1996’s Independence Day is corny, schlocky, nationalistic and pro-nuclear weapons. So how did it end up being rejected by the Pentagon’s Hollywood office? In this episode we take a deep dive into the negotiations with the Department of Defense, the making of the film, its political subtexts, and what Independence Day actually means.
I imagine everyone has seen Independence Day, or is at least familiar with it. It has been widely referenced, pastiched, mocked, imitated. Its cultural impact can be seen far and wide. This is partly because it proved very popular – on a production budget of $75 million it grossed over $800 million worldwide. That makes it the fifth highest-grossing movie of the 1990s, behind only The Lion King, The Phantom Menace, Jurassic Park and Titanic. It is way ahead of The Matrix, Armageddon, Home Alone, Toy Story, Mission: Impossible and other major 90s blockbusters.
At the time that was something of a shock – 20th Century Fox were anticipating a good profit, but not a runaway success. On reflection, a movie released on July 3rd called Independence Day, featuring impressive visual action effects, a large cast with broad appeal and a bunch of jingoistic, retrogressive dialogue hit a lot of the right buttons.
However, it wasn’t just in America – where the film took over $300 million – that it chimed with audiences. For some reason this tale of a global catastrophe that takes place almost solely in New York and at a military base captured viewers in many countries. But not in China – the film has never been released there, and the sequel didn’t do well either, despite lots of Chinese product placement and Chinese actors being crowbarred in. Other Emmerich films such as The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 have sold well in China, so it isn’t Emmerich they dislike. Just Independence Day: Resurgence.
It was released on home video towards the end of 1996, with a massive $30 million advertising campaign, and became the best-selling home video of all time in the US. A LaserDisc version also appeared, which included an audio commentary and deleted scenes and all the things you’ve come to expect from a DVD or blu-ray since then. It’s curious to me – things have shifted, the behind-the-scenes making of featurette now gets released on youtube before the film comes out, and commentaries are declining due to streaming services often including no bonus content at all, even with major releases.
Independence Day also represents the peak of Will Smith’s commercial career, in that it’s his most successful movie aside from 2019’s Aladdin, where he plays the Genie. Even Men in Black III: Men in Blacker didn’t persuade audiences to part with quite so much money, let alone any of the Bad Boys films. You might argue that doing I Am Legend and Hancock back to back, taking over a billion dollars between them, is the peak, but I think it’s Independence Day. Especially when you watch Wild Wild West.
My own feelings about Independence Day have shifted over time – as a teenager I enjoyed it, obviously more so than Armageddon, but it wasn’t as fun as True Lies or as well crafted as Terminator 2: Judgement Day. And it wasn’t as fun or well crafted as Jurassic Park. Over time I’ve become more critical of the film, because so much of it troubles me and because of the abysmal nature of the sequel. Parts still entertain me, I especially enjoy the relationship between Jeff Goldblum and Judd Hirsch and while Will Smith is just 90s-style blaxploitation, he carries it off pretty well.
As to where it ranks in the pantheon of Roland Emmerich films, obviously it is better than Godzilla, The Patriot and 10,000 BC. But I think he perfected this particular movie that he keeps making with 2012, in that it has almost no characterisation at all and is simply a series of near-misses while things explode around the actors. As well as a little anti-Arab racism thrown in for good measure.
By comparison, Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow – while superior films dramatically – aren’t as distilled as 2012, or as reliant on Woody Harrelson being the only person who can act. White House Down represents a step backwards – Jamie Foxx, Joey King, Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Woods can all act well, even when given weakly-written characters. Midway, I still haven’t seen and Moonfall is simply a paradox.
So it depends whether you’re looking for the purest Roland Emmerich experience, which is 2012, or the ones that still have some kind of story with people who you might care about at moments, in which case it’s a toss up between Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. They’re all essentially the same film underneath.
The Politics of Independence Day
One of the curious things about this movie is that it was released in an election year, was the most popular movie of the year, but was endorsed by both major candidates – Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. Sure, part of this is due to the American supremacism and exceptionalism that dominates the final act of the film. We see the president, played by Bill Pullman, give a speech declaring July 4th not just the day of independence for the USA, but for the whole world. We see the Americans leading the counter-attack, and messaging armies around the world to coordinate the operation. We see the Brits saying ‘it’s about bloody time’, echoing the oft-repeated but misleading narrative about World War 2. And in that counter-attack, it is only the American planes with their American pilots that we see being successful.
But there’s more to it than that. Clinton saw the film the day before it went on general release, at a private screening at the White House with his family, Pullman, Emmerich and Dean Devlin. Dole saw it weeks later during an afternoon visit to the cinema with his wife. Both either gave statements themselves, or at least had their people respond to questions about the film, and both were very positive.
The best thing I’ve read that tackles this political quandary is Michael Rogin’s book Independence Day, which was published by the British Film Institute. As he quotes from critics and commentators, Independence Day is a movie that says nothing. He compares it to Forrest Gump, another enormously successful 90s film that references everything but says nothing about it. I essentially agree with this analysis – we see Forrest grow up in the segregated South, with disabilities, but the film says nothing about racial segregation or disability. He goes off to fight in Vietnam, but has nothing to say about it. Likewise, in Independence Day half of the world’s major cities are destroyed, maybe 100 million people die, maybe more, but ultimately the film says nothing about holocausts or killing civilians.
It’s also one of those right on the button movies in terms of presenting a liberal, multicultural exterior but deep down having very conservative politics. On the face of it, Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith join forces to overcome the aliens, reuniting the Black-Jewish alliance of the post-war period that fell apart at the end of the 60s. But it’s actually our white president, our white Vietnam veteran and those lovely, lovely missiles that save the day.
Likewise, the other Jewish characters are all stereotypes – Goldblum’s father is hysterical and highly strung, while Marty, the manager at the TV studio where Goldblum works, is gay and neurotic – first calling his mother while hiding under the desk and then calling his psychiatrist from his car. The only Asian-American in the entire film is a nerd at SETI who first spots the alien mothership but then hands it off to his more conventional superiors and disappears from the movie.
There are basically no Hispanic or Latin American characters aside from Randy Quaid’s children – and no explanation of why this Vietnam vet has Mexican kids rather than Vietnamese, which would make more sense. And, just like in Purple Hearts, one of these kids is sick, having brought some immigrant disease with them. Even though they were born in the US. But they’re still a drag on the economy and the healthcare system and serve no positive role in anything that happens. The implication is that the aliens who have violated America’s borders and are bringing down American society from within are… you get the idea.
When it comes to the film’s gender politics we have the president’s wife, who is off on a business trip in Los Angeles and gets caught up in the alien attack; Goldblum’s ex-wife who chose her career over her marriage; and Will Smith’s stripper girlfriend. In the end, the stripper marries Will Smith and in the sequel is a doctor, becoming the first stripper ever to actually be saving up for her medical degree. Goldblum and his ex reconcile, at least to some extent, and she’s essentially subservient to the President throughout anyway, only speaking when he asks her something or tells her to do something. And the President’s wife doesn’t follow his instructions to cancel her business trip as soon as the alien spaceships arrive, so she dies.
Indeed, when you look at who dies in this movie the regressive, nasty politics become a lot clearer. We’ve got the only gay in the movie, David’s friend Marty. (He has to die). The President’s disobedient, quasi-independent wife, her helicopter crashes, she lies around in pain for a while and then kicks the bucket. Also, she’s kind of a nag. There’s Will Smith’s buddy in the Marine Corps, played by Harry Connick Jr, who doesn’t take the alien threat seriously, so he has to go. All the people on top of the skyscraper welcoming the aliens don’t recognise the threat and the need for a violent response, so they have to die. There are some random black people in New York, so they get wiped out. And there’s a guy who gives up on the notion of the military fighting back, so he has to die as well.
Basically, the only people left at the end are some of the military, the president, a bunch of people who support the military and want the war against the aliens, and Jeff Goldblum. And yet somehow people takeaway the message that this is all about coming together in the face of a common enemy – itself a Reaganite idea when applied to alien invasions.
In many ways it’s perfectly constructed to mean all things to all people. If you’re a liberal who wants to see multiculturalism succeed, you focus on the fact that a black and a Jew team up to save the world, and ignore all the explicit American supremacism and barely implicit white supremacism of the rest of the story. The flipside, if you’re a white conservative who wants to see a proper President take control, then you get Bill Pullman nuking the aliens in a fit of pique and then climbing into a fighter jet to take them on himself. If you like war and destruction and things blowing up, there’s plenty of that. If you like the idea that we should overcome our enemies through smarts and technical sophistication, that plays a key role in the climax of the film.
However, I do resent the accusation that this is a film for teenage boys – a comment made mostly by female academics and reviewers. There are no teenage girls in the film except for, arguably, Quaid’s daughter, and she doesn’t even have one bikini scene. Whereas there’s quite a wide range of ‘plausible older guys’ or father figures to fuck for all the teenage girls and younger women out there, especially if you want to fuck a black or a Jew and really piss off your actual father. Of course, this comment totally presumes heterosexuality – if we’re talking teenage boys who are gay, Independence Day offers quite a lot. Until the only gay gets killed.
Nuclear Weapons vs UFOs
The more serious, non-identity politics of Independence Day revolve around UFOs and nuclear weapons. For starters, Russell (Randy Quaid) is, supposedly, an alien abductee who has been warning about the coming invasion for years. He is clearly suffering from PTSD, struggles with alcoholism and is a fairly pathetic dad to his kids.
In an interview with some guys in a diner that know Russell, one of them makes a remark about how during his abduction, the aliens abused him sexually. On the director’s commentary Devlin and Emmerich said this is one of the big laughs of the film (clip).
But it really isn’t, or shouldn’t be. Once again, it’s the sexual abuse of a male being played as trivial or even humorous. Once again: sexual abuse is deeply wrong no matter who does it to whom, and everyone’s suffering counts or no one’s does. The extreme gendering of depictions like this is nothing short of psychopathic.
As Rogin points out, this scene also replaces the cause of his PTSD so instead of it being his military experience in perhaps the most pointless war of all time, it’s all pinned on aliens. For people who have actually experienced alien abduction, sexual abuse, or suffer emotional damage from their time in a war, this scene is grossly insensitive and stupid. It dilutes and diminishes their pain and confusion.
Imagine actually being a Vietnam veteran, likely already suffering in some way, who is then kidnapped and sexually abused by aliens, and is now an alcoholic barely holding things together. Why should they be a figure of fun? Quaid does a very good job playing the character, and I enjoy watching him on screen, but the twisted way his backstory becomes not a reason to feel sorry for him but a reason to laugh at his dysfunction bothers me.
Where things get really interesting is when they reveal Area 51, which is one of the reason the Pentagon rejected the movie. (clip) We’re introduced to the idea that the aliens have been spying on us for decades, preparing the invasion, via Russell and then by Julius, Jeff Goldblum’s eccentric father. Neither are considered reliable sources, and the president quashes Julius’ assertions.
The twist is that Area 51 does house a secret base with both alien bodies and a crashed alien spacecraft from Roswell. Again, the movie is trying to have it both ways – confirming the existence of alien life and much of the folklore of UFOlogy while also presenting believers as cranks, drunks and hysterical Jews.
However accurate that may be in reality, it’s the insanity defence in reverse, that we see so often. Don’t believe the official story of 9/11? That’s because there’s something wrong with you mentally. Don’t believe Russians are pure evil and should be destroyed? Then you need to seek therapy. Believe in UFOs and government conspiracies and cover-ups? Then you’re deluded and require medication to adjust you back to normalcy.
In Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation he tracks much of the history of insanity, and concludes that the definition of what is sane and what is insane and the distinction between them is maintained by the powerful, not by the sane. Indeed, it’s questionable whether sanity, like rationality, is even a thing, or whether the truly deluded are the ones who believe in such concepts.
And yet, Clinton is a believer:
And so is the other Clinton:
Are the Clintons crazed delusionals with no grip on reality who should be institutionalised and medicated? Yes, but not because they believe in UFOs.
Getting back to Independence Day, when they arrive at Area 51 the president asks why he wasn’t told about this, and ex-CIA guy says ‘plausible deniability’ – the same phrase used by Oliver North and John Poindexter to explain why Reagan wasn’t told about how the Iran part of Iran-Contra was connected to the Contra part. This is another hint at the film’s conservative politics – leave it to the military and the CIA, don’t tell the president just in case he goes on Jimmy Kimmel and says something.
Then there are the nukes – the high technology used to try to stop the alien technology. This is another reference to WW2, along with the morse code, vague notions of liberal internationalism, the genocidal enemy, the celebration of US air power. Bob Dole actually compared Independence Day to Schindler’s List, believe it or not.
What’s bizarre about this from a tactical point of view is that the first thing the military tries is sending tiny little fighter jets up against these vast flying saucers, which predictably fails. What were they thinking was going to happen? It’s like trying to take a whole castle with bows and arrows and a handful of soldiers.
Then, the next step is nuclear weapons. Why didn’t they try more conventional missiles or artillery? Why waste all those aircraft and pilots on an attack that was never going to be successful? Why not try an unmanned attack first? Why risk the fallout and destruction from the use of nuclear weapons before trying non-nuclear ordinance?
I ask this partly because this was the strategy in World War 2 – the US firebombed Japanese cities, targeting civilians on a mass scale, for some time before dropping nukes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is possible the Japanese were going to surrender anyway. But because the narrative is that nukes ended WW2 – regardless of how untrue that is – they are often depicted as saviours and heroes.
But not in this film, because the nuclear attack fails. Ultimately, it is war and destruction that wins the day, but not via nukes. Again, why not? They hatch this plan to have Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith fly up to the alien mothership, plant a computer virus to pay homage to War of the Worlds, hope they don’t have Mcafee, and then attack the smaller ships with fighter aircraft toting small conventional missiles.
Would it not make more sense to take out the alien shields with the virus, then pummel the smaller ships from a distance? They could nuke them, drop a fuel-air bomb on them, fire off every artillery truck within range. But no, they send in the fighter jets to do a re-enactment of the sort of aerial dogfight not seen much since WW2. And in the process, kill most of their remaining pilots.
They do figure out how to take down the smaller spaceships, when Russell suicide bombs one of the ships via an act of anal penetration using his fighter jet, no lube style. What you may not know is that the original ending was somewhat different, and shows Russell not being selected as a pilot due to his drunkenness. Then, during the battle, he shows up at the critical moment in the crop-duster biplane from earlier in the story and uses that, with a missile strapped to the side, to take out the ship. Dean Devlin explains on the DVD extras:
You can decide for yourselves whether you think this would have made a better or worse ending, or simply a different version of a sexually abused alcoholic committing suicide like a proud Japanese pilot in WW2.
Getting back to the question of nuclear weapons, while they are shown to be ineffective against the shields surrounding the alien ships, they’re still characterised as heroic weapons. After all, everything else fails until Jeff Goldblum’s dad makes a convenient remark about him getting a cold and he figures out the whole virus gambit. So it isn’t the nukes’ fault they didn’t work. But it is the military’s fault they have no idea of how to escalate a conflict without just reaching for the nuke em button.
Indeed, and this is perhaps the weirdest part of the film to me, the decision to nuke the alien spacecraft is made just after the president mind melds with one of the aliens. He claims to have seen a vision of them moving from planet to planet, killing all life and consuming all resources before moving on. He says there’s no way to negotiate peace, no alternative but destruction and – we assume, at least until the sequel – genocide.
I don’t know about you but a president saying he’s seen the thoughts of a member of an extraterrestrial species and as a result wants to immediately launch nuclear weapons sounds like something the 25th amendment was created for. But no one questions Bill Pullman’s authority, because there’s no congress, no cabinet, everyone else has been wiped out. It’s a pure military dictatorship that disregards the constitution. But hey look, a black and a Jew working shoulder to shoulder.
The Pentagon and Independence Day
You could be forgiven for thinking that this racist, sexist, nuke-loving movie about US supremacism is the stuff the US military dreams about. And most of the time, you’d be forgiven, because you’d be absolutely right.
But not with Independence Day. While Rogin’s book says the DOD provided full support, and the film-makers say on the commentary that they got rejected due to Area 51 being in the film, that’s not entirely accurate.
I can see why people think this film was supported by the military – the visual presence of military hardware and characters, the overall story and themes are typical of many DOD-supported products. In particular, the associations between fireworks, the real life independence day celebrations, the military’s weapons, and American Freedom surely ticked a lot of boxes. Essentially, fireworks equal bombs, bombs equal independence, independence equals killing the enemy.
When the producers first approached the military they were very positive, with Devlin writing to Phil Strub saying:
We’re going to make Star Wars and Top Gun look like paper airplanes! Just wait, there has never been any aerial footage like this before. If this doesn’t make every boy in the country want to fly a fighter jet, I’ll eat this script!
However, from the first script review there were major problems, from the Pentagon’s point of view. Number 1 on their list was that there were:
No true military heroes. Military appears impotent and/or inept. All advances in stopping aliens are the result of actions by civilians.
They also felt that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense – the weasily ex-CIA director – were characterised negatively, Will Smith’s character Steven Hiller wasn’t a positive image as he drinks beer, dates a stripper, steals a helicopter and gives fireworks to a child. In that version of the script, Russell’s finale with the crop-duster defeats the aliens so they insisted this be changed to a military aircraft. But then, they didn’t like the drunken pilot taking charge of a sophisticated fighter jet, likewise the president.
The producers made a bunch of changes, among them the removal of Hiller drinking, writing in a military backstory for Russell and the president, and beefing up some of the other military characters. The crop-duster ending was changed to the one we ended up seeing, and Russell is seen sobering up before he climbs inside the aircraft.
But this wasn’t enough, even after a couple of rounds of rewrites the Marine Corps were still urging ‘Energize and clean up Steven’s actions’ and were asking that Jeff Goldblum’s character also be given a military background, possibly in intelligence. They also asked that the president not lead the final assault, and that it be General Grey and his Vietnam background that leads the planes into battle.
Then there was the destruction wreaked by the alien spacecraft on the US military – which one memo totted up as they went through the script. In particular they didn’t want the Pentagon to be destroyed, which was in the draft script. The line reads:
Washed under the WALL OF DESTRUCTION, the Pentagon, too, is blown to smithereens.
This was removed, though much of the rest of the destruction (NORAD and so on) remained.
The other big problem was Area 51, which the film-makers wanted to shoot. The Groom Lake area is a very real place, and it’s really under the control of the military. But this, and the entire Area 51 part of the story was an issue.
One set of script notes says:
Incident at Roswell AFB is a myth; DOD would not want to support a film which perpetuates myth; DOD cannot hide info from president (i.e. aliens and ship in custody).
To resolve this problem, according to the files, the military made various suggestions, including ‘a grass roots civilian group can be protecting the alien ship on an abandoned base’ and ‘Change custodians of aliens and spacecraft to grass roots public protectionist group (or at minimum, nebulous government agency).’
The producers rewrote this sequence to remove references to Area 51, and to put a fictional agency called the NIA in charge of the secret base, but the DOD apparently still wasn’t happy. One memo responding to this version of the script says, ‘Area 51 – no way, fictional agency or not. We’re sick and tired of hearing about the US government capturing aliens.’
The document then suggests that, instead of the joke about $30,000 toilet seats explaining where the money for the base came from, a character should ask ‘whether Medicare funds were used to maintain the aliens.’ Clearly the DOD was concerned that hardworking American taxpayer dollars were going to fund a life of luxury for creatures who aren’t even Earthlings, let alone Americans.
In the most surreal moment in the ‘Independence Day’ files, the military official’s memo went on to say that the base ‘Would have to be completely privately-owned – maybe with an alien in charge, morphed into a billionaire global media entrepreneur.’ Clearly, someone fancied themselves a screenwriter, or possibly had been reading too much David Icke.
In the end the film-makers walked away from negotiations, having made numerous changes to accommodate the Pentagon’s concerns, only to have them come back with more objections and demands. For a film called Independence Day, celebrating freedom and coming together and putting aside our differences, their experience with the military entertainment liaison officed was deeply ironic.
Nonetheless, many of the DOD’s changes made it into the final film. The president and Russell have military experience, the general is beefed up, the Pentagon isn’t shown being destroyed, and the ending was the military’s preferred version with Russell sobering up before killing himself using a fighter jet.
We’ve seen this in a few places – Courage Under Fire, which we looked at in the previous episode, also saw DOD script changes make it into the finished film despite the military pulling out of the production. Similarly, on the original Red Dawn the DOD requested Milius make changes, including to the countries mentioned in the opening caption about the Soviet takeover of central America prior to the US invasion. He made those changes, and then decided it was cheaper to go with private hire vehicles and dropped out of working with the Pentagon. But the changes remained.
So the US military got a lot of what they wanted out of Independence Day, while giving up nothing in return. The main stumbling block was the whole Area 51/UFO cover-up storyline, which is something they became more relaxed about in the years following the success of Independence Day. Just a few years later they were working on War of the Worlds, which features Tim Robbins as a similar character to Russell in Independence Day.
Then we got the Transformers franchise, which is effectively an alien invasion story, and involves a lot of UFO folklore and government cover-ups. Then Avatar, Battle: Los Angeles, Battleship, Pacific Rim, Man of Steel and so on, all supported by the DOD. As we’ve covered in prior episodes, the Hollywood visit to Space Command was a critical moment, but the process of promoting Space Force and the militarisation of space in response to extraterrestrial threats began years earlier.
I have been asked whether the recent UFO (or UAP – Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) disclosures dovetail with Space Force. That is to say, they’re coming semi-clean about UFOs in order to justify expanding the military into near space, missiles on the moon and so on. I am not a UFOlogist but certainly, if they’re pitching military bases on Mars to Hollywood then declassifications and disclosures would make a lot of sense as part of the same overall psychological warfare effort.
Thus, we could argue that the military blundered by rejecting Independence Day, even though it ultimately did most of what they wanted it to do. Certainly, in the following years they jumped on board the bandwagon that Independence Day helped restart. Most 80s and 90s alien movies are horrors, or action horrors, with the exception of Species which took the conventional alien horror story and blended it with Basic Instinct, because… reasons.
Whereas after Independence Day we got more comedic extraterrestrial-themed stories like the Men in Black trilogy, Evolution and Battlefield Earth. Aliens weren’t just something to be scared of any more, especially since they’ve discovered how to repel nuclear weapons but not Stuxnet. As we moved into the internet age and interest in what the aliens might be up to grew rapidly, we see another shift in the military’s Hollywood offices. Since then, they’ve fully embraced the alien invasion blockbuster, even begun pitching these sorts of ideas to film-makers. And it all started with a guy who doesn’t even believe in aliens.