Alien visitation films are the bread-and-butter of science fiction. Whether the purpose of Their visit is benevolent or malevolent, the idea of being visited by galactic neighbors has captured the public imagination for more than a century, each time enmeshed in the current sociopolitical context.
The highly quotable Independence Day (1996) stands out from a set of films that tend to be macabre in their aesthetic or pretentious in their messaging. Independence Day is light on philosophy, heavy on frills, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. At the same time, it offers a hopeful message of human connection and cleverness. Most of all, as the name suggests, it is drunk on its own patriotism.
Despite being co-written and directed by a German, disaster film auteur Roland Emmerich, Independence Day is unequivocally American. Its heroes are American, and indeed the rest of the world is stuck in the wrong gear until the American heroes figure out a solution. Meanwhile, the ostensibly diverse cast shows that good ol’ American spirit, packed with ingenuity and impudence, to bust through doors, break through (some) cultural barriers, and say hell no to both slimy aliens and sleazy bureaucrats.
In one of sci-fi cinema’s most memorable moments, the U.S. President (Bill Pullman) proudly declares that “The Fourth of July will no longer known as an American holiday” and is now a worldwide day of independence from oppression (from the aliens, in general).
Despite America’s landmarks being destroyed (well, the heavily populated ones, anyway)
As in War of the Worlds, the aliens are outdone by a simple solution; here, instead of bacteria, it’s very '90s: a computer virus. Whipped up by genius David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), who excelled at MIT but is a cable repairman (America!), the virus dismantles a complex alien information technology. Despite geeks getting the short end of the stick in American society, they’re much beloved in films, especially ones in which their hyper-specific skills and trivia provide a useful plot device.
Naturally, Levinson’s glasses-wearing, chess-playing, tree-hugging, nerdy-hot persona must be balanced out by Will Smith’s macho, cigar-smoking, witticism-speaking, alien-punching badass pilot, Captain Steven Hiller. He’s so badass, he tangos with an alien fighter ship and learns to drive one from that interaction. “I’ve seen these things in action and I’m familiar with their maneuvering capabilities,” he says oh-so-casually.
The two heroes occupy separate plotlines until their respective insanely-good skills bring them together for a super-badass mission to undo the entire alien fleet. (American ingenuity, people!)
Emmerich doesn’t forget his sci-fi enthusiasts in the audience. He sneaks in a 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) reference as a well as a reprisal of the ultimate Jeff Goldblum quote from Jurassic Park (1993). Moreover, he places the film’s action in the U.S.’ rich history of conspiracy theory and cryptoscience in the realm known as ufology. “Oh God, I hope they bring back Elvis!” says one eager woman captured on a news broadcast, referring to one of many conspiracy theories surrounding the deaths of celebrities. The aliens themselves bear some resemblance in the face to the classic “Grey” alien described in many alleged encounters. Of course, tentacles had to be added for good measure.
Suspiciously, the U.S. military was on board to loan apparel and equipment — if the producers removed all references to Area 51. The Area 51 subplot stayed, and drew a line between the Roswell incident — arguably the best known in the American history of alleged UFO and alien encounters — and the present invasion. In fact, the film includes some footage of the real Area 51, captured from Freedom Ridge — now closed to the public — by a conspiracy theorist. And even without military helicopters, the civil one outfitted with special lights for the film triggered a wave of reporting UFO sightings upon its first flight. Very meta. Very American.
So, this Independence Day, enjoy a film that presents Americans as saviors of the world, that shows that we can overcome our long history of racism (and maybe sexism, I mean, an exotic dancer does save a bunch of lives) and petty bickering to feel solidarity among our fellow Americans and Earthlings in the face of massive death and destruction. After all, we’re all humans — and they’re not! (Is that speciesist? Hey, were any of these aliens back home like, “We shouldn’t obliterate other species. Save the humans!”)
…I went too deep, didn’t I? Nevermind, it’s a fun movie! Boom boom! America!
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