90's-vember: Independence Day (1996) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
18Nov/110

90’s-vember: Independence Day (1996)

Everyone else is doing the classic, “one man against the world” style action movies, but I just had to be different.

Michael Bay might be the current King of Action Films, but in the mid-90s, that title belonged to Roland Emmerich. Emmerich was no stranger to action, and had some modest success with Universal Solider and Stargate, but it was Independence Day that really put him on the map.

Blending action, science fiction and disaster films, Independence Day ditched the muscled-up supermen of the 80s in favor of focusing on (relatively) common men: Jeff Goldblum as (shockingly) a scientist, Bill Pullman as the U.S. President and Will Smith, the 'Fresh Prince' himself, in his first (of many) action roles. It also led the charge for the big budget "doomsday" films that because all the rage leading up to the end of the century and into the next millennium.

How does this film exemplify the '90's?

-Will Smith's transformation from the Fresh Prince to becoming the action start of the 90s and 2000s.

-The film opens with an R.E.M. song.

-Environmental issues not-so-subtly inserted into the plot.

-Hot on the tail of Hackers, Goldblum “hacks” the alien's computer with a “virus,” and techno-babble abounds.

-A case could be made for the subject matter itself: Aliens and related conspiracy theories were all the rage in the early 90s, thanks in no small part to T.V. shows like the The X-Files and and Alien Autopsy: Fact of Fiction, and films like A Fire in the Sky.

What makes this my pick?

Like most of my picks, I choose Independence Day not necessarily for it's own accomplishments, but what it paved the way for. The popularity and success of Independence Day  is unmistakeable on the films of the 90s and well into the 200s, from straight-up disaster films like Volcano and Dante's Peak to more hybrid action-disaster pieces like Aramageddon  and The Core.

Independence Day not only revitalized the disaster film genre, but it also represents how action movies changed in the 90s. While the 80s focused on the one-man killing machine (Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Van Damn), the 90s focused more on the average guy who triumphs over seeming insurmountable odds. Granted our “average” guys here are a computer genius, an ace pilot and the President of the United States, but all of them are pretty far removed from the hulking, musclebound supermen of the 80s and each contributes something to the overall plan, rather than one person carrying the whole team.

It's a theme we see again and again in the 90s, most prominently with fellow explosive director Michael Bay. You can see how his films also change from a more classical action film like The Rock (reviewed here) to the much more team-focused Armageddon at the close of the 90s.

And yet they are still arguably action films. They follow all the tropes of "classic" action flicks: The protagonists are male and posses skills above and beyond those of the common man (in this case, intellegence rather than brute strength). Women are mostly ancillary to the men, acting as something to be rescued (the President's wife) something to be oggled (the stripper) or an antagonistic force to be overcome or placated (Goldblum's ex-wife). There's the idea that those in power are incompetent (in this case, the President's staff) and the "standard approach" isn't going to work (in this case, nukes), so in order to save the day, a new, unorthodox strategy must be employed (the computer virus). And of course you can't kill a bad guy without a snappy one-liner (Welcome to Earth!) and everything explodes.

Oh, and don't let me forget that you must have a scene where a character is running from a slow-moving explosion. Independence Day gets bonus points here because in this case, the character is a dog.

On a final note, one thing that always amazes me is how the film can be so pro-conspiracy theory (aliens, Area 51 exist) and yet at the same time be so pro-American. Typically these concepts are mutually exclusive, and yet Emmerich was able to make it work here. I think the film deserves special recognition on that point alone.

Posted by Jacob

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