Summer of 1996. It was an incredibly monumental time in my life. I had just finished my Freshman year in college. I would meet my future wife that summer at a St. Louis Cardinals’ baseball game. And, though not as important in the grand scheme of life, I would watch Independence Day in a packed theater in St. Louis.
Before we dive in to my most recent viewing of the film, it might help to set the stage with a little contextual color, as it were. By that summer, I had seen a decent number of films on the big screen, as it was one of my favorite activities my first year in college. (I do sincerely apologize to the good people at Welch College for violating the “no movie theater” policy many times throughout my time there.) Yet, even though I had seen any number of films before Independence Day, my experience in that theater was something spectacularly transformative.
The theater was packed. The trailer for the film had done an amazing job of selling the film and preparing the audience for a good time. And the film delivered in every way. The audience cheered, clapped, yelled, and stood on their feet during the showing. Spoiler alert: when the film pans across the wake of destruction left by the initial alien attack and we see the destroyed Statue of Liberty, the audience was so invested and angry, I was certain an all-out brawl was about to break out. Needless to say, it was an amazing theater experience and one I have longed to relive many times.
Fast forward a few decades…
Independence Day is not high art. It was not an Academy Award hopeful, outside of some of the technical aspects of the film, such as special effects. All that said, it was not panned by critics; it stands at 67% on Rotten Tomatoes – which is enough to earn a “Fresh” rating. The audience for the film was the general audience. I realize that sounds redundant but there are many films made with very little concern for how the average filmgoer will react to it. First and foremost, Independence Day was a crowd-pleaser, earning over $300 million at the domestic box office.
The film is turning 25 this summer, so I decided to rewatch it after quite a few years since my last viewing. While I can’t say the film hit me the same way as it did when I was 18 years old, I still very much enjoyed it. If you are expecting a mature, emotionally complex take on an alien invasion, disaster film, Independence Day is not it. Though, I do wonder why anyone would look for those things in an alien invasion movie. But, if you want good action, fun characters, and a relentlessly paced plot, this film still works just fine.
It’s the people that matter.
The film still works as well as it does because the cast is perfectly suited for their roles. Will Smith became a worldwide superstar due to this film and he absolutely earns it. He is charismatic, confident, and delivers his lines with the appropriate level of cocky charm. Jeff Goldblum is exactly what you expect from him: witty, funny, and quirky. But for me, the true star of the film is Bill Pullman as President Thomas Whitmore. Pullman is not and has never been an action hero type actor. He’s a character actor. And while he is not exactly action hero level in this film, he has his moments. And if you can find a better Presidential speech in film history, point me to it.
Yes, there are head-scratching plot points. And yes, defeating the aliens with a computer virus is dumb. But, none of those things matter if you take the film for what it is. Don’t overanalyze it. Don’t overthink it. Settle in for a fun, sort of dumb, exciting two hours and fifteen minutes and that is exactly what you’ll get. I’ve long contended that you have to take art of any sort in the manner in which it is intended to be appreciated. Independence Day is fun and that is all it wants to be. Even after 25 years it still entertains. I can’t ask for anything more.
Content warning: The film is rated PG-13 and it earns that rating. Proceed with caution.