The following was originally published on Tailslate.net in 2010. In honor of Independence Day, I’m reposting it here.
Let’s consider the repeat factor. I’m not talking about the sit-com variety – I’m talking about the movies that are always on various cable channels no matter what the time of day or year. Flip through your direct TV lineup and you will no doubt catch Morgan Freeman saying, “Get busy livin’ or get busy dying,” on yet another showing of The Shawshank Redemption.
But it isn’t only Shawshank that gets a lot of repeat playtime. One other in particular appears with the same remarkable frequency. You know the one I mean. The one about aliens and the end of the world and Will Smith. I’m talkin’ Independence Day.
I have seen this film hundreds of times. I know all the lines. I can visualize all the cheesy graphics which were cool a mere nine years ago. I think I can even hum the THX intro in perfect pitch. But as far as sci-fi goes, this is no Star Wars. Why then is it so compelling, and why do I never tire of it?
These were the questions that plagued me one night this past week when I caught another random showing of the film at 1:30 in the morning. It was more than Will Smith – though he does provide a good reason for watching. It was more than watching national monuments, as well as New York and LA, explode in scenes that border more on schadenfreude than shocking. This was a movie that represents why we go to movies in the first place
The premise is trite – hostile aliens invade and we have to defeat them. It’s the destruction of the world as we know it, but with the exceptions of a few cuts to other countries, this is primarily an American moment. Not only do we get all the destruction scenes, we are the only country to apparently have some sort of plan to save humanity. The title should tip you off, though. This is our Independence Day.
The president in this film, played by Bill Pullman, is tops on my list of “fictional-presidents-I-would-vote-for-in-real-life.” Aside from, well, being Bill Pullman, he’s young, cool, and gives a rousing, clichéd, speech that for the last few years has been excerpted on most people’s Fourth of July Facebook statuses.
He also is pretty no-nonsense when it comes to the aliens terrorizing his planet. When it becomes clear that there will be no peace with them, this president doesn’t debate the legality of killing the enemy. “Nuke ‘em” he says, and we all cheer. So much for Guantanamo.
The heroes are typical. Jeff Goldblum as the nerdy, environmentally friendly dork, and Will Smith as the cool, good looking, soldier who wants to be an astronaut, are as believable as they are contrived. But for some reason, we love them – regardless of Goldblum’s underacting.
Perhaps it is the implausible moments in the film that make it so wonderful. Do I believe that hiding in a closet will save a woman, her son, and their dog as a tunnel is consumed with a fire that destroyed all of downtown LA? Is it possible that a Dell laptop can link to the mother ship of a much more intelligent alien species? And really, how can Will Smith fly that spacecraft without oxygen or an instruction manual?
But that’s the stuff that makes this movie one of the many included in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. It’s ridiculous, but you buy it. It’s a bit pedestrian, but you’re riveted. And though it tries to be universal in its appeal, this is an American showcase, more so than any other end-of-the world gig. And so we cheer on, and watch again and again waiting for that moment when Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum smoke their cigars after kicking ET’s ass.
People go to the movies for different reasons. Some people want to cry, others want to see good acting. Most of us, I think, just want a good time. A fun escape for two hours or so. Independence Day delivers that. You don’t get bored. And you don’t get tired of it.
That’s why we love it. That’s why it is always on. That’s why we go to the movies.
That and Will Smith.