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25 Years Later: Independence Day

9 August 21 words: Nathan Warby

Independence Day remains a shining example of what a summer blockbuster can be...

Director: Roland Emmerich
Starring: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum
Running time: 145 minutes

What defines a classic film – is it kickstarting a whole trend in cinema that sees others trying to copy its success? The number of iconic scenes? Or is it immediately likeable characters? Well, despite often being overlooked when it comes to ranking the all-time greatest movies, Independence Day ticks all those boxes, and I’m happy to report that even 25 years after it hit cinemas, it’s just as effective as ever. 

Alien invasion films may be a dime a dozen in 2021, but way back in 1996, director Roland Emmerich was attempting to bring something fresh to blockbuster cinema. Many have tried to recreate the balance between suspense and spectacle that Independence Day strikes, but most fall short. This is because Emmerich takes a slow, methodical approach to the film's opening. 

We aren’t immediately greeted by little green men shooting lasers, but rather an ominous sense that disaster is on the horizon. From the very first shot of the mothership’s dark shadow ominously casting over the site of the first moon landing, the tension is constantly building as the countdown ticks on. Once the visitors make themselves known, the film perfectly captures both the wonder and sheer terror that would come from discovering that we’re not alone. 

The second the first ship is spotted, society as we know it breaks down. Traffic systems go out the window, shops are being looted and people are abandoning their homes as they realise in an instant how small they are in comparison to what is out there. Despite the film's stellar cast of Hollywood stars, in these scenes it is the focus on the average Joe that is most impactful. 

That’s not to say the cast of characters aren’t on point. Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum shine as the cocky air force pilot and awkward satellite engineer. The pair, along with the rest of their castmates, bring great levity to their respective roles and ensure the tone never slips into too sombre a place for very long. That being said, there isn’t too much in the way of character development, with most of the ensemble falling neatly into stereotypes – from the eccentric scientist who’s been trapped in Area 51 for over a decade, to the heavy-handed secretary of defence who wants to solve everything with a nuclear missile or three.

Independence Day proves that summer blockbusters can still say something incredibly profound when handled with thought and care

That being said, it is the characters which set Independence Day apart from its successors. While many CGI-flaunting disaster movies can create a visual feast, they can’t recreate the warmth and humanity that Smith and co. bring. Nowhere is this clearer than in Bill Pullman’s portrayal of President Whitmore. Despite being one of the most powerful men on the planet, Pullman leans into the character’s more reliably ‘family man’ side, which gets the viewer onside from his first scene.

But let’s be honest, you’re not here for character – you’re here for the spectacle. On these grounds it delivers tenfold, despite being older than the person writing this review. Watching some of humanity's most well-known landmarks turn to rubble remains as visually striking and haunting as it did 25 years ago.

Although the constraints of modern technology mean the effects haven’t aged especially well, there is a sense of scale that is truly impressive even to this day. Perhaps even more impressively, the loud explosions never feel superficial but rather serve to hammer home just how small and inconsequential humanity is when compared with the horrors of outer space. Every fallen landmark feels like a punch to the gut.

But true genius shows in the final act. After the dread and loss which hangs over the entire runtime, when the world pulls together to make its last stand it’s as evocative as any other film you can name. A rousing and beautifully-written speech by Pullman only hits harder because of the amount of time Emmerich puts into laying the groundwork. It feels like a grand payoff at the end of a sombre yet occasionally hilarious journey. 

It’s easy to write off a summer blockbuster as something where you take your brain out for two hours and watch the pretty explosions. But even after so many years, Independence Day proves they can still say something incredibly profound when handled with thought and care. While there’s plenty of big budget sci-fi action movies out there, you won’t find many that match the sheer heart and charm of this classic.

Did you know? The film used miniatures and pyrotechnic effects more often than CGI to cut costs and get more authentic results. This included a 12ft model of the mother ship and a 10ft replica of the White House, the latter of which was detonated with 40 explosive charges.

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