There’s a mature way to talk about Independence Day. I should know, I’ve started writing this response about twelve times and this attempt is an entirely new draft. The mature way involves complementing David Brenner’s editing, complementing director Emmerich’s ability to integrate the special effects (regardless of their quality) and saying something nice about some of those special effects. Not all of them. The film has laughably bad explosions and lame matte shots. One could argue it was early in the CG days and it did actually have a limited budget so it did all right.
One could argue those things and, if trying to be mature, one might accept them and consider them.
I won’t be considering them further than this paragraph. Because what Independence Day does is embrace being a half measure, it tells its audience the recognizable but not exactly A-list cast is good enough, it tells its audience David Arnold’s “I’m like John Williams but bad” score is good enough. And it worked, because Emmerich and co-writer Dean Devlin aren’t serious filmmakers. I mean, they might take Independence Day seriously, which is a mistake because it means the jokes never quite work–Bill Pullman, the stupidest person on the face of the earth, as the President of the United States, in a terrible performance. It ought to be amazing. And it’s never even all right.
Because Emmerich and Devlin aren’t serious. They don’t care about integrity or craft and they know there’s a lot of potential audience who don’t care about it either. And they were right. Emmerich’s handling of the special effects, which very well may have done wonders in acclimating general moviegoers to science fiction action, isn’t thoughtful. His multiple homages to Spielberg are so awkward because he’s clueless. Emmerich knows how to present the visual information for consumption, but he can’t make a single artful thing. And he knows it. Independence Day is hilariously comfortable in its own mediocrity, which is a complement. It would actually be worse if it resented being so lame.
Not to say Devlin and Emmerich don’t exhibit confidence in the screenplay. They do, even down to Harry Connick Jr.’s moron sidekick to Will Smith. Or Randy Quaid’s lovably drunk Vietnam vet crop duster. They know how to do what they want to do. They just don’t want to do too much. Mary McDonnell as the First Lady, for example. She gets a similar treatment as Connick or Quaid, but McDonnell’s good enough to get through the part (she has less to do). She, Judd Hirsch and Adam Baldwin get through Independence Day the best. Baldwin probably gives the best performance (in the film), while Hirsch is downright terrible. But part of the point is admiring Hirsch’s professionalism in his terrible performance. Of course it’s awful, but look at how consistent he is with it. He’s a pro.
Not so much with Jeff Goldblum, who’s playing the really smart guy, only Emmerich and Devlin’s understanding of intelligence is apparently based on reruns of “Head of the Class.”
As for breakout star Will Smith. He’s good about twenty percent of the time. He’s got some annoying dialogue, which Smith essays with gusto, but he still manages to be somewhat likable. Maybe that sympathy comes from the film eventually treating him like a moron. The plot’s moronic, yet Smith has to be even more moronic so Goldblum can explain things to him (and the audience). Smith’s dialogue then has him spout of non sequiturs meant to maintain his independent likability while still acknowledging Goldblum’s superior intellect.
It’s heinously manipulative but also awfully rendered, so who cares? Emmerich’s direction of Smith and Goldblum’s scenes is his worst direction of actors in the film and his direction of actors is atrocious.
The first third, setting up the alien attack, isn’t godawful. It’s fine, if still poorly acted and poorly written. It does start to go downhill when Goldblum and Hirsch join Pullman’s storyline, but there’s still a pace (and some of the film’s best effects sequences).
The rest of it? So much worse. Even Arnold’s music gets worse.
Independence Day is a film with a bad James Rebhorn performance. Such a thing should not exist.
Directed by Roland Emmerich; written by Dean Devlin and Emmerich; director of photography, Karl Walter Lindenlaub; edited by David Brenner; music by David Arnold; production designers, Patrick Tatopoulos and Oliver Scholl; produced by Devlin; released by 20th Century Fox.
Starring Will Smith (Captain Steven Hiller), Bill Pullman (President Thomas J. Whitmore), Jeff Goldblum (David Levinson), Mary McDonnell (First Lady Marilyn Whitmore), Judd Hirsch (Julius Levinson), Robert Loggia (General William Grey), Randy Quaid (Russell Casse), Margaret Colin (Constance Spano), Vivica A. Fox (Jasmine Dubrow), James Rebhorn (Albert Nimziki), Harvey Fierstein (Marty Gilbert), Adam Baldwin (Major Mitchell) and Brent Spiner (Dr. Brakish Okun).