Day 90: Today Will Be Our Day To Write About Independence Day

originally published March 30, 2012

In 1994 director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin were in Europe promoting Stargate, the movie that would eventually launch MacGyver back onto television screens. A reporter asked Emmerich why he directed an alien movie if he didn’t really believe in aliens. Emmerich replied that he was actually intrigued by the idea of an alien invasion, and asked the reporter to picture what it would be like to wake up to find 15-mile-wide ships floating above the major cities in the world.

And that’s the magical origin story of the biggest movie of 1996.

I was not among those who were queuing early on July 3rd to catch an immediate glimpse of Independence Day, which had been showing up as a teaser trailer in theatres for roughly twenty years. I was moderately interested, but I suspected that we may have seen the finest moments of the film in the pre-release advertising: specifically the Empire State Building, White House and Capitol Records building exploding. Cool as this was, I wasn’t convinced there would be much movie there.

Some would say I was right. The movie was ridiculously America-centric, especially the final moments in which (SPOILERS) Jeff Goldblum saves the day by uploading a virus to the mothership, crosscut with a speech so trite and contrived by the American president, I sprained my eyes from rolling them so hard, and was confined to bed-rest for a week.

In hindsight, it was a hit-and-miss movie for me. It spawned the new generation of alien-invasion-disaster films (Cloverfield, The Day After Tomorrow, Skyline), and I was never a fan of that genre. At least Independence Day had Judd Hirsch.

Emmerich and Devlin wrote the screenplay in two weeks, and it took 20th Century Fox all of one day to greenlight the project. Three days later they were in pre-production. If this film failed to impress some people, maybe it was because they didn’t put a great deal of thought into the story and characters. Maybe an idea is better when it sits for a few years so the writer can test its merits and iron out its flaws.

George Lucas actually plays into this story a little, since Independence Day was released a year before Lucas showed the world how to make a film almost entirely out of CGI. Emmerich and Devlin blew up the world the old fashioned way, with miniature sets and real fire.

The crew built twice as many miniatures than have ever been built for a film production. They built miniatures of the spaceships, but also of the landmarks and streets they wanted to blow up. Their mini-White House was ten feet by five feet. It took a week to plan and forty explosive charges to destroy this model. Their mini-New York and LA streets were mounted vertically, with a high-speed camera placed above the model. The effects team would set off the pyrotechnics and the flames would rise toward the camera, creating the illusion of an approaching wall of fire.

Emmerich and Devlin were hoping to use actual military equipment. The US military had loaned its equipment and pilots to movies before, most notably the 1986 Air Force commercial, Top Gun. The military withdrew its support when Emmerich and Devlin refused to delete the references to Area 51 from the script.

One of the easiest targets for critics was Bill Pullman’s pre-heroic speech to the men and women (and Randy Quaid) who were about to launch the final battle against the aliens in the Nevada desert. The final line, “Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!” was a last-minute addition by Devlin and Pullman. For Devlin, this was his way of trying to secure the rights to the film’s title. Apparently Warner Brothers owned the rights because of a long-forgotten 1983 film starring Dianne Weist and the chick who played Tom Hanks’ wife in Apollo 13. It worked.

The interior shots of the White House had recently been used for The American Presdient and Nixon, so that saved them a bit of money. The interior shots at Area 51 were constructed at an old aircraft plant. The shots in outer space were filmed in outer space with rented spaceships from a neighboring galaxy.

Another easy target for those who hated the movie was Randy Quaid’s death scene. He plays a nutjob (surprise!) who claims to have been previously abducted by aliens. The original script had him strapping a stolen missile to his biplane and flying that into the spaceship on his suicide mission. Actually, this was more than just in the script – they shot the scene and tested it like this, but Devlin decided it was too unrealistic. I guess ‘unrealistic’ was not something the producers wanted to include in this film.

Fast-forward to Super Bowl XXX, Cowboys vs. Steelers. The producers paid premium bucks for a commercial spot, and launched the six-month advertising bonanza from there, setting the precedent for the Super Bowl acting as the start line for the race to be the biggest summer blockbuster.

Fox made sure to include a number of big-money promotional tie-ins, like Coca-Cola, Molson Coors, and of course Apple, whose laptop saves the world in perhaps the film’s most reviled of plot twists. I will give them credit though, “Don’t Make Plans For August” was a clever tag-line.

After its premiere at the Mann Theatre in Hollywood, they screened it in the White House for Bill Clinton, then released it to the world. Soon, in those pre-Titanic and pre-Avatar days, it sat behind only Jurassic Park on the big list of box office successes, raking in more than $800 million worldwide. It begs the question, why are so many of these top-ranked films so… mediocre? (except for Jurassic Park. Come on, that movie rocked.)

Also, how awesome was it to be Jeff Goldblum back then, and have major roles in the two top-grossing films of all time?

There were tie-ins of course. Books, comics, radio shows, computer games, and a strange increase in dolphin-related jewelry because Vivica A. Fox wore some in the film.

Alright, it wasn’t a horrible movie. It was brashly American, and contained some thick, gooey cheesy moments, but it also sported a pretty solid cast, and the effects look pretty good 15 years later. They made some questionable decisions (that goddamn speech), but also some good ones (recasting Will Smith’s flying buddy from Matthew Perry to Harry Connick Jr.).

I’ll end this article on some bad news. Sequels. A trilogy. No good movie can stand alone, they have to make a trilogy out of everything now. Devlin and Emmerich announced last year that they’ve got treatments written up for two sequels, and hope to get Will Smith to star in both.

As long as they bring back the Hirsch.

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