Film review of the sci-fi blockbuster starring Will Smith

Still from the film Independence Day

Science Fiction

image four star rating very good lots to enjoy

Film review by Jason Day of Independence Day, the 1996 science fiction blockbuster about hostile aliens who attacking the Earth. Starring Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum and directed by Roland Emmerich.

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1996 – in modern day America, normal life is interrupted by the appearance of huge, silent alien spacecraft that hover above strategic points at locations across the planet.

Scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) is the only person not perplexed by them and correctly guesses that their cryptic radio signals are a countdown, possibly to an attack.

He teams up with Air Force Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith) to use a long dormant space craft – captured decades ago during a failed alien mission – to fly into the heart of the mother ship and deliver a computer virus that will allow humanity to fight back and claim their independence.

Review, by @Reelreviewer

A countdown to what?

Marty Gilbert (Harvey Fierstein) in Independence Day (1996).

There are many things that age a movie. Production design, the type of mobile phones used, whether there is sound, but more than anything else, it has to be special effects.

I say more than anything else because generally, even in period movies that hark back to a past time, the special effects technology employed usually improves on the effects that reigned supreme during the preceding years.

It was watching Independence Day – recently aired on the UK’s Film 4 channel – that got me thinking about this. The special effects here knocked cinema audiences sideways when it was first released and no doubt contributed to its magnificent $800m+ worldwide box office gross.

Now, watching the film again, even though the thermonuclear, splitting asunder of the Empire State Building and White House are still crowd-pleasing moments, I find myself using the term I use to describe then-expensive SFX in archive cinema: “still impressive”.

But there’s something comparatively ‘basic’ about them, as if the buildings blown to smithereens are so obviously models, the explosions so obviously slowed down for impact, the camerawork not quite up to speed with what a 2020 cinema attendee – some hope! Thanks Covid! – is used to.

Another thing I noticed, that I paid hardly any credence to before, is how boringly male-centred it is. The women (Mary McDonnell as the wan and dull First Lady, Margaret Colin as Goldblum’s chilly, estranged wife and Vivica A. Fox as Smith’s stripper girlfriend) are so inconsequential they get in the way of the heroic fella’s burgeoning bromance.

Commendably, the action starts within seconds of the movie opening, with the shadow cast by the spaceships swallowing the moon and whole city blocks across the US. Director Roland Emmerich isn’t a man to let spinning UFO’s gather moss…or space dust.

The nonde-script writing could do with independence itself, but from the writers who penned it, not the aliens. Bill Pullman, as the President (described as a “wimp” by one TV pundit during the film) makes one of those ‘rousing’ speeches you only get in action or WWII films, modern day Elizabeth I/Armada guff.

But we ain’t in Tilbury and the cheesy words will make your stomach disgorge. As he proclaims US Independence Day as now a world celebration, it descends into hilarious filibustering flim-flam.

Goldblum is of course…Jeff Goldblum! He vaguely tries to interpret a character, but he’s barely distinguishable from other performances during this period (for instance, Jurassic Park).

Smith’s punk acting and cocky swagger is straight outta Bel Air, but he shows the fresh prince confidence of someone who would very soon conquer the world himself as a superstar.

Hirsch, as Goldblum’s wise and wisecracking Jewish Pa gets all the best lines. Leading a Jewish prayer as annihilation seems imminent, James Rebhorn’s sacked Defence Secretary states he is a gentile.

“Nobody’s perfect” is Hirsch’s response and everyone holds hands.

Cast & credits

Director: Roland Emmerich. 2 hrs 25 mins/245 mins. Twentieth Century Fox/Centropolis Entertainment. (12).

Producer: Dean Devlin.
Writers: Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich.
Camera: Karl Walter Lindenlaub.
Music: David Arnold.
Sets: Oliver Scholl, Patrick Tatopoulos.

Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, Randy Quaid, Margaret Colin, James Rebhorn, Harvey Fierstein, Adam Baldwin, Brent Spiner, James Duval, Vivica A. Fox.


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