"Independence Day"

If you like 'em big and stupid, you can't argue with larger-than-life patriotism, exploding alien spaceships and a homage to "Planet of the Apes."

Published August 29, 2000 7:30PM (EDT)

"Independence Day" (Five Star Collection)
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Starring Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Randy Quaid
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment; widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Nine minutes of added footage, 30-minute making-of documentary, 33-minute featurette hosted by Jeff Goldblum, director/producer commentary, visual effects commentary, more

"Didn't I promise you fireworks?"

That's fighter pilot Will Smith at the end of "Independence Day." Behind him, as he utters those words to his stepson, fragments of alien spaceships burn up in the atmosphere, streaking the sky with multicolored trails. It's a silly moment, full of flag-waving patriotism and garish special effects, stopped dead by an even sillier line.

But that's "Independence Day." And if nothing else, director Roland Emmerich did promise fireworks. The movie's entire marketing campaign (most of it is included on the DVD, including a shameless commercial by Apple) was built around an astonishing composite shot of the White House exploding into tiny pieces -- an image that remains pretty thin on the exposition. The only thing we knew at the time we saw that commercial during the Super Bowl was that the movie was going to be huge.

And, of course, it was. The plot was simple. On July 2, a fleet of ruthless alien destroyer ships wipe out the biggest cities on Earth. The Empire State Building explodes. Fire rolls down the streets. Cars fly. On July 3, Americans take cover at Area 51. Will Smith shoots down a spaceship and punches the alien pilot in the head. He says, "That's what I call a close encounter." On July 4, President Bill Pullman -- a Gulf War pilot -- leads an attack against the interstellar usurpers. Jeff Goldblum and Smith visit the alien mother ship. Jet fighters dogfight with alien ships. Fireworks. The end.

Yes, the special effects are spectacular. But it's hard to say what's more offensive about the rest of the movie: its stupid dialogue (President Pullman: "In the Gulf War we knew what we had to do. It's not that simple anymore") and poorly drawn characters (lovable drunk Randy Quaid) or its questionable political messages. In "Independence Day," the sniveling gay man (Harvey Fierstein, of course) gets crushed on his way to see his mother; the black woman is a hardworking stripper; and the United States and its impressive military might are responsible for saving the planet from a heretofore unseen enemy. (One of the DVD documentaries, unsurprisingly, features a clip of Ronald Reagan talking about the alien threat and the USA's military preparedness.)

Almost equally stupid are the director and producer commentaries, which feature lines just as dumb as what comes out in the film. As the image of a toppled Statue of Liberty rolls across the screen, producer and screenwriter Dean Devlin offers this: "I thought that shot said so much -- as well as being a homage to 'Planet of the Apes.'"

The rest of the time, Emmerich and Devlin congratulate performers, explain how they shot certain special effects on a shoestring and talk about the reactions of test audiences. They also point out 15 minutes of extra footage added for this special edition, which only helps establish the hokey computer virus that Goldblum uses to bring down the mother ship. (This two-disc edition features both the original edit and the new cut in full.) A second commentary track features two dry special-effects supervisors talking about building models and the giant soundstage they used to make the movie.

Three separate documentaries on the making of the movie and the special effects all use overlapping interviews with cast members and special-effects coordinators. The most adventuresome of the three elaborates on fake video news footage in an imaginary "War of the Worlds"-type broadcast.

The biggest risk of the entire enterprise is the inclusion of an alternate ending where Quaid attacks one of the alien destroyers in his crop-dusting biplane. It's a scene that points out just how manipulative and weird the political messages of the film actually are. Then producer Devlin explains that the scene really tested well, but that, you know, it was just so much more dramatic to watch Quaid make his decision in an F-18. Plus, it looked a lot cooler.

By Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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