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Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, and Matthew Wrather rewind twenty-four years to watch Independence Day, thinking about how time and current circumstances have changed or deepened our feelings about the movie.
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The 10 Best Things About America I Learned from Independence Day
I forgot to mention this on the podcast: the specific thing that prompted me to want to revisit this movie in the current moment was the news that the EU would not lift the ban on American visitors due to our country’s disastrous response to the pandemic. It felt like such a blow to American prestige and such a stark contrast to the notion of America leading the entire world against an existential threat as depicted in this movie. To my final point in the podcast–were we ever this country in reality? Maybe not, but it’s OK to aspire to be that country, whether America is at the height of prestige or if it’s a pariah.
I may be oversimplifying here because the author is, if not dead, then at least laid up somewhere out in the countryside and contemplating eating the charges from their apartment complex rather than returning to their downtown neighborhood to collect their property and move out properly, but my understanding was that Roland Emmerich made a series of films which were intentionally meant to push leftish-leaning liberal ideas in the style of conservative-liberal Hollywood propagandists.
So this was answering back to Rambo in the same sense that Gene Rodenberry was answering back to George Wallace.
As a consequence, there’s an idealism that permeates Independence Day to what would have been a charmingly naive degree even in the ’90s. It’s noteworthy, for example, that, according to Emmerich, a good President isn’t just one that doesn’t lie but one that is actively bad at lying in such a way that telling the truth becomes the path of least resistance for them. That’s basically spitting directly in the eye of realpolitik.
Upon further reflection, it might have been a stretch to claim that ID4 is the “best” movie of the 90’s. I think what I meant to say was that it might be the movie that succeeds across the most axes. Like, Terminator 2 is probably an overall better movie than ID4, especially when it comes to intelligence of plot and special effects, but it lacks the latter’s well-developed ensemble cast, romantic plots, and general ability to move a grown man to tears.
On that note, the other thing that really takes this movie way, way over the top that we don’t spend a lot of time on is David Arnold’s stirring score. Like the rest of the movie, it’s pretty derivative (“Deutschland Uber Alles being just one of many inspirations), but it’s tremendously effective at drawing out emotion in key moments. Do yourself a favor and stream the soundtrack album on Spotify if you’ve never given it a close listen.
This is getting off-topic some but while I agree with the assessment that ID4 is at least one of the greatest films of the 90s, I find it shocking that The Matrix never seems to come up in “best of the 90s” discussions even though it’s undoubtedly one of the most deliberately and complexly crafted films of all time, as well as my vote for greatest science fiction film of all time.
Although my guess is that most polling would have Jurassic Park as the clear winner.
The overall quality of Independence Day reminds me of when my sister and I saw Wicked, early in its run (Joel Gray was out sick, our night). Her comment was that it’s definitely not the best at anything, but it’s probably second or third best at everything. In the same way, it’s hard to point to anything about Independence Day and say “they nailed it,” but there isn’t much about it that isn’t much better than it needs to be for what’s basically a War of the Worlds adaptation.
Well…it’s actually closer to John Campbell’s The Last Evolution (https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/27462), but more people know War of the Worlds…
My read on the alien abduction is that it was meant to be foreshadowing for or parallel to the inability to listen to the scientists, with lower global stakes. He knows that an invasion is possible, but because his social class and addiction marginalize him, he can’t usefully communicate that information.
Maybe relevant to Mark’s point about modern conspiracy theorists, back then, New Age bookstores were a hotbed of these absurd theories (my mother spent a lot of time in them, and so I ended up there, too), everything from the Earth’s surface being completely transformed to rich people planning to put chips in everybody’s heads to secret medical treatments that THEY won’t tell you about, but the entry point was almost always aliens (or fortune telling, obviously). An embarrassing and frustrating aspect is how little the conspiracy theories have evolved since even before that, when I was a kid.
But much like today, the advocates weren’t Randy Quaid, lower-class single father to non-white children, struggling to make ends meet. Instead, they were (predominantly) comfortably middle-class and wealthy white people looking for something that’ll make them special. It wouldn’t surprise me if there’s a cut scene in some version of the script where Quaid’s character is invited to all those pro-alien parties, where rich people romanticize his poverty and alcoholism, trying to paint themselves as being just like him. That was very much that subculture, and still is, in the way that the QAnon and similar types imagine that they’re oppressed (despite having WAY too much power) instead of correctly assessed as being wrong. And that’s so carefully presented, that I have to imagine that it was planned to be relevant at some point.
Unrelated, but Overthinking-relevant, the London’s Bridge Theater posted their presentation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Punzss5sHto – It’s about as “go big or go home” as it comes. Here’s their page about it: https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/a-midsummer-nights-dream/
Good take on how old some of these New Age/neo-pagan/conspiracy theory ideas are. There are some capital-P “problematic” issues that come along with that; for example, David Icke’s lizard people being a stand-in for “The Jewish Question”.
ID4 inherits some of that as well by leveraging its themes on the long-held fallacy of a common enemy uniting people. Not only is that a provably incorrect notion (America is nothing but common enemies and has never been united against any of them) but it also carries forward a notion of national perseverance against a foreign threat that taints the invasion literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — back when they first started telling Independence Day-style stories — and is similarly carried forward by explicitly white supremacist works like The Camp Of The Saints.
The new take for this movie, however, is that the aliens are actually… just aliens. Everything else may be allegorical but the aliens really are just jerks from outer space. Which is a deliberately rehabilitative act that, I think, actually does change some of the substance of the work and especially the nature of Randy Quaid’s character.
Because if the aliens don’t represent anything then Quaid’s character is free to simply be a victim of them without being coded as any particular kind of real-life whack-a-doo. In that case, while there’s an argument that he’s an unkind play on media depictions of rural farmers who reported cow mutilations, etc., he’s still an actual victim and not deluded or faking it. I suspect that the race of his kids is also meant to deflect from some of the racism that actually exists out in rural communities (as it does everywhere, sadly, but the rural type at least didn’t have any well-monied defenders at the time) and that his Vietnam War background was also meant to garner sympathy by suggesting that he was one of the troops that we abandoned as soon as they got back from war. That’s a lot of work to make one character seem likable, which means that Emmerich and team assumed that they needed to put in that work, which speaks volumes towards what kind of audiences this movie was actually pitched at.
Speaking of, my slim memory of the 2016 sequel is that the character was never even mentioned. Make of that what you will.
Right. The lizard people thing is just the tip of the racist iceberg, where some aliens look like gigantic Swedes and are the “good guys,” too.
And yeah, if anything, the last twenty-five years have made it abundantly clear that some countries will insist that the aliens are a hoax to scam everyone into joining the coalition and other countries will presumably blow up their own landmarks to prove that they’re tougher than the aliens.
I didn’t consider how Quaid works from a marketing standpoint. That’s an interesting (and worrying) wrinkle, because despite the New Age-y problems, rural vet that nobody likes even though he CAN’T POSSIBLY be racist is definitely a “type.”
“And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as American Lives Matter, but as the day the world declared All Lives Matter”
Re: the preternatural calm of fighter pilots, this radio call from the 1999 shoot-down of an F-16 over Bosnia is a great example of the genre: https://youtu.be/_KdmzCQxTdY?t=261
Guy with an airplane going down over hostile territory: “I’ll be getting out of the airplane.”