Independence Day (1996) was one of the most expensive and lucrative blockbusters of the 1990s. Its over-the-top American patriotism, massive CGI set pieces and intricate blend of comedy and action make it, in many ways, the archetypal Blockbuster. In a decade filled with elaborate over-spending by Hollywood studios and a society driven so massively by consumerism, Independence Day remains one of the most accurate representations of America’s ideals and driving ideologies of the decade.
Roland Emmerich’s movie was an ‘epic’ in every sense of the word. It cost an astonishing (for the time: 1996) $75million to make – the equivalent of $130million in 2016 – which was $12million more than Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park which was released only three years previously and $2million more than the 1997 follow up The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Real army bases were used throughout filming, CGI explosions of massive city monuments (the sets of which had been built as scale models) had to be designed and rendered, and there was of course the expectation of an all-star cast from typical Summer events movie audiences, all of which inflated the cost of Independence Day beyond many of its rivals.
It wasn’t without return however, as the movie eventually grossed $817million worldwide – the equivalent of $1.39billion in 2016 – with over 50% of that revenue coming from markets outside of North America despite the movie’s strongly US-centric promotional campaign, a part of which was of course the movie’s title and release date (‘Independence Day’ released on July 4th, America’s Independence Day). It set records for the year with a $50million opening weekend and $330million domestic gross that couldn’t be matched by competitors such as Twister, Mission: Impossible, The Rock, Jerry Maguire, Scream, Space Jam and Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Perhaps just as surprisingly, Independence Day was 20th Century Fox’s only entry in the top 20 grossing movies of the year with Broken Arrow, Jingle All the Way and Courage Under Fire all falling into the 20s, something that made the movie vitally important with regard to the studio’s competitiveness at the time, too.
Perhaps it was the idealistic version of America it presented. After all, the 90s was a much more optimistic time.
The 80s bid farewell to the Cold War which, in turn, brought the Berlin Wall crashing down in a unification of Germany for the first time since the end of the second world war. In the early 90s Nelson Mandela had been freed from jail in South Africa and all but put an end to apartheid throughout the civilised world, countries began to break away from the old Yugoslavia in Europe, and though America started the decade with their not-so-successful first Gulf War, stock prices were on the rise and the people of the West’s capitalist societies were beginning to become more financially comfortable, in general, for the first time in decades. It was a time of affluence, positivity, encouragement and more aptly… freedom. Freedom ‘from tyranny, from prosecution, from annihilation’.
The casting of Independence Day was chosen specifically to echo this notion – that of America as a safe-haven from oppression for people of any race, nationality or background, as well as a nation united in new and more peaceful pursuits (with regard to one another and the rest of the world). The two heroes, played by Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith, were Jewish-American and African American, for example, members of two races of people so heavily oppressed in recent memory and throughout the history of America itself. Secondary characters were a mix of war veterans, farmers and even strippers, each of whom had been susceptible to derogatory stereotypes both within the public sphere as well as in cinema for much of the 20th century, with war veterans getting a particularly tough time of it in the post-Vietnam era.
In Independence Day, the everyday man, woman or child was presented as an extraordinary man, woman or child, and though elements of each character’s stereotype remained, they were each presented as important to the solution of humanity’s battle with its alien invaders and were therefore also presented as worthy citizens of Earth as opposed to nuisances, idiots or psychopaths, the latter group of which presents these stereotypes as ‘other’ from the blockbuster’s often intended white and middle-class audiences.
This collection of purposeful casting decisions and the design of the characters within the story made Independence Day open to more than just white middle-class America, it made it open to everyone, which was of course in conjunction with the story of America’s past (so hugely celebrated on Independence Day – the Holiday – in the US). Perhaps it is this mix of characters that made the movie so successful overseas in the aftermath of all that had occurred in the years that preceded it. Perhaps this unification of people of all backgrounds was something audiences could relate to at the time more than they could in the much more skeptical post-911/post-recession climate that was to follow. There is no doubting that the movie’s release date was incredibly important to North America’s reception of these ideologies as there seems no other time of year (other than maybe Christmas) when people are so open to dismissing their own ignorance and inviting acceptance into their lives, and no other year when people could, as a collective, have reason for optimism.
Independence Day worked tirelessly in all forms of its storytelling process to present America as united with one another, and united with the world; an idealistic notion at the very least. In the movie, the world was united by one common enemy, but also through its one common similarity: being human. “We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore” is a line from the President’s iconic speech that works to undeniably reiterate this hopeful and ultimately leftist ideology of ‘all for one and one for all’ throughout the world in the 1990s, but particularly in the United States and specifically within this movie.
Even so, in many ways Independence Day can be seen as post-Gulf War propaganda that aimed to appropriate America as the moral compass of the world again by centering the world’s successful destruction of its alien foes on the information America fought so valiantly to discover. This is no more obvious than when troops in Iraq are sent instructions in Morse Code that aids even the Iraqis (America’s Earthly foe) in defeating the planet’s greatest threat; an aspect of the story which is of course a metaphor for the US’s insistence upon helping the country to escape its dictatorial rule. As small as it may be, it seems to provide key evidence to an underlying ideological process within the movie that is much less socialist and much more typical of the overarching ideologies of its distributor 20th Century Fox. Sure, people of all backgrounds and races are united and celebrated in their defeat of their ultimate foe, but each of these people is American. Sure, the world is united in overcoming one common enemy, but they are united by America itself which, in the movie, acts much like its real-life counterpart in going about things in its own way with little to no consideration of the consequences for anyone else. If one was to delve even deeper into the ideological processes of the movie, it would perhaps be a given that even in a post-Cold War era, the alien invasion was representative of socialist propaganda that aimed to put an end to America’s structured and capitalist way of life; something that was so important to the general public at the time, as mentioned earlier in the piece.
The problem with such an analysis is that it seems to dismiss that this is, of course, a film by Americans for Americans. It is built from the ground up with American ideology embedded into it, whether you like it or not, and yet it remains undeniable that, in the ways that the movie has consciously approached its ideology, Independence Day presents (at least at the creative level) a much more positive and unifying story than the mainstream movies of the two decades preceding it and the two decades that have followed it, etching it into history as a perfectly timed positive and unifying blockbuster.
It does, however, take more than an ideological process to make a successful film as successful as Independence Day was, and that’s where the technical aspects of the movie come in to play.
Independence Day holds the record for the ‘most miniature model work to appear in one film’, a record that is expected to never be broken due to the advances in computer imagery. This is simply an astonishing feat considering Star Wars was amongst its competitors; a film so lauded for its use of physical models as bases for its work with CGI. This model work, and the money spent on it, has undeniably paid off as Independence Day is now synonymous with the Blockbuster explosion and has been lauded even by the often critical guys at Screen Junkies’ Honest Trailers as the catalyst of the genre’s infatuation with blowing up landmarks.
Dr. Evil, from the Austin Powers franchise, actually borrowed the scene in which the White House is blown up as a means of threatening a 1950s US government in a spoof time-travel scene, solidifying the work of Independence Day’s effects team as the stuff of legend. It remains a widely held belief that the work carried out on the mid-90s movie stands up against movies from any genre in any of the years since; an excellent testament to everyone involved and a true signifier of the effectiveness of their work.
An often under-appreciated aspect of the movie is the level of performance from most of its cast. So often Blockbusters can provide very little in terms of performances and the cast of Independence Day is often associated with similar issues that other movies of its type suffer from… that of the actors ‘playing themselves’.
Jeff Goldblum is Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith is the Fresh Prince, Randy Quaid is Randy Quaid, for example, and each of these claims is hard to argue with. Goldblum is almost the exact same character as he is in Jurassic Park 1 & 2 while Will Smith is somewhere between ‘Fresh Prince’ and Men In Black Will Smith, with Randy Quaid playing the exact same drunken fool of a character he played in National Lampoons movies for years previously. But, this doesn’t make them bad… this just means that they’ve made the character their own and they’ve therefore brought their own brand of entertainment to the table. For me, Goldblum’s naturalistic stumbling style is welcomed wherever he may end up, but the way in which that is juxtaposed by his clear and assertive wife (Margarat Colin), and his hard-talking, no bull-shit partner (Smith), is something that provides entertainment in of itself. Similarly, Randy Quaid’s out-of-the-box lovable fool works to perfectly offset the serious and inspirational president who is played with the same level of conviction by Bill Pullman. Even secondary performances from Judd Hirsch (Goldblum’s on-screen father), Robert Loggia (the General), and James Rebhorn (as the despicable Nimziki) are powerful enough to evoke emotional responses the likes of which are hard to come by in roles with such little dialogue. Perhaps just as usefully, each member of the cast has come to personify 90s movies in the decades since, adding to the nostalgia factor that Independence Day brings to audiences watching in the current decade.
And that brings us to arguable the most important aspect of Independence Day as a lasting blockbuster favourite; its nostalgia. The movie is a shrine to 90s culture in North America, from its ideological stance to its story decisions, casting decisions and even its style of acting. In every aspect, from its Apple Computer internet virus being capable of destroying an advanced Alien lifeform’s spaceship to its alternative rock soundtrack and its use of scale models, this Roland Emmerich movie is and shall remain a place of worship for 90s kids the world over as well as their parents who were old enough to understand its contemporary significance at the time. 1996’s biggest movie is now nothing less than a cultural icon that should be celebrated for its quality as well as its significance and no longer dismissed as ‘just another blockbuster’.