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Independence Day Redux

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Note: For those who have been living under a rock since 1996 this may contain spoilers.

Independence Day was a massive blockbuster both its scale and success, dominating worldwide box offices to the tune of over $817 million dollars. As its sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence gets ready to invade cinemas the original is due to celebrate its 20th birthday this July. This makes it an apt time to take a look back at the film that was the biggest movie of 1996.

It’s all too easy to remember Independence Day in with the 90s craze for disaster movies. However it doesn’t sit amongst the likes of Armageddon, Deep Impact and Volcano, it was the film that inspired them, ultimately reviving the genre. Director Roland Emmerich and Writer Dean Devlin were themselves influenced by 70s disaster movies such as Towering Inferno and the Poseidon Adventure and followed the same pattern when scripting their version. However, this isn’t the only reference as the film is filled with nods to the likes of Star Wars and Close Encounters.

The film opens on the arrival; we see the moon as a dark shadow envelops the site of the Apollo landings from a giant alien ship flying overhead (in a nod to the Star Destroyer in Star Wars). It’s a simple introduction but works exceptionally well in setting up the premise, showing our endeavours in space literally being overshadowed, advanced alien technology dwarfing our achievements.

When you look back at Independence Day you realise just how many characters are involved in the narrative, a rich tapestry of people all introduced with some efficiency. It’s a credit to the script how we get snippets of person, vignettes of American life. From Bill Pullman’s President, to Jeff Goldblum’s cable repair man David Levinson. Will Smith’s Captain Hiller is woven into the story much later than other characters but even in that shorter time we understand him and his motivations. They are all relevant and engagingly introduced through the anticipation of the alien arrival and what an arrival it is.

Whilst the government is figuring out its next steps giant saucers start appearing over major cities, as David Levinson discovers “It’s like in chess, you position all your pieces and then you strike”. Emmerich has a real eye for conveying scale and as the ships (which were models) descend the special effects still look fantastically menacing. Little touches such as the detail on the models and the fog that shrouds the ships give an immediate sense of the gigantic size. Then of course comes the money shot.

Once the alien show their true motivations and the destruction starts, it is devastating. The film won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and you can see why. The destruction of the cities is still one of the most unsettling, buildings such as the Empire State Building turned to dust in no time. However the iconic and memorable shot from the film is the destruction of the White House. An image so provoking it was used in the teaser trailers and has definitely been burned into my memory. Shot by setting charges inside a 10 foot scale model the blast still looks real and there is a physicality to it you don’t always get with CGI .

After the revelation that the Area 51 stories are true, we get to see the aliens up close and personal for the first time. In a fantastic scene in which Brent Spinner as Dr. Brackish Okun dissects a concussed alien (after Will Smiths cheesy yet hilarious punch in the face). Of course we all know what’s going to happen but Emmerich keeps the tension as the scene plays out with palpable anticipation until the inevitable, the alien hand begins to move and the beast comes back to life.

Emmerich and Devlin go full ‘War of Worlds’ on the plan hatched by David Levinson to destroy the alien craft, uploading a computer virus to the mothership using a crashed alien fighter. It is before this final fight that we really get under the skin of the characters. Obviously there is the rousing speech by the president but the quieter more subtle moments between David and his father (Judd Hirsch) and Margaret Colin as Constance really play out.

The final battle is pure Star Wars, a ticking clock race to destroy a major weapon before it destroys you. In fact there is even a “it didn’t go in, it just impacted on the surface” moment when the last missile is fired at the alien laser but instead hits the side. The effects still stand up. However as you might have guessed humanity prevails

Independence Day is still pure spectacle. A disaster movie on a global scale, but it balances the apocalyptic with the ‘human’ situation of its characters. Every character in the film has their own engaging narrative, a personal transformation. For example, Russell Casse’s deadbeat dad to sacrificing hero. There are some great performances from the assembled cast. The real strength of the film is how it allows such a concentration of so many characters amongst the eye popping battle scenes. This is down to an economy of script which also manages to keep quite a light tone despite quite a dark subject matter. Despite being 10 years old the effects still stand up to modern expectations, it looks fantastic and the scale and scariness of those alien ships is still translatable.

It goes without saying that it does have its cheesy moments (for example the dog leaping to safety from an alien blast) but it’s a conscious decision to include comic relief within the apocalyptic narrative and it works. The white flash jump cuts now do look slightly out of date but this is a minute criticism it’s barely worth mentioning.

It’s still a fantastic thrill ride of a film and if Resurgence which is released on Thursday 24th June is anything near as good it will definitely be worth seeing.

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