Independence Day: the film that defined modern summer movies

Feature Ryan Lambie 4 Jul 2014 - 07:00

Independence Day was released in the US 18 years ago today. Ryan looks at its ongoing impact on how summer movies are made and marketed...

In 1990, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin were Hollywood outsiders. Devlin was a young New York-born actor who'd appeared in a few TV shows and movies, such as the 1985 comedy, Real Genius. Emmerich was a German filmmaker whose credits consisted of low-budget films such as The Noah's Ark Principle (1984), and Hollywood-Monster (1987). Emmerich's 1990 film, Moon 44, was about pilots defending mining colonies with space-faring helicopters, and featured a glum-looking Malcolm McDowell.

Dean Devlin was also among Moon 44's cast, and it was here that he forged a partnership with Emmerich: Devlin hated Moon 44's dialogue, so he went and wrote his own. Within two years, they'd made their first film together - Universal Soldier, written by Devlin, directed by Emmerich, and produced by Carolco. It was a larger-than-life, daft sci-fi action film about dead Vietnam soldiers revived as cyborg warriors, and starred Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren - the latter playing a psychotic villain who collected severed human ears. Critics moaned, but Universal Soldier became a modest success.

The next collaboration was more ambitious. Stargate, starring Kurt Russell and James Spader, was a pulp adventure in the mould of Edgar Rice Burroughs, in which a group of intrepid explorers headed into a portal through space and ended up on a desert planet where Egyptians were enslaved by aliens. Roger Ebert wrote of the film, "The movie Ed Wood, about the worst director of all time, was made to prepare us for Stargate."

Such grumpiness mattered little to audiences. Emmerich and Devlin's lavish confection made around $196m - almost four times its budget - and spawned a string of successful television spin-offs. The success of Stargate gave Emmerich and Devlin the latitude to make their next film - a 90s alien invasion blockbuster which would influence summer movies for years to come.

No warning. No negotiation. No L.A.

It was around the time Stargate came out that Emmerich came up with the idea for Independence Day. Devlin was initially unconvinced by it, but Emmerich eventually won him over with his concept: this film's alien invasion wouldn't take place on some dusty homestead, but in the middle of the biggest city in the world. The invaders wouldn't arrive in apologetic little silver saucers, but 15-mile-wide war machines that would cast huge shadows over the landscape.

There was, however, a problem with Emmerich's big idea. Although he and Devlin managed to get the go-ahead for their film (Fox bought the script after a furious bout of bidding in 1994), the budget was a relatively modest $75m - a healthy sum on paper, but hardly enough to cover the 3,000 visual effect shots the movie would require. To put that budget into perspective, consider the quotes Emmerich got back from such Hollywood effects companies as ILM and Digital Domain: they predicted that each one would cost about $150,000 to produce.

Emmerich, with his background in shoestring sci-fi, had a cunning plan. He made a call to an old film school colleague in Germany, Volker Engel, who in turn assembled a group of students who could produce the film's 50 minutes of effects shots on the cheap. Engel's seven-strong team was brought over to the US and housed in an old aircraft carrier in Los Angeles. Through a mixture of model effects (including a 15-foot-wide replica of the White House) and splashes of CGI, Emmerich managed to get the average cost of each VFX shot down to a relatively lean $40,000.

Independence Day's script called for a broad collection of oddball characters, ranging from an unusually young, idealistic president right down to an alcoholic crop duster who'd once been kidnapped by aliens. Realising that the invasion concept itself was the selling point, Emmerich and Devlin went for recognisable faces rather than costly household names: Will Smith was a star on TV and in music, but he hadn't yet broken through as a bankable star in movies.

Jeff Goldblum had been in hit genre films such as The Fly and Jurassic Park, and could be depended on to turn in a charismatic performance, but he wouldn't cost as much to hire as, say, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, or other majors star from the 90s. The same could be said of seasoned actors Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia or the rest of the ensemble cast.

Despite all this canny cost-saving, 20th Century Fox was initially nervous about certain aspects of Independence Day. Did it really have to feature an exploding White House? Did it have to be set on Independence Day, which in 1996, fell dangerously close to the Olympics?

The film did, however, have a champion at Fox: its head of marketing, Tom Sherak. According to Tom Shone's 2004 book, Blockbuster, Sherak was convinced of its future success. He said of Independence Day, "I have the feeling this is going to be a phenomenon. Not a movie. A phenomenon."

How Independence Day changed movie marketing

Thanks in no small part to its title, inextricably tied as it was to the American public holiday, Independence Day was huge in the summer of 1996. Within three days, it had made approximately $63m at the US box office alone. Newspapers were reporting that queues were building outside cinemas all over America, as the public rushed to see this apparently unmissable film. Journalists, puzzled as to how a hackneyed alien invasion movie could have captured the public's imagination, turned to psychologists for help.

"This movie delves into some very archetypal needs and myths," a professor told the LA Times. "There is an idea that we, as people, have been fragmented since a primordial time. Anything that can provide us with the illusion of oneness and unity will have an appeal."

By the end of Independence Day's cinematic run, it had made more than $800m around the world, making it the biggest film of 1996 and one of the highest-grossing movies ever. That success was ignited by an extraordinarily comprehensive advertising campaign, which took the then-new approach of placing a trailer in the middle of the Super Bowl.

Like the rest of Independence Day's marketing, this trailer was led by the image which had initially made Fox executives nervous: the White House, disintegrating from an electric blue alien laser blast. Fox paid $1.3m for the Super Bowl trailer, and $24m on marketing in total - an unprecedented sum in 1996. Head of marketing Tom Sherak described Independence Day's media assault as "a campaign that P.T. Barnum would have been proud of."

The blanket approach, as we now know, worked extraordinarily well. A film that was originally predicted to come a distant second to rival summer movie Twister (produced by Steven Spielberg) suddenly became the year's must-see event. Independence Day's advertising, with its striking trailers, catchy slogans and tie-in merchandise, directly informed the way Hollywood's biggest movies would be packaged and sold in the years that followed. In 2014, no fewer than ten movies were advertised during the Super Bowl.

An ensemble cast

When it came to writing Independence Day, Devlin and Emmerich tapped into the blockbuster formula established by Steven Spielberg's Jaws in 1975: a high-concept which could be easily sold with a one-line description, or, better yet, a single image. In Independence Day's case, it was that unforgettable effects shot of aliens blowing up the White House. But the duo also went further into the past in their quest for inspiration.

The alien invasion premise was evidently the stuff of 50s B-movies, such as Earth Vs The Flying Saucers and the 1953 adaptation of HG Wells' The War Of The Worlds. But Devlin was also a self-confessed disciple of the 60s and 70s master of disaster, Irwin Allen. It was the fusion of B-movie trappings and the structure of the 70s disaster movie which made Independence Day truly stand out.

Before Independence Day, summer movies were generally told from the perspective of one central character, with a few supporting actors to provide colour. Taking its cue from 70s flicks like Irwin Allen's The Towering Inferno, or those of his rivals, like 1974's Earthquake!, Independence Day switched between several narrative threads, including Jeff Goldblum's computer expert, Will Smith's wise-cracking pilot, and Bill Pullman's plucky president.

This multi-strand, disaster-led structure could be seen in films that came out not long after Independence Day, such as the rival meteor-strike pictures Armageddon and Deep Impact, and Emmerich and Devlin's Godzilla, all released in 1998. Independence Day may have also paved the way for a range of ensemble blockbusters in the 21st century, such as the Pirates Of The Caribbean series, the Transformers franchise, or even Marvel's The Avengers.

Destruction as spectacle

By fusing the disaster movie with sci-fi, Emmerich and Devlin made the devastation of major American landmarks one of Independence Day's chief selling points. The film's appeal lay not merely in seeing the aliens defeated by America's tenacity and courage, but in seeing just how much mess the invaders could make before they finally got their comeuppance.

Independence Day not only launched Roland Emmerich's career as Hollywood's new king of disaster movies (see also Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012), but also anticipated modern cinema's obsession with laying waste to entire cities.  

Filmmakers are undeniably mining the traumatic, tragic events of 9/11 in such films as War Of The Worlds (2005), Star Trek Into Darkness, The Avengers or Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, but it's arguable that they're also tapping into the widescreen destruction which made Independence Day such a success.

It's worth noting that Zack Snyder's Man Of Steel (2013) becomes a kind of alien-led disaster movie in its second half, with General Zod's world engine bludgeoning Metropolis' skyscrapers into clouds of ash. A scene which sees Superman fly into the world engine's blinding energy beam also bears more than a passing resemblance to Randy Quaid's moment of self-sacrifice in Independence Day ("In the words of my generation, up yours!").

The age of the self-aware blockbuster

When Emmerich and Devlin began writing the script for Independence Day, they were aware of two things: first, that its relentless scenes of devastation and fear could become too downbeat for a PG-13 audience, and second, that their chosen premise was an inherently B-movie one. To this end, the pair went for a light, self-aware tone. "Because a film about the end of the world can be pretty depressing," Emmerich explained to the LA Times in 1996, "we made hokum, comedy and the human spirit a part of the mix."

To this end, Independence Day was full of quips and one-liners which constantly reminded movie-savvy viewers that they were in the middle of a cinematic thrill-ride: "Now that's what I call a close encounter," smirks Will Smith's pilot, referencing Steven Spielberg's blockbuster mere seconds after he's downed an alien's fighter craft.

Independence Day arrived at a time when meta references in movies were the height of fashion. Just as screenwriter Kevin Williamson would revive the slasher genre with Scream later in 1996, Independence Day, and other movies such as Twister and The Rock, positively revelled in their in-jokes and sheer trashiness.

It's a tone that can still be seen in blockbusters today - take a look, for example, at Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, which again sees Earth pummelled by alien invaders. Its atmosphere is knowingly camp, right up to Idris Elba's troop-rallying speech, which is markedly similar to the one delivered by Bill Pullman in 1996.

"This is the way the world would end, in film after film," Tom Shone wrote of Independence Day; "not with a bang, nor a whimper, but a wisecrack. [Independence Day] ushered the blockbuster into its late, decadent, self-parodic camp phase..."

Several critics noticed this new trend in blockbuster screenwriting back in 1996. Writing for the Philadelphia Enquirer, Desmond Ryan said of the year's crop of screenplays: "Logic and coherence are at an all-time low."

"Judging from the summer's record-breaking box-office grosses," Ryan continued, "audiences no longer care - or, more depressing, are incapable of detecting - that the plots of movies don't track."

Ironically, even the president of effects studio Digital Domain appeared to concur.

"I just saw Independence Day, and the joke out here is they should have called it The Day the Script Stood Still," Ross said. "I hold screenwriters in the highest regard when it comes to the ultimate quality of the movie, but this summer is proving that special effects can drive movies to obscene profitability. You look at them as films and there's not much of a plot line, not much acting, and the direction is mediocre. But the effects are fantastic. Twister and Independence Day aren't about characters. They're big thrill rides."

Like it or not, these thrill rides were internationally successful. According to Box Office Mojo, more than 60 percent of Independence Day's gross came from overseas. Part of the reason for that success, despite the film's US-centric premise, was that its plot and dialogue were incidental to its imagery. You didn't have to be American to appreciate the sight of buildings exploding or alien ships smashing into the ground.

Having emerged from a screening of Independence Day in the summer of 96, Martin Cruz Smith - director of the thriller Gorky Park - made an accurate prediction:

"Special-effects movies are going to a much wider pool around the world," he said. "They have action and spectacle that can appeal to people who don't speak English. That's changing the nature of movies: There will be one kind for the international audience and there will be the smaller films with acting and plot. I suppose we'll feel guilty for liking both kinds."

Transformers and the current state of summer films

It's 18 years since Independence Day's release, and summer movies are pretty much as Martin Cruz Smith suggested they would be: effects-laden, heavily marketed, and made with an international audience specifically in mind.

For an example of Independence Day's lasting influence, simply look at the biggest film of 2014's summer season so far - Transformers: Age Of Extinction.

Although based on an existing franchise, Age Of Extinction is firmly in the mould established by Emmerich and Devlin. It's heavy on visual effects, blatant product placement, jokey humour ("Hand me my alien gun") and huge scenes of city-wide chaos and destruction.

Mark Wahlberg is the nominal lead, but Age Of Extinction's really an ensemble, with its roster of characters comprising shady CIA types, a 17-year-old farm girl, a 20-year-old racing car driver, a Steve Jobs-type consumer products guru, and sundry transforming robots - in other words, it's a mutation of the sci-fi disaster movie introduced in Independence Day, with a bloated duration to match.

Age Of Extinction's action set-pieces frequently take precedence over plot. Screenwriter Ehren Kruger even provided Slash Film with a sound bite that is sure to be repeated for some time to come: "When you’re talking about aliens, robotic machines which disguise themselves as vehicles and animals, you start to make your peace with the idea that logical sense doesn’t have to be the be-all, end-all."

So far, Age Of Extinction has made over $300m at the box-office - a sure sign that audiences are going to see the film for its spectacle, not the clarity of its plot. Again, like Independence Day, more than 60 percent of that gross has come from overseas. The formula Emmerich and Devlin stumbled on in 1996 may be getting old, but right now, it's still working.

But does this mean that films like Age Of Extinction, which echo both the structure of Independence Day and its box-office success, mean that city-levelling blockbusters are here to stay? Tom Shone wrote that Steven Spielberg's Jaws swept aside the larger-than-life, cheesy disaster movies of the first half of the 70s, and reintroduced audiences to a scaled-down yet no less thrilling threat: a lone man-eating shark.

Independence Day, on the other hand, took 90s cinemagoers straight back to the disaster flicks of the 70s. "If Jaws had lowered its heroism levels to the scruffy low-slung heroism of ordinary men," Shone wrote, "Independence Day upscaled to presidents, pilots and other national paragons."

Could this mean that, within the next year or two, we'll see the emergence of a new wave of blockbusters more akin to Jaws? Given the cyclical nature of tastes in genre and storytelling, it's certainly possible. But with a sequel to Independence Day currently scheduled for 2016 - 20 years after the original film emerged - it's equally possible that Emmerich and Devlin's crowd-pleasing brand of science fiction disaster could be with us for a long time to come.

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