Bad Movie Night: Yes, The First ‘Independence Day’ Was Terrible Too

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Welcome to “Bad Movie Night,” a biweekly feature in which we sift through the remains of bad movies of all stripes: the obscure and hilarious, the bloated and beautiful, the popular and painful. This week, in light of its 20th anniversary and the release of its sequel, we take a look at the original 1996 Independence Day.

The world has been a difficult place for those of us who’ve spent the last 20 years insisting Independence Day is a toilet fire, so yes, I’ll own up to taking some degree of smug pleasure in the disappointing grosses ($41.6 million, nearly $10 million less than the original — and that’s without adjusting for two decades of inflation) and widespread critical derision towards its new sequel Independence Day: Genisys or whatever the hell they’re calling it. I know, I know, ID4-1 was staggeringly popular and widely beloved by the ‘90s kids and so on — but it’s a loathsome, soulless husk of a garbage movie, and the only thing puzzling about the critical response to its follow-up is the notion that they somehow lost the magic of the earlier installment. It was a bad movie then, and it’s a bad movie now.

I will say this: they’re never coy about what you’re in for. The opening credits feature EXPLODING LETTERS, after all, assuring us that this will be a movie where lots of things explode, and the first image is of an American flag on the moon, to assure us that this will also be a movie with lots of flag waving. We’re tipped that the end of the world is coming by a lonely radio playing “It’s the End of The World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” at the SETI Institute, which first detects the radio signal of the approaching aliens, prompting smash cuts to national landmarks and scenes a-plenty of government officials calling each other to bark lines like like “Get me the Secretary of Defense! Then wake him!” and “The President is listening, repeat what you just said to me!”

As giant alien ships fill the skies above New York, Los Angeles, and D.C., director Roland Emmerich and his co-writer Dean Devlin occasionally interrupt their go-to visual of extras looking up in awe to introduce our cast of wacky, colorful supporting characters. There is Judd Hirsch as the zany Jewish father, tsk-ing over his divorced son (Jeff Goldblum) and these mesuggah aliens and saying things like “I mean look at me, I look like a schlemiel!”; there is Harvey Fierstein, as Goldblum’s zany colleague, mincing through every scene and saying things like “There’s no shame in hiding — oh, I better call my maaaah!”; there is Randy Quaid, in a performance that any capable Mad TV director would’ve deemed too broad, as a drunken crop duster pilot who says things like “I picked a hell of a day to quit drinkin’” (which I’d love to think is an Airplane! homage, but who’re we kidding).

ID4’s crew of carefully chosen demographics and stereotypes have a heritage — that of the 1970s disaster movie, like Airport, The Towering Inferno, and The Poseidon Adventure, a tradition into which Emmerich and Devlin are clearly attempting to ingratiate themselves. But they’re not really there for characterizations, and they know we’re not either; as the virus movie director played by Todd Barry told his actors on an episode of Master of None, “Say whatever you want, this movie’s not really about words.” This movie is about the panic before the takeover, and the carnage of the invasion itself: organized chaos, car crashes, panic in the streets, exploding buildings, fireballs down streets, airborne pedestrians, flying cars, and, of course, the White House in flames.

That key image, of the alien ship vaporizing 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, was the centerpiece of Independence Day’s bluntly effective ad campaign, drawing far more moviegoers than either the picture’s cast or its thin premise. And there are several ways to read that appeal — the picture was released in the midst of Bill Clinton’s contentious reelection campaign, so there was a large chunk of the voting population who probably cackled with glee at that imagery. (They were probably disappointed to find that, in the film proper, the President has escaped, though the death of the First Lady presumably provided some comfort.) The character of President Thomas J. Whitmore is an odd mash-up of Clinton and his predecessor George H.W. Bush — star Bill Pullman has Clinton’s youth and vigor, but the character is given Bush’s war hero history, prompting a television pundit (in his very first scene) to proclaim of the president’s low approvals, “They elected a warrior and they got a wimp!” (Anyone with even a passing knowledge or memory of the Bush I years knows how loaded the “w-word” was.) Turns out, he’s been bumbling through his presidency because of “too much compromise”; it takes this alien invasion for him to man up, find his spine, etc., so he can say things like “Let’s NUKE THE BASTARDS” and rally the troops and suit up to fly into combat himself, unlike that damn draft-dodger Clinton.

I haven’t mentioned Will Smith yet because, frankly, he seems to be in another movie. Specifically, that movie seems to be Top Gun, right down to the death of his best flyin’ buddy, played by Harry “Let’s kick some tars and light some fars, big daddy” Connick Jr., in a performance just a shade more hateable than Jack Gleeson’s King Joffrey. Smith’s “JIMMY NOOOOOOO” reaction makes it seem as though we weren’t supposed to cheer Jimmy’s death, but what can I tell you, we respond how we respond. Anyway, Smith barely breaks a sweat while stealing the picture; his natural charisma goes a long way, and he also seems to be one of the few people aware of what a silly bunch of shit this is. But even he can’t do anything with a line like “You know I like to make an entrance” — it must’ve killed them that “Traffic was a bitch” was out of circulation — his smirky quip when reuniting with his best girl Vivica A. Fox (a dancer at one of those only-in-the-movies strip clubs where no one takes their clothes off). And his double-dose of Schwarzenegger-style quips after punching the alien (“Welcome to earth!” and “Now that’s what I call a close encounter”) are indicative of the script’s inability to focus — just pick a zinger and go with it, movie.

Revisiting ID4 for the first time since its release, I was struck by how much of the movie had completely evaporated from my memory – or the popular memory that reminds us, via quotations and homages and memes and so on, of a supposedly iconic property like this. It feels like people remember the film for three key elements: Smith punching that alien, the big city (and White House) destruction sequence, and Pullman’s “Today we celebrate OUR INDEPENDENCE DAY” speech, which is sort of like the St. Crispin’s Day Speech from Henry V, as rewritten by someone who was dropped on their head a lot. And to be fair, those bits work, and there are a couple fine reels of stuff blowing up real good. But there’s also like two hours of other nonsense, of white guys yelling at each other and looking at maps, of children wandering through classified areas, of hilariously saccharine “human interest” moments, or James Rebhorn being a sneering asshole for no discernible reason, and of scientists like Bret Spiner’s Dr. Okun getting jeered at like high school mathletes. “The last 24 hours have been pretty exciting for us,” he tells President Whitmore, who thunders back condescendingly, “EXCITING? People are dying out there, I don’t think ‘exciting’ is the word I’d use to describe it,” which is a little rich coming from a movie that just spent twenty minutes bathing in the cum of that orgy of destruction.

And then, of course, comes the big, dopey ending, which hinges on Goldblum and Smith penetrating the alien mother-ship, and “uploading a virus” that will shut down their impenetrable shields, thanks to, apparently, the aliens’ Mac compatibility and ahead-of-their-time on-board wi-fi. This development is the one element that ID4 gets flack for, and has pretty much since release, though it seems odd to fixate on that single flaw when there are so many more cringe-worthy moments and cliché-ridden dialogue exchanges to spotlight. (Exhibit A: “Tell my children… I love them very much!”) At any rate, after we tell the rest of the world “how to bring those sons of bitch down” (AMURICA, LEADING THE WAY), after the skull and crossbones virus and countdown clock blow up the mothership, after Big Willie and Big Jeff stroll through the desert for their teary reunions, after 144 minutes of this mess, we can finally shut off the movie and go back to our lives. Or just start the damn thing all over, because WE WILL NOT GO QUIETLY INTO THE NIGHT, WE WILL NOT VANISH WITHOUT A FIGHT, etc. Director Emmerich did not vanish, certainly; he survived, to direct the ’98 Godzilla, 10,000 BC, the Shakespeare-truther movie Anonymous, and Stonewall, among others. One look at that filmography, and it’s not hard to see why he was ready to celebrate another Independence Day.