R039 Independence Day

(1996, Drama/SciFi/Holiday, color)

Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett

This movie proposes that everyone on Earth is a total spaz.

Rating: ***1/2

In a nutshell:

Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum save the Earth from hostile aliens.


Take that, free world!Independence Day is not a complex or particularly thoughtful film, nor is it weighted down with plot. Quite simply: aliens arrive to wipe us out, but we wipe them out instead. It’s also a hundred and forty-five minutes long, so to fill all that extra time, we have a number of clichés disguised as subplots. Poorly disguised, as it turns out; apparently the filmmakers just stood clichés in every corner, hung bits of posterboard around their necks, and used a sharpie to write “subplot” on them. These demi-plots are as follows:

Demi-plot A: “President Lonestar.” Official-type government science guys notice things in space. These things are brought to the attention of official-type government military guys, who, in turn, bring them to the attention of Young Charismatic President (Bill Pullman). President Pullman urges calm as massive alien warships position themselves over every major city in the world...until his friendly neighborhood Antisocial Genius Environmentalist (Jeff Goldblum) finds a code in the satellite transmission indicating an imminent attack.

Everyone flees in Air Force One as all the major cities of the earth are simultaneously burned off the map. The President et al. relocate to Area 51, where the resident Half-Crazed Alien Specialist (Brent Spiner) shows them around his hoard of alien technology. President Pullman assigns Goldblum to take care of the alien problem.

As a warship approaches the base, the refugees concoct a half-baked scheme in which Goldblum and a Cocky Black Fighter Pilot (Will Smith) will fly a captured alien shuttle to destroy the mothership, thus confusing the other warships long enough for the Earth-based forces to bring them down. They succeed, and the earth is saved.

Demi-plot B: “Our Eccentric Jewish Savior.” Antisocial Genius Environmentalist Jeff Goldblum discovers a countdown code embedded within his cable company’s satellite signal. A rather large leap of logic indicates an imminent attack, so of course he must risk his life and the life of his Testy Jewish Father (Judd Hirsch) to drive to Washington D.C. and warn his Estranged Ex-Wife (Margaret Colin), who just happens to hold some kind of high-ranking cabinet position. She warns the president, who thoughtfully takes him along during the evacuation.

At Area 51, he discovers that the aliens have neglected to password-protect their wireless network, allowing him to upload viruses with impunity. Cocky Black Fighter Pilot flies him to the mothership to do just that. The virus brings down the alien network, which, in turn, brings down the alien warship’s shields, which, in turn, allows President Pullman et al. to save the Earth.

Despite the constant homoerotic banter, theirs is a platonic love.Demi-plot C: “Bros Before/After Hos.” Cocky Black Fighter Pilot is called away from his Sassy Stripper Girlfriend (Vivica A. Fox) to engage the alien enemy in aerial combat. His angst over whether or not to propose to her is verbalized by his Doomed Best Friend (Harry Connick Jr.) not because he is unsure of his love, but because he will not be selected as an astronaut if he marries a stripper.

Doomed Best Friend inevitably dies during the ensuing firefight. An alien fighter manages to shoot down Will Smith as well, but not before the latter has forced it to crash-land in the desert. Smith drags the captured alien to an impromptu RV refugee camp, and subsequently leads them all to Area 51. Once there, he volunteers to fly the captured alien shuttle up to the mother ship with Jeff Goldblum. He does so, shouting macho clichés all the way. Once the virus is delivered, he drops a bomb that blows up the mothership during his escape.

Demi-plot D: “Sex-Related Industry Professional with a Heart of Gold.” Sassy Stripper Girlfriend flees Los Angeles with her son, but is caught in the aliens’ initial city-burning blast. She manages to escape the worst of the slow-motion fireballs by hiding in a tunnel, venturing out the next day to resume her journey towards Cocky Black Fighter Pilot’s air force base. A fire truck is commandeered for this purpose, and she picks up other survivors along the way, including the Mortally Wounded First Lady (Mary McDonnell). They make it to the ruins of the air force base some time afterwards, where they wait for Will Smith to take a break from the prior demi-plot and bring them all back to Area 51.

Before he flies up to save the world, he and Sassy Stripper Girlfriend get married in an impromptu ceremony as Antisocial Genius Environmentalist and his Estranged Wife reconcile in the background. Mortally Wounded First Lady, of course, dies.

Demi-plot E: “Drunken Failure Finally Succeeds.” A Drunken Failure Pilot (Randy Quaid) flies crop dusters for a living until the aliens arrive. Having been kidnapped and presumably probed by the aliens many years before, he knows what to expect. He wanders the desert with a lot of other RV dwellers until he meets Will Smith out in the middle of nowhere. They give Smith and his alien prisoner a lift to Area 51, where a surfeit of fighter jets and a shortage of pilots lead President Pullman to recruit him for the final battle.

The aliens loom near, and the valiant pilots empty all their ammunition into the massive warship, so that they’re out of missiles when the vulnerable point finally reveals itself. The last missile is in the possession of none other than Randy Quaid. It misfires, so he flies his plane kamikaze-style right down the barrel of the warship’s city-burning gun. The gun explodes. The warship explodes. Information regarding the city-burning gun vulnerability is disseminated among the survivors of other militaries, and alien warships all over the world explode. Everyone parties down, even though the world’s infrastructure has been thoroughly decimated, along with ninety percent of the human population.


Today is called the feast of Crispian...So, Jeff Goldblum can connect to the extraterrestrial wi-fi in a matter of seconds, and even hijack the mothership’s membranous LCD screens to display his Jolly Roger animated GIF, but I can’t get my Vista machine to acknowledge the existence of my XP machine. He truly is a genius. Independence Day is, of course, a “modernized” version of the H.G. Wells classic War of the Worlds, in that it substitutes the literary aliens’ susceptibility to terrestrial microbes for the cinematic aliens’ susceptibility to malicious script kiddies. I never thought I’d be in a position to say this about anything, but the Tom Cruise version was better.

Which is not to say that this version is no good. Sure, it’s so riddled with clichés that it seems like it ought to have been made in the eighties. Yes, deus ex machinas were in such abundant supply that I kept expecting Zeus to descend on a scaffold covered with cardboard clouds and vanquish the aliens with fiberglass lightning bolts. In the plus column, however, any two-and-a-half hour science fiction epic that manages to feel shorter than a Star Wars prequel must be doing something right. There are worse ways you could spend a Saturday night. Just switch off your brain and bring some popcorn.

The full triumvirate of Rifftrax (Mike, Bill, and Kevin) is on hand for the commentary. Full-blown clichéd irascibility flies every which way as grumpy government officials attempt to determine the nature of the objects in the sky, leading to Mike’s comment, “Everyone in this movie’s so irritated about having to do their damned job.” As the motor-mouthed Will Smith continues to fill his every second of screen time by spouting cliché after manly cliché, Bill wonders, “Does he have any unexpressed thoughts?” Near the end, my favorite quip comes when Smith and Goldblum encounter a problem with their commandeered spaceship and Kevin suggests, “Take the cartridge out and blow on it.” It’s a broad, goofy, overearnest film; bottomlessly awful of course, but in the sublime, laughable way of the best scifi B-pictures. In other words, perfect for Rifftrax.