“Independence Day” is turning 20 this year, and with the sequel coming this June, it may seem easy to gloss over the original film as a ‘dumb action movie with no substance,’ and for the most part that would be right. What needs to be taken into account however is what the film did for the movie industry as a whole, and to understand that we need to look back.
Back in 1977 Star Wars had just finished the original trilogy and left a rather massive Death Star shaped hole in our hearts. It was one of the most successful things to happen to cinema in the sci-fi sphere since “2001: A Space Odyssey.” For years after the titan of sci-fi left us, Hollywood was horrified at the prospect of tackling another spaceship-shaped genre film. There were the occasional films of lesser significance, but anything truly sci-fi related had the unfortunate label of B-Movie. Most of these B-movie, alien-based sci-fi pictures fit into the horror genre — see “Alien” or “The Thing” — and for a while it seemed that all alien movies were good for were scaring people about space travel or the future of technology. Studios were terrified to touch the little green men angle without giving it a semi horror spin. But that all changed when 1996’s “Independence Day” came around.
The plot of “Independence Day” is a relatively simple one to remember. The long and short of it is that a small number of somewhat unrelated plots come together to defeat the evil alien invaders that destroyed nearly all of humanity’s major cities with massive spaceships. The humans use stolen technology and over the top one liners to defeat them on the Fourth of July, thus giving us the film’s title. It’s cheesy, it’s over the top and most importantly it is really funny.
What makes the film relevant today, however, is that after it became a box office smash, it opened the floodgates for studios to realize that maybe it is possible for them to make an alien movie that is a fun action romp. “Independence Day” had seemingly recaptured the zany fun of the Star Wars films — so why couldn’t any others? Without “Independence Day” we probably would not have “Guardians of the Galaxy” because if you were to explain how it’s a romp around the galaxy with aliens but it is a really uplifting movie, any studio head of the late 80s and early 90s would look at you like you were insane.
This isn’t even mentioning the fact that the film launched Will Smith from television actor to super star. Before “Independence Day” he was just the goofball on the “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” who for the most part was a trope that audiences have seen a thousand times before in a classic fish-out-of-water story. But here, in the most American movie ever, we saw him nail a complex role of a man who fights tooth and nail for his country yearning for something more while still performing the zippy one liners he was famous for. It made Americans realize that this man wasn’t just another television face but actually an actor to inspire a generation and bring many more entertaining movies to come.