It’s July 4th and since it’s a holiday I usually have to work I decided to partake in an old tradition from college and high school on July 3rd and watched one of the seminal movies of my generation, Independence Day.
I saw this movie twice when it was new. Once as a family move in the summer, and again with some friends at the dollar theater during its second run (do movies even have those anymore?) I loved it. Though at the time I may not have known why.
Then I went through the cynical phase of my twenties where everything that I thought was “cool” as a teenager must have been “lame” so I decided this cheesy blockbuster probably fit that bill too. It didn’t help that the production team of this movie ended up churning out one formulaic disaster film after another in the years that followed, or that, by the time my cynical phase hit, the general mood of the country and its entertainment started to turn “dark,” which later resulted in the dreary, joyless action movies that were troughed to us until The Expendables and Marvel reminded us that they could be fun again.
I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. I hadn’t seen the film all the way through in maybe a decade, and its reputation has faltered as “cliché” in recent years. But moments in, when the moon shakes and the ominous shadow sweeps over the Apollo landing site…I was sucked in again. And stayed that way through the entire film.
The characters, while yes are broad ethnic and narrative stereotypes, are still lovable and every one of them has a purpose. Will Smith is charming and energetic. Jeff Goldblum is awkward but heroic. Bill Pullman is tortured but a leader. Everyone is there for a reason and acts within their purpose at all times.
The alien menace is faceless through most of the movie, but when they are shown they are generic enough that they remain the unknown threat even after the amusement park ride tour of their mother ship. Their weapons are insurmountable and their motives make them unstoppable. Which leaves a combination of special qualities to stop them: human ingenuity, creativity, and cooperation.
This movie doesn’t have any chosen ones, or destiny stories. All of the characters are actually on a bit of a lull when the film starts, Smith’s Hiller can’t be an astronaut, his girlfriend is an exotic dancer working for a loser boss, Goldblum’s David is an overqualified TV network tech, Randy Quaid’s Casse is a drunken incompetent incapable of even providing for his nomadic family, and the President is being lambasted in the media. All slightly down, all very different but when the crisis occurs they all rise to the challenge. Each of them a metaphor of the way the disparate nations and ethnicities in the world come together to beat back the alien menace and “not go quietly into that good night.”
Is it all a little optimistic and cheesy? Hell yes. And hell yes it’s awesome. This was before every character’s story had to be told in flashback to give them all “proper motivation” and before Christopher Nolan turned every one of these stories into tales of dark, tormented tales of survival that both over explain motivations and suck all character from the characters.
It’s FUN. it’s funny. It’s exciting. And most importantly it’s optimistic. Which is something oh so many films and entertainment have seemed to forget they could be.
I know enough of history to know the fables of our country’s “birthday” are heaped in legend and not as glorious as the Revere printing press would have us believe. But if there’s one thing you could gain out of Independence Day, and not coincidently the main theme of the film that bears the same name, is that hope and optimism are can never truly be defeated. Maybe beaten down a bit but it will always come back to win in the end. It’s what people are, and what we really want.
So turn off all the hate and negativity that’s saturating news, entertainment, and politics right now. Put on Independence Day and remind yourself of the fun and positivity that can be experienced when a group of people, whether they be fictional characters, film makers, or movie goers, turn off the cynicism and remember what life was like as a kid in the movies.