Independence Day [DVD]
Screenplay : Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Will Smith (Capt. Steven Hiller), Bill Pullman (President Thomas J. Whitmore), Jeff Goldblum (David Levinson), Mary McDonnell (Marilyn Whitmore), Judd Hirsch (Julius Levinson), Robert Loggia (General William Grey), Randy Quaid (Russell Casse), Margaret Colin (Constance Spano), James Rebhorn (Albert Nimzicki), Harvey Fierstein (Marty Gilbert), Adam Baldwin (Major Mitchell), Brent Spiner (Dr. Brakish Okun), James Duval (Miguel Casse), Vivica A. Fox (Jasmine Dubrow)
"Independence Day" is a movie that piles one astounding image on top of another. Whether that be a 15-mile-wide alien spaceship destroying the White House in the film's most memorable scene of wanton destruction, or a seemingly endless caravan of RVs and pickup trucks cutting through a white expanse of Nevada desert, nothing in this film is small. It is little surprise that it turned out to be such a monster hit in the summer of 1996 and that it still remains in the top 10 all-time highest grossing movies.
Created by the director-producer team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, who at the time were best know for the modest sci-fi hit "Stargate" (1994), "ID4" is really a 1950s alien invasion flick retooled with millions of dollars worth of elaborate special effects that range from the latest in CGI digital imaging to old-fashioned tricks like models and motion-control cameras. All the effects are blended seamlessly and combined with a large cast of familiar faces to tell what is perhaps the most well-worn story from the annals of science fiction: aliens arrive on Earth, and they don't have good intentions.
Narratives of this type are at least as old as Victorian "future war" stories, like Col. George Tomkyns Chesney's 1871 pamphlet "The Battle of Dorking," which was really just propaganda for army reform in England. However, it was H.G. Wells' well-known 1898 book "The War of the Worlds," which was about invading Martians, that established the original template for the extraterrestrial invasion story, which has since been told and retold through countless pulp magazines like "Astounding Stories" and B-movies like "Earth Versus the Flying Saucers" (1953).
Like "War of the Worlds," "Independence Day" is about aliens invading Earth for its natural resources. Emmerich and Devlin, who co-wrote the script, don't waste any time getting the invasion started. The opening shot is of the moonscape, where Neil Armstrong's famous footprint is literally shaken out of existence as the alien mother ship, seen only as a gradually moving shadow, moves over it. This mother ship is one-fourth the size of the moon, and it will soon spawn more than three dozen smaller ships (only 15 miles wide apiece) that will eventually descend from the clouds and block out the sky over all the major cities on Earth.
As news of major disturbances in the skies spreads around the world, we are introduced (in classic disaster movie fashion) to all dozen or so major characters, including U.S. President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman), who was a Gulf War hero; David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), an MIT graduate whose lack of ambition has landed him working for a cable company; Julius Levinson (Judd Hirsch, David's crusty-but-lovable old Jewish grump of a father; Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), an alcoholic crop duster who flew in Vietnam and claims to have been abducted by aliens 10 years earlier; and, of course, Capt. Steven Hiller, an ace Marine fighter pilot played by Will Smith. Smith's casting here seems, in retrospect, like a no-brainer. Of course, at the time he was best known for the TV sitcom "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," which gave no indication of whether or not he could play the romantic lead in a summer action film. As it turned out, he could, and Smith's vibrant, always-charismatic presence turns out to be one of the film's strong points.
Once the story picks up momentum, there is no slowing down. As expected, the aliens attack in a jaw-dropping display of FX pyrotechnics that lay waste to Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC. Once the majority of the world is decimated, the remaining humans have to band together to figure out a counterattack. Emmerich and Devlin are clever in the way they knit their story together with preexisting myths and legends about UFOs, most notably the infamous 1953 UFO crash at Roswell, which here turns out to have been true. In "Independence Day," Area 51 is very much a reality, looked after by a scruffy, long-haired mad-scientist type named Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner) who gets the movie's funniest line when he says, quite seriously, "As you can imagine, they don't let us out much."
The ending of the film is something of an extended homage to the space battles in "Return of the Jedi" (1983), complete with military fighter planes dogfighting with alien attackers. Meanwhile, Goldblum and Smith's characters fly into the alien mother ship in outer space and attempt to dismantle the alien defense shields (the use of a computer virus is a highly questionable plot device, as it relies on the unlikely notion that human and alien computer systems are somehow compatible). The grand finale goes on a bit too long, and the President's pre-battle speech about redefining the Fourth of July from an American holiday about freedom from oppression to an international holiday about freedom from annihilation is a tad over-the-top in its rah-rah, get-the-audience-cheering enthusiasm.
But, that's the kind of movie "Independence Day" is: big, loud, shamelessly corny, and full of unapologetic sound of fury. To have done anything less would have been a cop out.
"Independence Day" is available in a THX-certified two-disc DVD set that is part of Fox Home Video's new Five Star Collection. The first disc includes both the 144-minute theatrical cut and the 153-minute special edition cut with nine additional minutes of restored footage. The second disc is all supplements.
16x9 Enhanced: Yes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround; Dolby 2.0 Surround
Languages: English, French
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Extras: Audio commentary with Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin; audio commentary with special effects supervisors Volker Engel and Doug Smith; "Creating Reality" 30-minute documentary on making "ID4"; "ID4 Invasion" 22-minute alien invasion mock-umentary; "HBO First Look: The Making of 'Independence Day'" 33-minute featurette; original biplane ending sequence; storyboards; original artwork; production stills; theatrical trailers and TV spots; DVD-ROM game "Get Off My Planet"; link to "ID4" online game
Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Video
Video: This is a reference-quality disc. The THX-certified anamorphic widescreen transfer is fantastic--one the best I've seen recently. The extra resolution inherent in the anamorphic transfer is put to good use, allowing for intricate detail and a strong sense of depth in the screen. Colors are rich and vibrant without being oversaturated, black levels are solid with good shadow detail, and there were no digital artifacts. There is a bit of grain evident in one or two scenes, and extra resolution makes some of the digital effects looks a little too hard-edged. Overall, though, you'd be hard-pressed to find a DVD with a better image.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is one of the most aggressive I've ever heard, with great directionality and imaging among the five speakers. Because so much of the film is composed of action sequences, the soundtrack constantly puts all the speakers to work, creating a full soundstage that takes up the entire room. This is a heavily bass-oriented soundtrack: any time one of the alien spaceships rumbles by, the subwoofer puts out a roar of bass that is sometimes a tad too much (at times, the bass loses some of its definition). Overall, though, this is a fantastic soundtrack that gets the most out of a good home theater set-up.
Extras: While the 1998 special edition laser disc release of "Independence Day" was a bit light on supplements, the second disc of this DVD set makes up for it. Because "ID4" was such a technical challenge, most of the supplements revolve around the special effects. One entire audio commentary by special effects supervisors Volker Engel and Doug Smith is completely technical in nature. The other commentary, by director Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, is less technical, but also less interesting. There are two included documentaries. The first, "Creating Reality," is a 30-minute program dedicated exclusively to the special effects. It shows great behind-the-scenes footage of how detailed models and computer-generated images were combined to create the harrowing scenes of destruction. The second documentary, "HBO First Look: The Making of 'Independence Day'" is not as good. Most of its 33 minutes is filled with self-congratulatory star interviews and clips from the film wrapped up in a dorky narrative involving Jeff Goldblum sneaking around an Area 51-type installation. The only parts worth watching involve the special effects, and these scenes tread the same ground as "Creating Reality." There is a third "documentary," as well: This one, called "ID4 Invasion," is actually a compilation of faux news programming from the fictional WNN (World News Network) that was used on background TVs in the movie. The disc also includes the original ending, in which Randy Quaid's character destroys an alien ship in his biplane crop duster instead of an F-18. The rest of the supplemental disc is rounded out with a wealth of storyboards, conceptual art, production stills, and theatrical trailers and TV spots, including the infamous Super Bowl ad that helped redefine when and how summer movies are advertised. For those with a PC DVD-ROM player, the disc also includes a game, "Get Off My Planet," as well as a link to the "ID4" online game, which comes with one month of free interactive access. All told, this is a great two-disc with a wide selection of supplements that will keep any fan occupied for hours.
©2000 James Kendrick