July 4, 1996 | An extraterrestrial spacecraft the size of Cleveland is hovering over Los Angeles, but Capt. Steven Hill (Will Smith) isn't worried. Yet. "I really don't think," he tells his fretful lady friend, "they flew 90 billion light years to come down here and start a fight."
On the other side of the United States, computer genius David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) would beg to differ. In New York, another city that's currently in the shadow of an enormous spaceship, Levinson has been trying to figure out the cause of widespread cable-TV malfunctions. Much to his surprise, he accidentally records a signal beamed from one alien ship to another. Much to his horror, he recognizes the signal for what it is: A countdown.
A few hours later in Washington, D.C. -- where, yes, you guessed it, yet another humungous spacecraft is spooking the bejeepers out of the local populace -- a Kennedyesque U.S. President (Bill Pullman) is sorting out his options while trying to ignore his plunging approval rating. Should he expect the worst and order the evacuation of every American city where the spaceships have been sighted? Or should he hope for the best, try to look Presidential, and send military men off to establish peaceful contact with the aliens?
Fortunately, the President's communications director, Constance Spano (Margaret Colin), just happens to be the ex-wife of David Levinson. So she's able to help David gain access to the Oval Office, where he manages to convince the President that things are much, much worse than he could possibly imagine. In no time at all, David and his cantankerous father (Judd Hirsch) are joining the President and his staff on a flight out of the Washington. And not a moment too soon: Just before the plane leaves the ground, all the alien spaceships throughout the United States and the rest of the world start blasting away with massive death rays. Fireballs erupt, thousands are annihilated, and the President's plane has a singularly rocky take-off. The good news: David discovers, to his great relief, Air Force One is equipped with an adequate supply of air-sickness bags.
And so it goes, one damn thing after another, in Independence Day, a stunningly exciting, smashingly entertaining sci-fi action-adventure extravaganza. Director Roland Emmerich (Stargate), working in collaboration with producer and co-screenwriter Dean Devlin, plays fast and loose with just about every conceivable cliché from alien-invader B-movies of the 1950s. But that's just for starters. Emmerich also adds an excellent ensemble cast, state-of-the-art special effects, and a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheeky humor to the mix. At one point, a Los Angeles newscaster reminds viewers that local officials have advised people not to fire handguns at the spaceship hovering over their city. At another point, Constance delivers a different kind of warning, to her ex-husband and his father. "You wait here," she tells them, leaving them alone in the Oval Office. "And don't touch anything."
Later on, Capt. Hill survives an air-to-air battle with the pilot of a small but lethal alien warship. He digs through the wreckage of the spacecraft, spots the angry extraterrestrial -- and promptly decks the creature with a strong right hook. "Welcome to earth," Hill snarls.
Don't misunderstand: Independence Day is not, strictly speaking, a comedy, despite all the in-jokey references to everything from The Day the Earth Stood Still to 2001: A Space Odyssey. But the comic relief often is explosively funny in the context of an otherwise earnest, if not dead serious, sci-fi melodrama.
There is genuine ingenuity to the various intersections of plots and characters throughout Independence Day. (An especially ingenious touch: Emmerich's computer-age spin on the twist that H.G. Wells used to cap off The War of the Worlds.) There is a thrilling scale and sweep to the film that recalls the best World War II epics of yesteryear. And there is an overlay of unabashedly rah-rah patriotism that is guaranteed to excite both the Christian Coalition and the People for the American Way. When Bill Pullman's President Whitmore delivers a stirring speech to the fighter pilots ready to launch a massive counter-attack against the aliens on -- what else? -- July 4th, he impresses on them the idea that, if they're successful, Independence Day will no longer be just an American holiday. Rather, it will be a holiday for all of mankind. The scene is as corny as Kansas in August -- and as inspiring as anything you're likely to see at the movies all year.
In the production notes for Independence Day, Emmerich takes great pains to pat himself on the back for casting talented but second-tier actors rather than "bankable" superstars in lead roles. "When you have a big movie with a big action star," Emmerich is quoted as saying, "you know his or her character will triumph. In our movie, everybody's fate is up in the air. Audiences will be surprised as to who survives -- and who doesn't."
Sounds like typical movie flackery, doesn't it? The funny thing is, however, Emmerich isn't exaggerating all that much. In fact, there are several moments in Independence Day when you may find yourself thinking, "Uh-oh, they might really kill him." Or her. No one here is famous enough, or well-paid enough, to be immune from a sudden, violent quietus. And that only adds to the movie's immensely enjoyable suspense. Early on, it's revealed that President Whitmore was an ace fighter pilot during the Gulf War. So when he decides to join the final push against the aliens by suiting up and taking off, it's not exactly a surprise. But by that point in Independence Day, it's been established that, maybe, he doesn't really care whether he survives the battle or not. That, along with Pullman's less than stellar status in the Hollywood firmament, gives the thrilling climax even more of an impact.
If there is anyone in Independence Day who establishes superstar credentials, it's Will Smith. As Capt. Hiller, the bold fighter pilot who yearns to be a NASA astronaut, Smith has all of the right moves and most of the movie's funniest lines. He is particularly effective in his scenes with Goldblum, who once again demonstrates his sure-footed skill at playing a brainy nerd with the heart and soul of swashbuckling hero.
Other notables in the cast include Colin, who manages the difficult feat of being smart, sexy and womanly -- as opposed to girlish -- all at once, and Randy Quaid. The latter is cast as a drunken crop-duster who claims aliens abducted him many years ago. Now, he promises, it's time for payback.