The German language has a bunch of delightful words for which there is no direct English translation, but sometimes, it amalgamates words from other languages into Germanic chimerae that are almost too good to believe. One of them is popcornblockbusterfilm, a word I saw used in a German cinema magazine to describe the kind of over-the-top guilty pleasures that we have come to expect Hollywood to unleash upon us every summer. We all know what kind of movie is a popcornblockbusterfilm, as these movies have existed since at least the 1970s. But it wasn’t until 1996 when we saw them take an evolutionary step from something big into something monstrous, with the release of what could be fairly considered to be the mother of all popcornblockbusterfilm: Independence Day.
The story is pretty straightforward: a massive alien armada of flying saucers takes position above every major city in the world and over the July 4th weekend, launch a coordinated attack with direct energy beams that kills millions of people and staggers virtually every world government simultaneously. In the U.S., the President barely escapes, as do a few scientists, fighter pilots and assorted oddballs and comic relief. They convene at (where else?) Area 51 and figure out how to shut down the alien ships’ force fields by uploading a computer virus into their mothership. (In the 90s, computer virii were magic voodoo hat solved any plot hole). Then our heroes sneak a nuke unto the mothership, then we get a huge dogfight between fighter jets and alien ships that ends when a kooky barnstormer flies a kamikaze mission into the flying saucer attacking Area 51, destroying it. Word gets out around the world of the aliens’ vulnerability, and fighter squadrons across the globe repeat the stunt. All of the flying saucers crash and burn, and humanity rejoices in having triumphed in its darkest hour. The end.
Okay, this is not a great film. It was brought to us by Roland “Moon 44” Emmerich, who caught such a lucky bounce with Stargate that it convinced some lunatic to give him the reins to this project. The massive success of Independence Day kicked off a cinematic reign of terror from Emmerich that continues to this very day: Godzilla. The Patriot. The Day After Tomorrow. 10,000 BC. 2012. Anonymous. White House Down. And the most grievous of them all, Independence Day: Resurgence—a sequel so awful, it burns any goodwill earned by its predecessor.
Independence Day features a threadbare plot, constant bombast, and heaping piles of dramatic cheese delivered by a phalanx of Hollywood talent that really should have known better than to take part in a cavalcade of caricatures that range from the cigar-chomping fighter pilot to the drama queen homosexual to the nagging Jewish father to the square-jawed President to the stripper with a heart of gold to the kooky conspiracy theorist who wasn’t just right all along, but who also ends up being the key to saving the world. Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsch, Harry Connick, Jr., Brent Spiner, Robert Loggia, Vivica A. Fox, Harvey Fierstein and a whole lot of other people all have agents who must have been sweating bullets until the first weekend’s box office came in on this one.
And yet, this is a fun movie, despite all of its obvious shortcomings. Employing a small army of underpaid visual FX folks, Independence Day delivers a convincing disaster movie of an unprecedented kind. Large-scale disaster flicks have felt a bit distasteful after 9/11, when seeing skyscrapers collapse on live TV took the fun out of watching imaginary buildings full of imaginary people suffer the same fate. But this was 1996, and the idea of vicariously enjoying the dramatic wipeout of civilization was, somehow, something to look forward to. And on that, Independence Day really works. For the entire first act, we see the alien saucers move into position, we see humanity scuttle about trying to make sense of it, we see a countdown clock, and we know that these aliens are not here to make friends. They are going to start a war; we know it and we’re waiting for it. But when they finally fire the first shots, even then, the scope and the intensity of what follows still takes the audience by surprise.
The alien attack scene is one of the iconic film moments of the 1990s, and surely a high point of disaster cinema in an extended sequence that has yet to be topped in terms of dramatic impact. One by one, the saucers power up and fire massive energy beams into the helpless cities below. We see Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. blasted to smithereens, knowing that every other major city on the planet is suffering the exact same fate. As millions die, we watch as the few characters we’re supposed to care about frantically try to escape the shockwaves of annihilation consuming the landscape. Some of them make it, despite some incredibly long odds. Some of them do not, reminding us that even though we’d like to think that we’d all be one of those select few who would survive a cinematic disaster scenario, the truth is, most of us would become part of some very large statistics.
As the scene ends, the screen goes black for a moment, and we are grateful that it is over. When I saw this movie in the theatre, the entire audience exhaled collectively, as everybody had been holding their breath during the conflagration scene. That remains one of my favorite movie-watching experiences ever, that time when the audience was so drawn into what it was seeing that it literally forgot to breath. That doesn’t happen very often, and even though Independence Day will never be great cinema, and even though it might have helped revive a disaster film genre we didn’t really need, it sure delivered an unforgettable moment of truth.