In August 1996, we ‘were
Like the cloud covered behemoths which loom into view during the opening scenes of Roland Emmerich’s ode to Irwin Allen, we’d only caught the occasional glimpse of the carnage to come, whether it be in a magazine still, or the kind of infrequent trailer exposure that’s unimaginable in today’s International Trailer #4 style saturation.
Arguably, ID4 was one of the biggest ‘event’ movies for decades, the kind of dominant tent-pole film that summers were built around. Unlike today’s release schedule, which finds grossly budgeted blockbusters released within days of each other, if not the same weekend, the aliens of Independence Day had everyone running scared.
Mission Impossible and Twister were out of the gates early, and the only person brave enough to take on an army of extra-terrestrials was, appropriately enough, John Travolta, with soft-focus Sci-Fi, Phenomenon. They all cowered in the far reaching shadow cast by ID4’s near-$900m worldwide gross.
Films of such silly bloated spectacle are a regular fixture these days, so why did this catch on like CGI fire through the streets of Washington DC? Why is it that its success hasn’t been replicated since, not through Emmerich’s own series of underwhelming humanity bashing efforts – The Day After Tomorrow, Godzilla, and 2012 – or any number of copycat catastrophe movies – The Day the Earth Stood Still, Poseidon – come with me, back to a time when Will Smith was still The Fresh Prince, and we’ll find out.
In an age where you get enough trailers to piece together 50% of most movies before they’ve been released, perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of the ID4 experience was the marketing, and in particular, the birth of the Superbowl spot.
Every year, for millions around the world, a load of armored specimens toss a pigskin around a field, whilst the rest of us wait for the half time show, or more importantly the ad-breaks. The studio got so much right in the way it teased audiences with OTT B-movie slogans, such as ‘Earth. Take a good look. It could be your last’, that the tone of the film was already set; Independence Day was going to be a lot of fun.
The importance of this Superbowl was that it not only set a precedent for years to come in terms of film marketing, with FOX stumping up $1.3m dollars for 30 seconds air time, but it gave us that iconic White House demolition shot and ‘Enjoy the Superbowl. It may be your last’ tagline. The anticipation was palpable.
It might seem an otherworldly concept to modern audiences, but the disaster epic had been dormant for a few decades following the 70’s heyday of The Towering Inferno and The Hindenburg, and viewers were seeking something other than Disney blockbusters and Tom Hanks vehicles.
The special effects might look a bit shoddy on a small screen re-watch, but at the time, that kind of CGI spectacle and scale made ID4 the sort of movie which had to be seen on the big screen. The 1996 equivalent of the casual cinema going audience that made Avatar the largest grossing film of all time, would have sat up and considered a trip to the movies.
If the 90’s taught us anything, it was to not get our hopes up when it comes to big-budget Sci-Fi epics for which there has been months of hype. However, Independence Day did not disappoint, planting a goofy grin on your face from the moment the lunar gravel shook across the moon plaque, to Goldblum and Smith’s cigar chomping walk of cool across the desert.
As with all humanity in peril narratives, we have to give a stuff about those who’re potentially going to be on the other end of an alien probe, and while they’re mostly archetypes, at times uttering laughably bad stock lines, Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich made the most of their impressive ensemble.
It helped that the stars aligned at a time of peak Jeff Goldblum and peak Will Smith; the former Brundlefly was in the middle of a blockbuster trifecta which included Spielberg’s Jurassic Park installments, he was the king of summer, a title that would be handed over to Smith in the following years.
Everything we love about the gesticulating Goldblum is turned up to 11 with his countdown cracking character, David Levinson; the sardonic wit, particularly during his exchanges with Judd Hirsch, the reluctant heroism, and the overriding feeling that he’s having as much fun as us.
Will Smith’s Captain Steven Hillier was similarly playing to type; by any other name he was Bel-Air royalty, and ID4 gave him the first chance to crack-wise on the big-screen, taking full advantage with his now iconic “Welcome to Earth” sucker punch and “Now that’s what I call a Close-Encounter” one-two. Whilst ships were falling from the stars, his own was becoming stratospheric.
Such levity benefited the shared experience of Independence Day, there’s nothing like the synchronised roar of laughter from a cinema audience, but Emmerich’s film wasn’t without its moments of drama.
Gather around Bill Pullman’s President for the umpteenth time as he rallies the troops for the final attack, and tell me the hairs on the back of your neck don’t stand to attention every time he growls “We will not go quietly into the night”. Sit at the bedside of Mary McDonnell’s dying First Lady and try to stop that lip quivering as she tells Mae (‘Her?’) Whitman to “keep growing and growing”. And who can forget Randy Quaid’s triumphant “Do me a favour, tell my children I love them very much”?
They are indelible moments, as powerful as any landmark destruction. They might be cheesy as hell, but it’s this knowing ridiculousness, that never descends into farce or parody, not even close, which elevates ID4 above so much of the dross born out of its success.
In the intervening years since the aliens failed to install MacAfee, despite the fact they’d have had multiple pop-up reminders, has an original summer property (ok, it’s derivative of everything from Star Wars to War of the Worlds, but it isn’t based on a graphic novel, TV show, or computer game) held up as well, or been cherished as much as ID4? I’d argue a negative.
When there’s a Resurgence this blockbuster season, it’s hard to imagine that anything we see will come close to the game changing spectacle of the original, the trailer already looks like San Andreas was put into a cinematic blender with The Core and vomited up.
So we’re relying on Liam Hemsworth to fill the charisma void left by Will Smith, the inevitable nostalgic beats of Goldblum and Pullman, and the hope that rising star, Maika Monroe, isn’t just hanging around to go all teary eyed as the men fly off to save the world. And if it transpires that the second wave is more Day of the Triffids than Independence Day, then we’ll always have 1996.