“Independence Day” turns 20 this year, and to celebrate 20th Century Fox has made a belated sequel that isn’t being screened for American critics ahead of its release. That leaves journos with only one option: return to the original alien invasion romp and see how the biggest movie of 1996 plays in 2016.
So much has changed since then. Movies have gotten even bigger and more numerous, social and political mores have evolved, technology has taken over our lives, and we definitely have better hair. Here are some other ways the original modern super-duper-mega blockbuster makes for a surprising time capsule:
Summer event movies were still relatively new
The summer movie as a concept dates back to “Jaws,” but it didn’t really start becoming what it is today — namely, outsized and running all year long — until 1996. The movie season began (over Memorial Day, which is late nowadays) with "Mission: Impossible,” the movie that first coaxed Tom Cruise into the action genre. “M:I” was huge, but “Independence Day” was, as Donald Trump would say, “huuuuuge.” It was teased months in advance, most memorably with a clip airing during the Super Bowl that featured major American landmarks being blown apart real good. All big movies do that now, but back then such ad work was new. By the time “Independence Day” was released — on July 4, of course — every man, woman and child felt it was their patriotic duty to spend 2 ½ hours watching humanity kick squiddy alien behind (wherever that was on their bodies).
At the same time, reivisiting it long into the Blockbuster Industrial Complex it helped birth, it seems almost classical. Its story is clean (if rarely les than silly), it's well-paced and it knows how to juggle its many characters. It is, in short, not just stuff comin' at ya in disorganized bursts, as far too many of today's mega-hits. It's easy to think of it as the event movie to which all event movies should aspire — ignoring, of course, the many parts that aren't so ideal.
Will Smith wasn’t yet a major star
The cast of “ID4” was sprawling — so big that everyone had to be “affordable.” The heroes were played not by Arnold Schwarzenegger or even the newly revived John Travolta but by Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum and, er, Randy Quaid. The closest to a big name was Will Smith, who at that point was simply a rapper-turned-actor with a hit sitcom, one acclaimed supporting turn in a serious drama (“Six Degrees of Separation”) and a hit (“Bad Boys”) in which he shared co-lead with Martin Lawrence. With his good vibes and arsenal of trailer-friendly quips, the Fresh Prince got his John Wayne in “Stagecoach” break: Within his first moments onscreen (some 20 minutes in, amazingly) it was clear he was the movies’ newest, biggest thing — big enough that, two decades later, he didn't have to bother being in the sequel.
Remember lawyer jokes?
The ’90s were, among other things, a time of relentless John Grisham beach reads and their attendant movie adaptations. With them came an even more relentless assault of lawyer jokes, most often flung by Jay Leno. So it doesn’t take more than a couple minutes for someone to make a joke about lawyers and how crooked they are, or whatever we hated about them in a more carefree era.
Oh, and gay panic jokes
Lawyer jokes died because we’re a fickle species and grew tired of them. Gay panic jokes are now verboten because we’re, at least in some ways, better people. It also doesn’t take long for the fliers played by Smith and Harry Connick Jr. to do a bit in which the latter gets down on his knee while holding the engagement ring Smith intends to give to his stripper girlfriend (Vivica A. Fox). Would you believe a colleague sees them and gets the wrong impression? These were the jokes, people!
It was a bad time for women — or, you know, moreso
“ID4” is about military might, and therefore manly might. The men do all the flying and almost all of the decision-making. Yes, some of the female characters have careers, but they mostly stay home as the boys are out fighting. They’re even the subject of career-shaming: Margaret Colin plays a White House staffer who ditched one of the heroes — Jeff Goldblum’s MIT expert/environmentalist — for her job. She learns the error of her ways, and by the end she’s switched out of those evil pantsuits into flannel lifted from Goldbum’s wardrobe. Also of note: While Bill Pullman plays an entirely noble version of Bill Clinton, the Hillary stand-in (Mary McDonnell) winds up dying after an attack. So there’s that.
Check out the gizmos
The world finds out about the alien invasion the old fashioned way: by watching television. The few characters who have cellphones are essentially lugging around massive bricks. The baddies are taken down after someone signs into AOL. Goldblum’s techie is a genius who can do things like track people’s coordinates and upload viruses — acts that are no longer the exclusive domain of nerds.
It believes in global (and national) unity
America does the brunt of the legwork taking out our extraterrestrial overlords — and in only three days! — but the movie is ultimately utopian. Everyone, both here and abroad, comes together for a common cause and Pullman’s prez, in his fiery “St. Crispin’s Day”-style speech before the big fight, even says that “Independence Day” is no longer just for America but for all countries. (Surely the Breitbarts would handle that one well if it came out today.) Even scientists and the military work hand-in-hand, with only minimal infighting.Maybe “Independence Day” isn’t just a ceaselessly ridiculous behemoth that hypnotized the world into loving it 20 years back. Maybe it really is a lovely fantasy of a paradise that we’ve since destroyed.