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Independence Day (1996)

Independence Day cover.

Independence Day (abbreviated sometimes to ID4) is the movie that dare not speak its name, in this case that name being War of the Worlds. To say that this movie owes a debt to The War of the Worlds is the understatement of the century, with parallels galore. Of course H.G. Wells was the first to popularise the entire idea of aliens invading the Earth and so just about every alien invasion movie ever made owes him that same debt, but Independence Day is really quite breathtakingly blatant in its expropriation of the core concepts of The War of the Worlds.

A few days before the July 4th Independence Day, a massive spacecraft is detected entering Earth orbit. The world holds its collective breath, as in a majestic display of raw power, the Mothership disgorges a fleet of spacecraft, which assume intimidating position over every major city on Earth. No communication is forthcoming, and the world wonders just what these alien visitors intend. In the New York office of a television broadcaster, technical whiz David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) has a nasty suspicion that he knows exactly what they are planning. He has figured out what has been disrupting worldwide communications since the alien arrival. Hidden in normal signals from our own communication satellites is a foreign transmission, and it is counting down. (Incidently, Goldblum also has another War of the Worlds related movie on his CV, the very different and completely insane Buckaroo Banzai.)

Meanwhile Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith) of the US Airforce finds his leave rudely disrupted by the arrival of the aliens and in the Whitehouse the President (Bill Pullman) wonders with his advisors just what to do about this momentous event. Racing to Washington with his father, David knows the clock is ticking, and the only hope is to get an audience with the President via is estranged wife, who happens to be one of his top advisors. With minutes to spare, David gets into the Whitehouse and explains his theory. Luckily he is a persuasive sort of person, and the President orders an immediate evacuation. As Air force One clears the runway, the countdown hits zero and all of the alien spacecraft (one of which is positioned directly over the Whitehouse) let rip with enormous energy blasts. City after city, including Washington and New York, are obliterated.

Independence Day is a clever film, giving audiences exactly what they like; wholesale destruction and a likable band of disparate characters who we know will come together at the finale to set things right. Along the way we get plenty of thrills and human pathos, but as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, Independence Day borrows liberally from The War of the Worlds, not just the book in fact, but other subsequent versions.

Like the book, we have an implacable alien foe and a seemingly futile human resistance, and just as in the book, the humans rally to counter attack and are soundly routed, though in Wells' book it is British artillery that is devastated by the Heat Ray, in Independence Day it is American fighter planes against alien warships. In 1953, George Pal re-located the story of The War of the Worlds from Victorian England to cold war America and took the quite obvious decision to invoke the nuclear demon as the ultimate expression of American military might. It fails, as does the same tactic in Independence Day when it is found that the aliens are protected by an invulnerable force shield, a direct borrowing from Pal, even down to the observers waiting for the nuclear cloud to dissipate and reacting in despair as the aliens emerge without a scratch.

Another unacknowledged borrowing is the use of news reports throughout the film to give a sense of realism to events, but this comes not from the Pal film, but the Orson Welles radio broadcast of 1938. The Welles broadcast spooked listeners by fooling them into thinking they were listening to a live news report of a Martian invasion, and Independence Day writers Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich cleverly expand on this by drafting in real newscasters to play themselves in the news reports.

Most tellingly, (and Devlin & Emmerich have admitted as much in the DVD commentary) the method by which the humans finally defeat the aliens is a pure nod to Wells, though one that has infuriated a good many people. It is the character of David (Goldblum) who comes up with the solution to the problem of the alien energy shields. Holed up in Area 51 (the holy grail of UFO conspiracy theorists) he is confronted with the evidence that the American government has known about aliens for a long time. Beneath the base in a high security underground facility is an alien fighter craft recovered at Roswell in 1947. Examining the spacecraft, David realises that the only way to penetrate the energy shields is to give the aliens "a cold." It was of course common Earthly germs that defeated the Martians in The War of the Worlds, but this being a gung ho American movie, it is deemed unacceptable to allow Mother Nature to come to the rescue. In Independence Day, it has to be the plucky (American) humans who save the day. To this end David writes a computer virus, which he will need to deliver to the alien Mothership.

With Stephen (Will Smith) as his pilot, the two intrepidly de-mothball the captured alien fighter and fly it to the Mothership, and in one of the most outrageously contrived ideas in movie history, proceed to upload the virus from David's Apple laptop to the alien computer network, surely a fantastic advert for Apple, but massively implausible given the difficulties you normally face in interfacing two different human operating systems, let alone one designed by alien minds. Suffice to say, it works, and the humans launch a final last-ditch attack against the aliens, which succeeds in penetrating the shields.

So Independence Day is a completely ludicrous film, but you can't help but like its exuberance and total disregard for logic. The effects are breathtaking and groundbreaking, and the performances engaging, though viewers outside of American will probably have to grit their teeth through some of the more patriotic moments, especially Pullman's toe-curlingly "inspiring" speech prior to the final assault on the aliens. At heart, this is very much an American movie for American audiences, offering them that curiously therapeutic experience of watching their landmarks get blasted apart, their government revealed as duplicitous, and yet emerging at the end from their trial by fire renewed and re-assured at the fundamental righteousness of their society.


See also in:

Film & TV

The War of the Worlds by George Pal

The War of the Worlds by George Pal. The action relocates to cold war America, with the Martian war machines re-invented as sinister flying machines.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Robinson Crusoe on Mars. The Martian war machines from the George Pal movie are the foe for an astronaut stranded on Mars.

Buckaroo Banzai

Buckaroo Banzai. One of the wildest and weirdest films to feature a War of the Worlds reference, Buckaroo Banzai is pretty much indefinable.

War of the Worlds TV series

War of the Worlds An intermittently impressive TV series about a second Martian invasion of Earth.

The War of the Worlds, Spielberg.

The War of the Worlds Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise get a huge bang for their bucks in this massive re-imagining of The War of the Worlds.

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