Independence Day (1996)

Until my flight from San Francisco back to Singapore, I had never seen Independence Day. I knew it had a famous scene where an alien spaceship destroys the White House, but I didn’t really know anything else about it. I was disappointed.

I guess I was expecting it to have more subtlety. (I know, I know. It’s a disaster movie. Why did I think it was going to be subtle?)

See below for more of what I thought of Independence Day, including SPOILERS.

The whole thing was too sensational (though I suppose that’s the point). Part of the problem may have been the tiny screen and my own fatigue as we neared Singapore. But I blame the movie itself at least a little… The scientists were sciency. The super secret government research lab was super secret. The scary, gross aliens were scary and gross. The brave, determined husband/father/pilot was brave and determined. The young decisive president was young and decisive. It was all just terribly obvious.

There were these huge disasters where whole cities were destroyed (without having been evacuated), and conveniently we were given vignettes of a few specific people so that we could care… yet I didn’t. I would probably have been moved by a bleaker, more matter-of-fact depiction of the destruction; what I got was sentimentality, which makes me feel manipulated and resentful, not sad.

I think I’d be more interested in a plot where there is a misunderstanding between the humans and the aliens. They maybe don’t know that humans are sentient, or the humans maybe assume the aliens are aggressive when they’re not because they can’t communicate, and some scientist figures out the problem just in time to prevent the world’s major cities from being destroyed. Or there could be some tense international political intrigue, where someone has to get opponents to cooperate. Possibly these are also movies that exist.

The alien problem in Independence Day was global, and despite references to and shots of other places in the world, it didn’t really feel global. The U.S. is not the whole planet, okay? I have encountered this problem before in Hollywood movies. It manifests in different ways; for example, in Live Free or Die Hard (2007), total economic chaos within the U.S. is assumed not to have any effect in other countries.

The solution to the alien problem (they manage to disable the shields and shoot down all the mega ships over the big cities) seemed like a terrible one in two distinct ways.

First, since a huge set of major world cities (108 of them) had already been destroyed, killing the aliens is a bit like shutting the stable door after the horse has escaped. In so many ways, the aliens have already hurt humans immeasurably. This is not dwelt on at all.

Second, what happens to the cities that are under the ships when they get shot down? Don’t those cities still pretty much also get destroyed? The ships are 15 miles wide!

I’m thinking the situation after the ships fall from the sky is a bit like the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip where Calvin hits a baseball, picks up a glove and catches the ball that he hit. At that point, he’s accomplished a difficult feat, but he has also defeated himself. There’s a scene in the pilot of Firefly (2002) where Mal and Zoe shoot down a ship in Serenity Valley, and they’re happy until they realize it’s about to crash into them.

On the other hand, after the alien ships are shot down, maybe they can be mined for valuable materials? Those ships are like a brand new source of resources, right? Or when they crash, do they affect the Earth’s orbit somehow? Oh, and what happens to the pieces of the destroyed mothership that’s in space? Do they fall and hit Earth?

Okay, so I’m obviously not the only one who points out questionable science in Independence Day.

Oh, and if you have several hours to spare, jump down this rabbit hole too.

By way of contrast, I liked Oblivion (2013).

Though I couldn’t remember where I’d seen him before, I now realize I didn’t like or trust the Secretary of Defense character played by James Rebhorn because James Rebhorn also plays a witness for the prosecution in My Cousin Vinny (1992). I guess this role was sort of similar, in that he’s an obstacle in both cases, so the feeling was spot on.