'Independence Day': THR's 1996 Review

Independence Day (1996) - Will Smith - H 2015
20th Century Fox/Photofest
'Independence Day' soars as filmic uber-craft.

On July 3, 1996, Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum saved the world in Independence Day when it hit theaters. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below:

20th Century Fox’s Independence Day is a blast  a sci-fi disaster film about an alien force that attacks Earth on Fourth of July weekend. A generic juggernaut, as well as a story of appealing human dimension, Independence Day should set off box-office fireworks worldwide.

Imaginatively splicing genres together (sci-fi, disaster, war) as well as cloning winning ingredients from more recent films from Lucas, Spielberg and Cameron files, screenwriters Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin do not exactly lift us off into any new story dimensions, but rather, they have created a sci-fi story constellation of the brightest star elements. With German director Emmerich at the helm, Independence Day soars as filmic uber-craft.

In this canny scenario, there is, contrary to “Ecclesiastes,” something new under the sun: Massive, saucer-like spacecraft hover over the world’s big cities one weekend, blocking the sunlight and casting terrifying shadows over human creation. In the United States, this weekend is the Fourth of July weekend. Evidently, these aliens know when to catch us off-guard, including the president (Bill Pullman), a Clintonesque leader who realizes that he might have to act decisively in this instance. That we’re not alone in the universe is not exactly a comforting realization  the monstrous alien presence is, by all indications, an invasionary force.

In short, it’s the world against the aliens and there’s a ticking clock in this War of the Worlds-ish saga. Like the ‘70s disaster films, an odd and unlikely assortment of individuals rally together to take on the overwhelming natural force, in this instance, invading aliens. In Emmerich’s and Devlin’s well-honed screenplay, they include, most prominently in addition to the president, a brilliant, underachieving computer whiz David (Jeff Goldblum) and breezily gung-ho Marine Corps aviator Capt. Steven Hiller (Will Smith). It’s this triumvirate that ultimately must combine their skills and summon all their bravery to save the world.

Like the best action films, our heroes here are decidedly over-matched. The aliens’ fortress-like spacecraft are impregnable, even to nuclear missiles. Like a popular toothpaste advertised in the hey-day of this genre, the alien craft are protected by “an invisible protective shield.” It’s up to the techie-wonk David to crack their intelligence code, so what’s left of the world’s air forces can launch an attack against the alien mother ship.

Undeniably, it’s the film visual effects that are the star of this colossus. Emmerich has marshaled an accomplished technical team to near-perfection: The film’s action pyrotechnics are masterful, including raging fireballs sweeping amid skyscrapers, blitzkrieg-ish air battles and spectacular explosions. On occasion, one spots the blue-screened seams, but overall the actionery is astonishing, a credit to the sorcery of the visual effects supervisors, Volker Engel and Douglas Smith.

A large part of Independence Day’s excellence is, similarly, in its design – from the ominously scary alien ships to the slimy, skeletally challenged, reptilian-slithery aliens themselves. Highest praise to production designer-creature effects creator Patrick Tatopoulos and production designer Oliver Scholl for the ferocious look, both alien and earthly.

Further plaudits to cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub for the scaring scopings. Composer David Arnold’s terrific music, from the rattle of the snares to the thunder of the horns, is marvelously old-fashioned – a generic master work along the lines of The Guns of Navaronne.

Although there are no central heroes in this sci-fi actioner, Smith and Goldblum emerge as the epic’s nearest stars. Smith’s good-natured bravado is heroically appealing, while Goldblum’s herky-quirky demeanor is winningly apt as mankind’s counterintelligence to the aliens’ attack.

Also on the people front, a squadron of supporting players is wonderful. Judd Hirsch breathes comic life into his role as David’s curmudgeonly father, while Randy Quaid is goofily inspiring as a sotted crop-duster. Robert Loggia is well-cast as an iron-pants military man, while Vivica Fox is captivating as pilot Hiller’s stalwart girlfriend. Showing that they’ve crossed every “t” and dotted every “i,” the filmmakers have gone to the Spielberg vault to include mainstream audiences’ always favorite reactive-in-jeopardy character, a steadfast pooch, method-acted to perfection here by a happy setter. —Duane Byrge

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