What can you say? They came; they saw; the conquered. No, not the aliens who invade Earth in ID4; we mean Rolland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. After MOON 44, a mediocre pastiche of American sci-fi shot in Germany, the film-making duo came to America and, in less than a decade, refined their formula with efforts like UNIVERSAL SOLDIER and STARGATE until they created one of the biggest blockbuster behemoths of the 1990s. An action-packed extravaganza that overwhelmed the big screen with its fiery spectacle, INDEPENDENCE DAY was probably destined never to be fully satisfactory on the small screen, but that didn’t stop 20th Century Fox from releasing it on VHS, laserdisc, and DVD. Today, it reaches home video stores once again, this time as a Blu-ray disc, whose increased capacity and high-def resolution attempts to offer a visual and aural experience equivalent to the theatrical one.
Emmerich and Devlin’s previous efforts were mostly competent but uninspired genre potboilers. Even STARGATE (1994), which showed an impressive epic sweep in its conception, evinced a certain lackluster quality – an absence of any kind of vision, style, or panache that would lift their film-making above the run-of-the-mill genre standards. Consequently, it was quite a surprise to see INDEPENDENCE DAY managed to mostly transcends the limitations of their earlier work, through sheer, over-powering scale of its depiction of worldwide destruction.
Those limitations are still on view: Emmerich and Devlin did not suddenly develop a subtle grasp of characterization or learn how to stage a dramatic scene with great conviction. However, they constructed a film that plays to their strengths so well that the weakness are dwarfed in comparison, if not completely eclipsed. By now, we all know the film’s plot deficiencies (Mac compatible aliens), its sentimental overreaching (we cheer the survival of a pet dog while countless humans die), and the feel-good manipulation (no one seems too terribly upset over their dead friends at the end).
With a little more effort (and maybe a collaborator in the script department) Devlin and Emmerich could have polished over these flaws. At its nearly epic running time, the pacing is not as tight as it should be, but at least the delivers on most of its promises. This is one summer blockbuster that earns its hyped, delivering an absolutely stunning alien invasion on an epic scale, with mass destruction served up almost to perfection, and they tied it all together with a disaster-movie style multi-character scenario enlivened by some amusing performances.
Basically, this is almost perfect realization of the movie you eagerly anticipated when, as a kid, you saw some poster or coming attractions trailer for a 1950s-style alien invasion movie, only to find out that the actual film was 75 minutes of talk, some stock footage, and a few cheap special effects. In ID4, you get the real deal - a apocalyptic confrontation of staggering proportions – as if everything you had ever wanted and hoped for had finally made it off the posters and onto the screen. Unlike the cheap, disappointing efforts from an earlier age (WAR OF THE WORLDS excepted), ID4 provides more than enough special effects and pyrotechnics to satisfy that long-remembered youthful anticipation.
To be fair, there’s more than just explosions: the Devlin-Emmerich script provides plenty of other grist for the mill, and as a director Emmerich orchestrates that mayhem to great effect. Rather than just an effects spectacular, ID4 captures a genuine sense of suspense, of impended doom proceeding from an implacable, utterly alien foe with whom there can be no negotiation – especially in the opening 45 minutes, which consists mostly of a countdown to the first attack. The scenes are constructed so well that the audience hardly notices that, for the most part, it is simply waiting for something to happen.
Once the ball really gets bouncing, the script fairly deftly moves its ensemble cast together so that they can put aside their differences and unite to defeat the common enemy. The calculation on the part of the filmmakers is utterly transparent, with the ethnically diverse characters (WASP, black, Jewish), but it is so well-intentioned that it would be picayune to quibble. The plot requires a rather healthy dose of suspension of disbelief (Jeff Goldblum’s announcement that he can bring down the aliens’ defensive force field with a computer virus is such an lazy writer’s device that it elicits audible groans), but for the most part the film earns this indulgence from the audience. For instance, when Will Smith pilots an alien fighter vehicle at the climax, we have to accept that he could learn how to handle it in a few minutes, but the thing has supposedly been lying around since crashing at Roswell, New Mexico, so at least there was time to study it.
The human interaction usually fails to equal the combat scenes. ID4 lives up to its structural model, the ’70s disaster film, with a slew of familiar faces filling out two-dimensional stereotypes. The cast bring enough screen presence to help compensate for this, but only Goldblum, with his eccentric character ticks, and Smith, with his straight-arrow sincerity, manage any interesting character interaction, when they team up to turn the film into a buddy movie toward the conclusion. (Too bad Hollywood neglected to turn them into a team; it would be fun to see them do a film every few years.) Also worth mentioning: STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION’s Brent Spiner has a few good moments as hyperactive oddball scientist, but the actors fare less well, particularly Judd Hirsch, and for some reason Randy Quaid’s part just doesn’t come off.
For a film dealing with a worldwide invasion – directed by a German, no less – ID4 is surprisingly limited in scope. One can perhaps overlook that its story focuses on the U.S., almost to the exclusion of all other nations, but the brief glimpses of England and the Middle East are almost funny in their minimalism. At least Bill Pullman’s inspirational pep talk, just prior to the last-ditch desperate assault on the enemy, conveys the proper sense of global unity. It is quite effective and even moving a rare moment when what a character has to say is as interesting as the action that is about to be seen. Had the film worked this well on this level more often, it might truly have achieved not only the standard gung-ho, patriotic flag-waving feel but also the epic quality toward which it so obviously aspires.
For some critics, fans, and even general viewers, INDEPENDENCE DAY stands as an example of Hollywood excess gone too far, of by-the-numbers screenwriting covered up with spectacle special effects. In retrospective, the movie also engenders ill will because its success gave Emmerich and Devlin the clout to ruin Sony’s 1998 GODZILLA—a film that looked like a shoo-in for success after ID4. In retrospect, what went wrong should have been no surprise. The writing of ID4 is serviceable; it does the job of setting up the elements that make the movie work, but it is actually the sheer scale of those elements that truly impresses (as when countless alien ships bombard hapless human airmen). But size and scale can only hide so much, and ID4 has a ticking time bomb structure built into the story that keeps the plot driving forward, something sorely lacking in GODZILLA. But what’s far more damaging is that GODZILLA almost steadfastly refused to deliver on its potential, whereas ID4 is a wonderful evocation of childhood wish fulfillment, supplying everything one could want—or at least, everything that one’s inner, eager eight-year-old could wnat. For that reason alone, ID4 stands not as a guilty pleasure, despite its flaws, but simply as a pleasure.
INDEPENDENCE DAY has been released on disc several times. Currently available are a Single Disc Widescreen Edition, a Full Screen Edition, a Universal Media Disc, a Two-Disc Collector’s Edition DVD, and the Five Star Collection version. The Collector’s Edition is loaded with loaded with supplemental features, totalling five-and-a-half hours worth of material, much of which was recreated in the later Five Star Collection DVD.
The Five Star Collection includes an eight-page booklet, evenly divided between production notes and comments from the case and crew. On Disc One, you find the film, with two audio commentaries: one by the creative team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin; one by visual effects supervisor Volker Engel and Doug Smith. The former was recorded for a late 1990s laserdisc release and has been widely criticized for numerous drop-outs and a lack of exciting information. The second track, as one might expect, emphasizes technical aspects that many viewers may find dry and uninteresting.
The second disc of the Five Star Collection is loaded with features. There are three featurettes: “Creating Reality” (an overview of the special effects work on the film); “ID4 Invasion” (a 22-minute promotional piece); and “The Making of Independence Day” (a 28-minute collection of interviews with the cast and crew). Also included is the original, abandoned ending, with Randy Quaid flying an airplane into the aliens’ UFO. The scene plays with a partial audio commentary from Dean Devlin, explaining why the change was made.
Other features include: four teaser trailers and the complete theatrical trailer; TV spots; a stills gallery that includes production photography and posed shots; Storyboard Sequences for three sequences; and DVD-Rom content, including a game and links to the Fox home page.
20th Century Fox’s Blu-ray disc release of INDEPENDANCE DAY (released on March 11, 2008) offers improved picture and sound, thanks to the new format, but high-def enthusiasts seem to think that the 1996 film – created with old-fashioned analog technology – shows its age a bit, revealing noticable grain in the image and offering a soundtrack that lacks the crystal clarity of modern digital audio.
Only some of the bonus features from the DVD have been included, such as the teaser trailers and the two audio tracks. As compensation, the disc offers some unique interactive features: Keyword Search, Book Mark capability; a Data stream Trivia Track that displays interesting facts about the film while you watch, and an Alien Scavenger Hunt gave, in which viewers collect objects that will help them unlock an additional bonus feature.
INDEPENDENCE DAY (20th Century Fox, 1996). Directed by Roland Emmerich. Written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich. Cast: Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, randy Quaid, Margaret Colin, Vivica A. Fox, James Rebhorn, Harvey Fierstein, Adam Baldwin, Brent Spiner, James Duval.