It’s almost July 4 and as Americans prepare for their Independence Day massive spaceships take positions about cities around the world beginning a fight not for independence, but survival. Also, let us all pretend the sequel never happened.
There’s something highly enjoyable about these movies that do things on a grandiose scale. Massive space ships, big air fight sequences, whole city destruction, global conflict; it’s all just so large in scale and by its very nature kind of gets you caught up in the events. Okay, this movie suffers from the same issue as every other of its ilk. The only parts of countries you see are the ones with iconic buildings and settings so the key to survival is clearly living anywhere but that one city from your country that always gets shown. It is a minor detraction from what is otherwise a fairly global phenomena and not as significant as the basing the entire thing around an American holiday, but given its an American movie and Americans get to the heroes lets just roll with this and understand that everyone else does the same thing when they make a movie.
From a story point of view this is pretty standard. The scale of the conflict is large but the story focusses in on three groups (all conveniently representing different ethnicities and types of families just to tick off as many demographics as we can). The enemy is easily identifiable and at no point made to appear in anyway sympathetic. Other than the President’s one attempt at communication almost zero effort is ever made to understand or to negotiate (admittedly, it wasn’t like the aliens were open to it either). So pretty much aliens vs humans and the audience connects to the conflict via the different groups. The family in the trailer looking for shelter, the air force pilot, and the computer geek who somehow hacked an alien signal and apparently that skill allows you to hack anything alien related (moving on).
Probably the weakest part of the plot is that it is so very clearly written formulaically and with focus groups in mind. There are so many nods to this group or that group, or scenes that exist only to hit particular emotional cues. It all feels scripted (and yes, it’s a movie) but it doesn’t feel like it reflects life. It feels like it reflects the movie world’s view of relationships and life. Does that ruin the experience? Well, if you sit and deconstruct it, yes. Everything is chosen with such precision and included for such loaded reasons its impossible to see the film as anything than exercise in Hollywood marketing. If you just stop thinking about that and watch the movie, no. It’s well paced, comedic moments happen bang on mark, emotional moments linger just long enough but don’t intrude, and the action is great fun (unless you watch the director’s cut, then some of the emotional moments linger far beyond their welcome – there’s a reason these got cut initially from the theatrical release).
And yes, there are all sorts of plot holes that spring up. Lets be honest, they are fighting aliens who can cross galaxies and destroy entire cities with a single blast. We should not be able to fight back in any meaningful way. So pretty much everything that happens to resolve this issue can be questioned if you want to play that game.
What helps pull this a little bit above a Hollywood fluff action movie to something with rewatch value are the characters. Again, they are very much selected from focus group discussions and there isn’t anything surprising or new here. Nor is the acting off the charts incredible. However, the actors deliver their lines in ways that make the characters seem authentic. You can actually believe that line of dialogue coming out of the mouth of that character at that time. You can genuinely accept the interactions between the characters. By the half-way point you are even reasonably invested in characters that really shouldn’t be more than a forgettable sound bite. They also get some great moments.
Will Smith as the fighter pilot definitely steals the majority of these moments and one liners, but he does that in a lot of his films. And his character is incredibly likable if a little ordinary in terms of protagonist characters in action movies. The rest of the cast though each shine in small ways and bring some real heart to a movie that could otherwise just feel like a by the numbers science fiction/ action film (and this is something the sequel should have realised).
Ultimately your enjoyment of this movie will depend on what you want from a film. If you want to see burning cities and survivors come together to hear an inspiring speech from the President before turning the tide on technologically advanced aliens, you’ll have a great time. If you want anything resembling depth this one isn’t for you. It is superficially shiny and it holds up very well on the surface but there’s just nothing underneath.