A Paper I Wrote for a College Class in 1997 Defending ‘Independence Day’

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I discovered this file in an old dusty corner of my hard drive in the early 2010s. It’s my final paper for a film class I took in college. It was written in March 1997, when I was 22. I like to say that I’m incapable of feeling shame or embarrassment, but reading this tests my limits.

You can see how I was just starting to learn how to “read” a movie and state my case authoritatively. Unfortunately, I used these skills to assert that “Independence Day” is a great movie, “worthy of respect,” with a “surprisingly good” screenplay that “subtly” makes its points.

I got an A-. It was probably to my advantage that the instructor had not seen “Independence Day.”

Here’s the paper, exactly as I wrote it. Let me remind you that I was 22.

* * * * *

Yes, I’m Going to Defend Independence Day

People generally go to the movies hoping to accomplish at least one of four things: to laugh, to have their emotions stirred, to be frightened, or to be caught up in the film and taken away from everyday life. (Other things, such as being educated or having perceptions changed, may come as a result of movie-going, but few people go to a film with those purposes in mind.) Many films succeed in delivering two or three of these elements; rare is the film that has all four.

Last year’s ultra-hyped, multi-hundred-million-dollar-grossing spectacular Independence Day was often looked down upon by film critics because of its simplicity. They said the movie was too loud, special effects-packed, and action-oriented to be worth anything as a “serious” film. While it may indeed have had those characteristics, I maintain that it was still a good film because it succeeded in its attempts, and because it had all four of the elements that make a movie enjoyable for most viewing audiences. In this paper I will show that despite its conventionality and flashiness, Independence Day is a film worthy of respect.

The movie’s plot centers around the impending destruction of every living thing on Earth. Huge, city-sized spaceships from parts unknown begin hovering over the planet’s great metropolises and, at the same time, open fire, blowing up everything for miles around. A cable repairman named David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and his father (Judd Hirsch) rush to Washington D.C. to inform President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) that they know how to stop the aliens. In the meantime, Marine flyer Steven Hiller (Will Smith) tries to find his girlfriend (Vivica Fox), who is lost in the rubble somewhere, along with the First Lady, who dies, and in the end Steven and David download a computer virus into the aliens’ system, fly an alien spaceship found years earlier up to the main alien spacebase, and destroy all the aliens, thus saving the world. They have cigars to celebrate, oh, and Harry Connick, Jr., got killed way earlier.

Obviously, the plot is convoluted and twisted, with more than a few loopholes. (Goldblum can download a virus into an alien computer system? Aliens use computers? Aliens use Macintoshes? An alien spaceship that has not flown in forty years still works perfectly AND Will Smith, a 1990s pilot, can fly it? The list goes on.) I will not attempt to defend the storyline.

Thematically, the film is pure American agitprop. The message is, “The U.S.A. is the greatest country in the world, and most other countries aren’t even worth mentioning.” This idea is conveyed in a number of ways. First, the title, Independence Day, is a sign that the movie is going to be pro-America. The two main characters are a black man and a Jew, symbolizing America’s melting-pot heritage; there’s also a single mother and a homosexual thrown in to show the changing modernism that dominates 1990s American culture. The locations used show the great geographic variety of this country — New York, D.C., Los Angeles, the deserts of New Mexico, and the Bonneville Salt Flats (although that’s not what they’re supposed to be) are all featured prominently. In the end, even though the entire world faces the same enemy, it is America and America alone that figures out how to beat them.

If there is one scene that exemplifies this theme, it is the President’s rousing pep talk just before the rag-tag group of pilots goes off to battle. The speech culminates with this patriotic declaration: “The Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day we stood up and said we will not go quietly… the day the entire world declared its independence day!” A strong musical score and the actor’s delivery help this to be a stirring, moving speech, making one feel as patriotic as anything. And what he is declaring, essentially, is that because of what’s about to happen, Independence Day will be a world holiday — thanks to the Americans.

Many aspects of this movie are exemplary. Design, editing, and directing are all well-done; however, I have chosen to analyze the cinematography, screenplay, and music/sound. As is usually the case, it is the combination of two or more of these elements that make a scene good, hence, our discussion will often overlap.

The music in Independence Day has the grand, heavily orchestrated feel of films such as Star Wars and Jurassic Park, and it plays an important role in setting the mood and heightening dramatic effect. The mood is set immediately with a shot of the U.S. flag on the moon. The camera pulls back to reveal the plaque put there by U.S. astronauts in 1969. While this is happening, we hear Neil Armstrong’s voice reading the plaque (“we came in peace for all mankind…”), along with a simple but strong musical score, punctuated with horns playing in unison and a military drum beat. It creates a mood of war, courage, and especially triumph. Subtly, however, the music changes. It turns to a minor key, with more strings and synthesizers, just as an enormous spaceship begins to loom, casting a shadow over the flag. The new mood is dark and ominous.

Just after this, we cut to a radar center on Earth, where someone is listening to the radio. The R.E.M. song “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” is playing as someone first detects the presence of the U.F.O.s. This particular song is obviously a case of foreshadowing, but it also establishes that the movie is going to be tongue-in-cheek. Realistically, the audience knows that the movie is going to deal with alien invasion, so hearing this song is funny to them. The movie is being ironic, almost self-referential, and that attitude wins over the audience right from the start.

Another case of ironic music comes later, when the character of Russell Casse (Randy Quaid) is introduced. He’s an alcoholic Vietnam veteran who currently flies a crop duster. Our first vision of him is as he soars over the fields, swooping majestically. The musical score fits this perfectly, with melodic, flowing strings making you feel as if you are flying too. (The cinematography here also helps, but we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.) The irony comes in the fact that Russell is a) drunk, and b) flying over the wrong field. However, the music makes him seem like a hero — and indeed, this motif of Everyman becoming Great is one that pops up numerous times throughout the film.

In a film with as many special effects as this one has, the dramatic scenes must be very engaging and absorbing. If you lose the audience in the blowing-up scenes, they’re certainly not going to pay attention during the talking parts. The music helps this immensely. Whenever the huge alien spacecraft fly overhead, the same ominous, dark music plays. It is not as imposing as the famous Jaws theme, but it achieves the same effect of getting us on the edge of our seats, ready for action.

Another effective use of music to heighten dramatic effect comes in the climax of the film. All the American pilots have used their missiles, and the alien ship is still not destroyed. In fact, it is about to fire its primary weapon and destroy the entire military base below. But Russell comes along just in time, and he still has one missile. As he goes to fire it… it malfunctions. At the very instant that we see the word “malfunction” appear on the screen in his cockpit, we also hear several trumpets and French horns playing a series of discordant notes. The effect is jarring. The music has a taunting feel to it, as if the orchestra is laughing in derision at our sudden feelings of frustration and fear.

Independence Day has a lot going on in it; good cinematography is needed to make sure everything looks right. Camera angles and composition are two tools used with great success in the film; we’ll discuss them alphabetically (i.e., camera angles first).

Much discussion is had within the film about the size of the U.F.O.s — they’re as big as a city. Most of the times that they are shot, it is from below. They usually come in at the top of the screen, we see their underbellies, and they eventually fill the whole frame.

When the destruction actually begins, there are several shots of tall buildings being blasted. The shots are from the street, looking up to the top of the building, with the huge spaceship just above that. The effect is that these skyscrapers, which we normally marvel at, look insignificant because of the city-sized ships hovering over them.

More noticeable than the camera angles is the composition of several keys scenes. When the spaceships first become noticed and the White House must react, there is a shot of the Oval Office. The shot is from above, with the room perfectly framed (well, as perfectly as an oval room can be framed, anyway), and we see mass chaos. White House aides are running around frantically, phones are ringing. The room itself is symmetrical, but everything going on inside of it is not.

A second example of good composition comes the day after the destruction. Vivica Fox’s character has survived, along with her son and her dog (millions of people die in this movie, including the First Lady, but heaven forbid we should kill the dog!), and she emerges from the rubble. Her tiny body is at the bottom right corner of the screen, and the rest of the frame is filled with rubble and destruction. It’s a brown, barren landscape, with a few smoldering palm trees, and the woman is made to seem small, insignificant, and alone.

The best composition shot in the film is immediately after the first attack. We have already witnessed many buildings being blown up, including the White House; there have been fires, earthquakes, cars flying around, and just a general brouhaha. Then it all stops. The music calms down. The pace slows. We cut to a gray, dirty shot of what used to be the New York City skyline. In the background, above it all, is one of the alien spacecraft, slowly hovering and moving away. In the foreground is the Statue of Liberty lying face down in the mud. This shot, when seen in context, is emotionally stirring. Everything that has happened so far has been terrible, but not too symbolic for us personally. Even the destruction of the White House didn’t mean much: the White House symbolizes politics and scandals to a modern American, and nothing more. But the Statue of Liberty symbolizes America, and everything America is supposed to stand for. Lady Liberty has never been sullied with controversy or scandal; even cynical ‘90s citizens can’t help but feel respect for everything that made this country great, which is also everything the Statue represents. Seeing it face down in the mud, with the same stoic expression and somehow still looking dignified, lights a fire in the viewer. Suddenly, we develop a very strong, passionate hatred for the enemy. The aliens have attacked us personally, and from this point on, we long to see their destruction.

Which brings us to screenplay. Typically the weakest element in an action/adventure movie, the screenplay in Independence Day is surprisingly good. The many loopholes in the plot prevent it from being great, but several techniques are used effectively. Among these are symbolism and characterization.

The symbolism of the Statue of Liberty has already been noted; there are other examples that also help establish the theme of American patriotism. The very first shot of the film is of the American flag on the moon. Accompanying it is the sound of Neil Armstrong talking about the grand accomplishment that it was to land on the moon. Both the flag and the moon landing, in this context, symbolize American dominance and innovation.

The phrase “God help us all” is used twice in the movie, once by the President. This phrase, especially when used in American political situations, reminds one of “In God We Trust,” inscribed on all U.S. currency, and once the hallmark of American life.

When the Americans develop a plan to defeat the aliens, they cannot send the message to the other nations through normal means because the aliens have already proven their adeptness at intercepting and interpreting satellite signals. So the U.S. military sends the message via Morse Code — an American invention.

Finally, when it comes time for the big battle at the end, the American troops have been decimated. It becomes necessary, therefore, to enlist the aid of any civilian who can fly a plane. This results in an Air Force consisting of some rather motley characters, including the aforementioned drunken crop-duster Russell Casse. This hearkens back to the first battle for independence, in the 1770s, which also consisted of ordinary civilians fighting for their rights. In fact, that was the major difference between the American and British troops: the British army had nice uniforms and marched in straight lines, while the Americans wore whatever they had and hid in the trees. It was this “ordinariness” that helped America win the War for Independence, and with the President’s pep talk in Independence Day containing several allusions to that war, the comparison is unmistakable.

Ultimately, it is the characterization that makes Independence Day a very good movie and separates it from many others of its genre. The characters in this movie are, without exception, ordinary, unglamorous, everyday people, and — and this is the key — they continue to act that way even when they are put in extraordinary circumstances. They are the epitome of what Americans have become: casual and unpretentious.

This is shown right from the beginning. The first scene with people in it is at a high-tech radar center. Not only is the radio playing, but when a high-ranking official comes in to try to determine what the disturbance is, he trips over golf balls. Someone was practicing his putting in the middle of a multi-million-dollar laboratory.

The list of examples for this element is endless. Will Smith and Vivica Fox’s characters are awakened by the sound of the huge spacecraft moving overhead, and they think it’s an earthquake. Their reaction? “Not even a four-pointer,” and then back to sleep. Smith’s character, when he does get out of bed, stands and looks out the bathroom window while peeing in an extremely casual manner. The President jokes with his wife on the phone, telling her he slept with “a beautiful blonde” — referring to their young daughter. Judd Hirsch’s stereotypical Jewish father character nags his son even while flying on Air Force One, in the midst of alien destruction. A teenage boy tells his girlfriend, “This will be our last night on earth. You don’t want to die a virgin, do you?” An L.A. newscaster warns viewers not to greet the aliens by firing their guns in the air. “You may inadvertently trigger an interstellar war,” he says. These are people who, while they comprehend the seriousness of everything, remain themselves throughout it. This attitude permeates every character in the movie, and even the attitude of the movie itself.

Ultimately, this characterization adds tremendously to the “America-is-great” theme of the movie. Steven Hiller is an ordinary Marine pilot; President Whitmore is an ordinary guy as President; Russell Casse is just a drunk guy; David Levinson is a cable repairman — and they all wind up saving the world. They’re normal Americans who do unnormal things, just like Americans have done for over two hundred years.

That’s the point of the movie: America is great, and the reason it’s great is that everyday people keep making amazing accomplishments, inventing amazing machines, creating amazing works of art, and setting amazing trends — all while still being everyday people. In America, anyone can be a hero. Hollywood — in many parts of the world the most visual representation of America — is proof of that, and this movie, which at its heart is a typical Hollywood movie, presents it dramatically. (The movie itself even exemplifies its own theme. Where in the world could a film whose plot is riddled with holes and which was dismissed by critics as mere “popcorn” entertainment become one of the highest-grossing films of all time? Only in America, baby.)

As is often the case with this sort of Hollywood blockbuster, a number of copy-cat movies came out at around the same time. One of these was The Arrival, starring Charlie Sheen. (Warning flags should go up immediately: this is going to be a bad film.) The Arrival features pretty good special effects and a similar aliens-take-over-the-Earth storyline. Where the two movies part ways, however, is in characterization.

Independence Day has a variety of characters that are enjoyable and sympathetic, and the audience identifies with them. Put simply, they’re likable. In The Arrival, however, Charlie Sheen plays the lead character, and he is despicable. He steals, lies, drinks too much, and abuses women. To make matters worse, he does all of these things without fanfare. At least characters like Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole and James Cagney in White Heat are so obviously reprehensible that we know the screenwriter intended for them to be viewed with contempt. Charlie Sheen’s character is immoral and corrupt, but the screenwriter wants us to like him anyway. The movie wants us to just accept him as he is, practically daring us to stand up and point out what a jerk he is so that we can be mocked for being old-fashioned and non-progressive.

Interestingly, Independence Day has characters who also have serious moral problems. Vivica Fox’s character is a stripper with a live-in boyfriend; Judd Hirsch has forsaken his religion; Randy Quaid is an alcoholic. We have been trained to disapprove of these sorts of sins, and yet we like all of these characters. Why? Because somehow their charm, their appeal, and the way they are portrayed by the actors make up for their questionable personal choices. We really don’t notice the mistakes they’ve made because we’re so caught up in them as human beings.

Charlie Sheen, on the other hand, is just a jerk, and I found myself hoping the aliens would kill him. If his part had been written and/or performed better, it might have made a difference, but as it is, it serves as a stark contrast between good and bad characterization in film.

Independence Day has more depth to it than it first appears to have. It is doubtful that the filmmakers intended for the points brought out in this paper to ever be brought out; their intent was to make money. But at the same time, they knew that people would not see a movie repeatedly simply because of cool special effects. There had to be something in the movie that was engaging, intriguing, captivating — something that viewers wouldn’t be able to identify at first, but that they would know they liked.

Independence Day succeeds because it entertains in so many ways. It has humor, pathos, suspense, fear, and exploding things. It succeeds at its main purpose of being fun, but it also succeeds at its secondary purpose — to make a point about America and everything it stands for. Regardless of how ethno-centric this attitude may be, the fact remains that the film does a good job of subtly presenting it.

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