The Summer of ‘ID4’
25 years ago today, a movie came out that changed my life. Okay, so it didn’t change my life, but as a young moviegoer, it blew me away. The film of course would be “Independence Day”, and something about this “out of this world” Roland Emmerich-directed alien invasion flick, with its gigantic citywide UFOs, colossal fireball destruction, wild aerial battles and topsy turvy characters set my movie-loving soul on fire.
The film, as you probably remember, opens with a series of gargantuan 15-mile wide spacecrafts, heralded by dark volcanic clouds and foreboding orchestral strings, piercing the skies and engulfing entire cities (and the bewildered populations) under their eclipsing shadows, and much like that, “Independence Day” entered my life back in the summer of 1996.
My first “ID4” sighting was in the theater lobby of my local multiplex, Danbarry Cinemas. I can’t pinpoint exactly when, possibly as early as the winter before, maybe earlier as movie campaigns often get an early jump, but I distinctly remember seeing the teaser poster depicting the mothership threatening Earth hovering above the space between the bathrooms and the manager’s office, with the aforementioned acronym “ID4” at the bottom. I wasn’t sure what that meant, at the time it was somewhat popular to abbreviate the sequel’s title, like “T2” and “D3: The Mighty Ducks”, but I got the sense this was something original. The abbreviation was of course initially created because 20th Century Fox didn’t yet have the rights to the title “Independence Day”, but I didn’t know that. Nope, instead, in this particular brief and inquisitive moment, I couldn’t help but wonder if IDs 1, 2 and 3 existed.
Flash forward a few months later and I started seeing the standard crop of vague publicity photos for an upcoming summer movie called “Independence Day.” Entertainment Weekly included it in their Summer Movie Preview issue, which had a teaser image of pilots running from explosions (the El Toro base attack sequence), noticeably missing of course were the flying saucers that allegedly played a key role in the film’s plot.
At this point, I still had no idea what kind of film “ID4” was going to be and began to imagine a big budget science fiction/horror fest with a harder edge and R-rating, filled with grotesque imagery of slimy aliens ripping soldiers in half, body parts being flung left and right, orphans screaming, you know, something closer to a film that materialized the very next year, “Starship Troopers”. It wasn’t until I started seeing the TV spots, showing off the dazzling special effects and cheeky one-liners edited to R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, that the sense of it being a goofy, PG-13 popcorn movie really started to take shape.
But as “ID4” neared release, I started to get cold feet. At the time, I was a coward when it came to anything remotely scary, and the fact that I had a wild, uncontrollable imagination made matters worse. I had just conquered keeping my eyes open during the scary parts of “Jurassic Park” a few years earlier, but when I dipped my toes into the treacherous waters of “JAWS”, the experience left me with an irrational, yet thankfully temporary fear of oceans, lakes, and even swimming pools(!). Also, it was around this time that I started to brave the “Alien” franchise, and even though I loved all three films, as much as some would say I shouldn’t admit this, I had recently taped the original off TV and, once again, irrationally, I feared the tape was evil and that somehow face huggers would hatch and burst from its plastic confines.
FOX airing an “ID4” special disguised as a news broadcast depicting the events of the film as being real didn’t help matters.
Opening day came and went. Traditionally, I was all about that “Day One” screening, but I let this one slide. That following Sunday, at a post-church lunch at McDonald’s with my family, my cousins, who had seen “ID4”, couldn’t shut up about it. “It was amazing!” “You gotta see it!” They went on to describe numerous scenes from the movie. “There’s a bunch of partiers on the roof and they get blown away!” “Oh yeah, and cars are flying in the air and a helicopter is blown up and they barely escape in Air Force One!”
It then became apparent how much of a fool I truly was. In the week that followed, I sat down in the theater with my dad to watch “Independence Day” for the first time. It would be the first of four trips to see it.
The film was not at all what I feared it would be, it was dark enough to feel dangerous and celebratory enough to feel uplifting and the special effects were more than enough to keep the sense of scope and danger at an all-time high. Like “Jurassic Park” before it, “Independence Day” was everything I wanted in a movie as a kid: big summer fun with lots of action, great visuals, funny dialogue and no basis in reality whatsoever.
The characters were over the top, but not so out of control in their zaniness that their antics aren’t detrimental to the tone (a problem that many of Emmerich’s follow ups, including the 2016 sequel, have in common). The cast includes: Jeff Goldblum as David Levinson, the world’s smartest cable repairman, who discovers the aliens’ true intentions via hidden countdown buried in “the signal” and ultimately develops a way to defeat them using a computer virus; Will Smith as Captain Steven Hiller, the hotshot pilot who partners with Levinson on their mission to deliver the virus directly to the mothership, and the character had the best rapport with audiences at all my screenings due to his energetic personality and funny one-liners; Bill Pullman as Thomas J. Whitmore, the allegedly “wimpy” president who delivers a rip-roaring speech and hops into a fighter jet to lead the charge against the aliens; and Randy Quad as Russell Casse, who was once abducted and probed by aliens and finally gets his revenge by flying a fighter jet right up an alien vessel’s, um, bunghole.
There’s also Judd Hirsch as David’s neurotic father, Mary McDonnell as the First Lady, Vivica A. Fox as Hiller’s love interest, Harvey Fierstein as David’s ill-fated boss, Robbert Loggia as Whitmore’s righthand military advisor, Brent Spiner as a kooky Area 51 scientist, and Dakota as Boomer, the Labrador Retriever who makes a harrowing “Die Hard”-style jump and narrowly evades an explosion while escaping the destruction of Los Angeles.
As mentioned before, the visual effects were definitely an MVP of “Independence Day” and it’s worth noting the film was made during a transitional period in Hollywood as films were moving further away from model work and optical compositing towards digital compositing with a focus on CGI (although miniature work is still applied to this day despite the overwhelming and unfortunately still lingering claims of the contrary). “ID4” offers a good blend of miniature and CG work and the results are still convincing to this day. The alien vessels hovering over New York City appear monumental and terrifying, the battle scenes are breathlessly chaotic and the creature work is top notch. Designed by Patrick Tatopoulos (who had previously worked with Emmerich on “Stargate” and is the namesake for Matthew Broderick’s character in Emmerich’s direct follow up, “Godzilla”), the aliens and their tentacle-laden bio-mechanical suits elicit the spirit of both silent but menacing monsters and intelligent creatures with tiny little echoes of that classic Roswell alien design. (The creatures also made for a slick-looking action figure from Trendmasters, but were sometimes a nightmare to keep standing up.)
And of course who could forget the phenomenal soundtrack by David Arnold? Striking a balance between the lurking terror of tracks such as “The Darkest Day” and the powerful victory-fisted march of “The President’s Speech” and “The Day We Fight Back”, Arnold’s “ID4” cues were memorable, hummable and inspired such a strong sense of fictional morale that it almost made me want to hop into a fighter jet and give an alien warcraft a nuclear enema. Arnold would go on to score a number of Bond films, starting with 1997’s “Tomorrow Never Dies”, but “Independence Day” is his crowning achievement, and arguably it is the film’s as well. It is hard to imagine the film being nearly as effective without Arnold’s musical presence. The design work is incredible, the effects are impressive, but it’s the rousing score that really brings it home.
If you asked me to rate “Independence Day” back in 1996, I would have probably given it four stars (or hearts as I like to rate things here). Today, if I’m being realistic, I’d probably say three; it is both musically and visually sensational and the cast is wonderful despite some potentially silly characterizations, but the film does have faults. I mean, sure, I could go through the motions and force, and I mean REALLY force myself to list any number of nitpicks I could pretend to care about (such as story beats that are maybe too fanciful in retrospect or something to that effect) and yeah, if I wanted to, I could allow my view of it to be stigmatized by the on and off stream of serious crud its director followed it up with, but that would all be performative. If I am truly being genuine here, then I’d say it’s difficult for me to express anything other than pure love for “ID4” and the summer it came out.
“Independence Day” is still one a hell of an enjoyable thrill ride. Seeing those big ships hover over New York City and LA still gives me a feeling not too dissimilar from the sensation it gave me 25 years ago. It’s a rare feeling, one I don’t take for granted, the same feeling I also get whenever I see the Brachiosaurus scene in “Jurassic Park”: the feeling of being a kid again.