When Independence Day opened on July 3, 1996, the excitement was palpable.
The movie delivered.
The hype train started nearly six months earlier when the first commercial debuted during the broadcast of the Super Bowl. Despite having no A-list stars, what got people talking — and thrilled — was the sight of the White House blowing up in spectacular fashion.
Audiences turned out that summer in droves — and in lines that looped around the block — to the tune of a $50.2 million holiday opening weekend on 2900 screens (for context: tentpoles today open on well over 4000 screens) with a cumulative gross of $306.2 million domestic and $817.4 million worldwide, making it the 2nd highest grossing film ever made at the time.
This was, of course, five years before the attacks of 9/11, a more innocent time when the prospect of such epic destruction of major institutional buildings and landmarks seemed as far-fetched as this movie’s sci-fi premise.
Consequently, what that White House explosion tapped into wasn’t some existential cultural zeitgeist. Rather, it was the “I didn’t know I needed that until I saw it” exhilaration for a then long-dormant style of ensemble movie: the disaster flick.
Boosting that thrill: the space alien War of the Worlds framework. Set on a massive global scale, it was the first would-be blockbuster in a generation that dared to match the space battle ambitions of the Star Wars saga, starting from the opening scene’s homage to A New Hope’s Star Destroyer entrance with an alien mothership appearing over the moon.
Indeed, for a certain generation (i.e. late-Gen Xers to early Millennials), Independence Day is the Ultimate Summer Movie. It’s their Star Wars. Going to it on opening night (which included long lines for a good seat), the feeling and energy was exactly the same.
And like Star Wars, it still holds up twenty-five years later.
Sure, it hasn’t inspired a studio to relaunch the ID4 IP on multiple platforms (nor will it) but, nevertheless, I’d wager that Independence Day may be better than you remember it (even, or perhaps especially, if you never really cared for it). In its time, it was certainly the closest thing to Star Wars in scope that anyone had seen, but where it truly exceled (and still does) is in being the perfect Disaster Movie.
A dead genre, the Disaster Movie was single-handedly resurrected by the Stargate producer/director team of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich. With ID4, they orchestrated the perfect execution of those genre tropes, from a big ensemble being perfectly cast from top to bottom (which included fighting for Will Smith who, as only a rapper turned sitcom star, the studio feared would kill the movie’s international box office), to Emmerich being able to balance that huge cast throughout the ambitious plot structure (something that’s way harder to do than it appears). Devlin and Emmerich made the nuts and bolts of this Summer Movie Machine run like clockwork.
As a testament to that, the first forty-five minutes of this two-and-a-half hour, three-act extravaganza is nothing but build up. Devoid of action, it steadily builds up characters, locations, and narratives while withholding anything resembling a special effects payoff. No tentpole would be allowed that kind of patience today, but it worked then (and now) because of how well-written and performed the characters were, relatively “stock” though they may be.
That holds true throughout the film as well, with a chemistry across the ensemble that most directors (and studios) can only dream of, punctuated by superb typecasting like Robert Loggia as the steady, seasoned general to against-type casting that allowed Brent Spiner to shed his Star Trek Commander Data stoicism for an enthusiastically eccentric scientist.
To put a fine point on it: it says something that, for a movie known primarily for its visual bombast, the most iconic moment of Independence Day remains Bill Pullman’s third act “call to arms” inspirational speech as President Whitmore.
In other words, it wasn’t simply the big budget pyrotechnics that made Independence Day a worldwide sensation. It was the characters and the cast that brought them to life.
If spectacle were enough, then Emmerich and Devlin would’ve followed ID4 with one blockbuster success after another, but they didn’t. Yes, they’ve enjoyed subsequent hits but none that have come close to the lighting they captured in 1996, which proves just how hard it is to do (including the twenty-years delayed sequel subtitled Resurgence, which quickly petered out at multiplexes).
Even so, it was the VFX spectacle that got people standing in lines in the first place, ones that looped around the block. It was worth the wait, too, even through the first act’s slow build. Why? Because the second act payoff alone was even bigger than most other movies’ third act finales.
And historically, ID4 is perhaps the last great example of optical wizardry (i.e. scaled models and real-world elements, all composited together) before digital effects finally took over. And they’re still better than digital, too; more tactile and real.
Twenty-five years later, Independence Day not only still satisfies but legitimately impresses, especially in its remastered form as seen in the “Special Edition Extended Version.” Longer by 10 minutes, the extra scenes peppered throughout are nominal (and therefore are easy to see why they were cut), but it’s the sharp, pristine visuals and boosted audio that makes the Special Edition the optimum viewing choice. That version appears as an extra to the original theatrical cut of the movie (which isn’t remastered) on HBO Max, so be sure to locate and choose that when streaming.
Independence Day provides a glorious throwback to late 20th Century blockbustering, one of the last to boast a more classic approach of glossy, colorfully framed images — created by cameras locked on tripods and/or guided smoothly on dollies and computerized tracking rigs, with each shot intentionally framed and considered — rather than the modern digital aesthetic of handheld “shooting for coverage” with action constructed via quick-cutting in post-production (not a pre-ordained storyboarded vision) that’s all eventually desaturated on a flat palette, as so many movies are today (Marvel’s MCU, most notoriously).
In short, big event studio movies looked better then than they do now. Sure, I’m nearly 50 years old and that remark makes me sound like I am, but I stand by it. And I offer up Independence Day as proof. Few of today’s tentpoles play as well and entertain as much, too.