2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.
Film tropes and conventions are like fire: dangerous in the hands of someone with insufficient skill or respect, but a powerful tool for those who truly understand them. Mockery of said tropes falls along similar lines. Done lazily, it can be even more predictable and less entertaining than a half-hearted execution or repetition of those same conventions. It’s not enough to point out familiar plot points or aesthetic choices—a filmmaker has to interrogate the foundational elements of whatever genre (sci-fi, horror, crime thriller) they’re diving into.
When a film demonstrates this kind of knowing, loving mockery, it can turn into a classic in its own right, like Galaxy Quest or Shaun of the Dead. But truly special movies take it one step further, invoking convention in order to build on it, interchanging knowing winks at the audience with clever new additions to the canon.
Independence Day, one of the greatest films in the history of American cinema, is just such a production.
Cowritten by Dean Devlin and director Roland Emmerich, Independence Day is littered with nods to totemic science-fiction films. These range from sly in-jokes like having The Day the Earth Stood Still on TV the afternoon before the first alien attack, to more obvious gags meant to come as laugh-out-loud moments: Before the final battle, David (Jeff Goldblum) boots up his laptop, which greets him with a “Good morning, Dave,” in the same tone as HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. As David and Steve (Will Smith) try to escape the alien mothership, Goldblum repeats the “Must go faster” line he’d uttered for the first time three years earlier while fleeing from a Tyrannosaurus rex in Jurassic Park. The chase itself resembles nothing so much as the Millennium Falcon escaping the Death Star in Return of the Jedi, and after Steve and David crash-land in the desert, the shot of them walking away from their downed spacecraft might look familiar.
That’s because it’s almost identical to a scene near the end of The Right Stuff.
The best of these in-jokes is the casting of Brent Spiner as the frantic and disheveled Area 51 scientist Dr. Okun. In 1996, Spiner had just wrapped up a seven-year run as Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, a role that required him to play an emotionless android attempting to understand and ultimately embody humanity. Okun’s rumpled clothes, outrageous wig, and utter lack of social skills could not have been more at odds with Data’s unwavering precision—an actor who was most familiar to audiences as incapable of laughing became the film’s comic relief.
But most of Independence Day’s sci-fi references aren’t designed to be funny; they’re there to show that if aliens invaded Earth in 1996, they’d be invading a world that was fairly obsessed with movies about aliens. When the countdown to the alien attack disrupts television reception, one angry customer calls into David’s network to complain that they can’t watch The X-Files. Will Smith’s heroic Marine pilot Steve Hiller delivers one-liners about E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind not because the writers wanted to insert a quick inside joke, but because it would be weird not to make those references if one were fighting aliens.
So well-known are the traditions and beats of a sci-fi epic that Devlin and Emmerich could not circumvent or even subvert them. Instead, they steered into the skid and delivered exactly what audiences had demonstrated they wanted through decades of science-fiction filmmaking.
The alien spaceships? Literally flying saucers equipped with energy shields and laser weapons. The aliens themselves are slick with huge eyes and tentacles. The struggling idealistic president not only delivers a spectacular pep talk before the climactic final battle, he straps on a helmet and parachute and leads the mission himself from the cockpit of an F/A-18. The two major aerial battles—the first early in the movie over the ruins of Los Angeles, the other in the finale—are homages to the Death Star runs from the original Star Wars trilogy, from the radio chatter to the goal of landing a miraculous missile hit on the superweapon’s hidden weak spot to Hiller’s escape through the Grand Canyon. (One of Hiller’s squadron mates shouts, “There’s too many of them!” a common exclamation during Star Wars battle scenes, right before he’s vaporized.)
Oh, and that climactic battle? It takes place over Area 51, which is not only real in the film, but also contains the wreckage of an alien spacecraft which crash-landed in Roswell, New Mexico, just as the urban legend says. Give. The. People. What. They. Want.
Independence Day is not alone in drawing so obviously from its influences; for instance, how much does Star Wars owe to Akira Kurosawa or Lawrence of Arabia? But this masterpiece not only plays the hits, it plays them bigger and better than before. The 15 mile-wide flying saucers emerge from clouds of flame and smoke and loom over their target cities like the executioner’s ax before destroying those cities—specifically New York, Los Angeles, and Washington—in a mesmerizing wave of color and sound. Whatever Emmerich’s faults as a director, he knows a spectacle when he sees one, and Independence Day’s only Oscar win was for visual effects.
Bill Pullman’s speech, jingoistic and broad as it may be, has passed into film legend in its own right, as has Smith’s star-making performance—few action-movie heroes have Hiller’s magnetic combination of charisma, humor, and rectitude. “Welcome to Earth” is now just as much a part of mainstream American pop culture as “I’ll be back,” or “Use the Force, Luke.”
It wasn’t long before other movies started drawing on Independence Day. One example came in 1999’s Muppets From Space, a more traditional parody film that referenced Close Encounters and Star Trek, and featured a two-minute nearly shot-for-shot send-up of Spiner’s Dr. Okun operating on the downed alien pilot.
Pullman, Spiner, and Goldblum had starred in prominent sci-fi films before they were cast in Independence Day, and several other actors broke into successful space operas in the following years: Mary McDonnell in Battlestar Galactica, Adam Baldwin in Firefly, and Smith in several films, most successfully the Men in Black series.
The cultural impact of Independence Day endures in many ways: It has spectacular visual effects, endlessly quotable dialogue, and Smith at the exact moment he was about to turn into the biggest movie star on the planet, as well as a deep bench of great character actors.
But more than anything else, Independence Day could not be a more joyful and earnest expression of what it is: the alien-invasion flick, the summer action blockbuster. It’s clever without being smug, self-aware without being self-impressed. It knows its audience, and aims only to thrill and entertain. Independence Day’s creators loved the genre they built on. How could audiences not love the movie in return?