Some twenty years ago noted “extinction level Earth disaster” filmmaker Roland Emmerich gave us the ultimate summer popcorn alien invasion movie Independence Day. Squarely in the middle of heydays for both of the film’s leads, Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum, Independence Day made Twentieth Century Fox a bazillion dollars. The studio was eager to make a sequel, but due to your typical Hollywood rigmarole a second feature installment fell into darkness and for a long time and no one really even believed we’d ever see the alien menace return. Presumably, Hollywood movers and shakers realized at some point that there was money to be made and lifted the Independence Day franchise back into the light, so here we are mere days away from the long awaited Independence Day: Resurgence! But I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about the film that started it all, and more specifically the one, glaring flaw the movie has carried the weight of for all these years.
Let me just say that Independence Day is a fantastic film. It’s super watchable and fun in the kind of way that only watching whole cities full of innocent people laid waste can be. It has larger than life heroes and feats of incredible bravery. It boasts the kind of patriotism rarely seen in films since. The special effects are bold and groundbreaking for their time yet manage to hold up well some two decades later. The storytelling is wonderful and the pacing is crisp, with subplots that are compelling and stakes that feel real. In many ways Independence Day appears to be a perfect movie. But it isn’t.
Back in 1996 America was still for all intents and purposes in the infancy of computer literacy. Certainly, we had progressed as a society beyond a computers are magic view of technology, the kind we saw in Weird Science and Lawnmower Man, but the internet was still a wonderland and computer viruses were basically beyond the comprehension for the common man. All anyone really knew was that viruses were bad, and if your computer got one you should probably just kill yourselves because computers cost as much as used cars and you probably needed a new one. The only people who really knew how viruses worked were nerds, and since this was 1996, a time when nerds were still a highly persecuted subset of society, they were more than happy to throw one back in the face of the oppressors when the opportunity presented itself. This meant that when our heroes Steven Hillard and Jason Levinson managed to infect the alien invaders’ ships with a malicious virus capable of shutting down their shields and giving the Earth’s forces a chance to take down the invaders, the world’s nerds stood up pushed their glasses back up onto their collective nose and pointed out that, “Um, excuse us but there is no way that blah blah computer stuff interface virus couldn’t happen,” attempting to taint the joy we all found in the movie forever. Does it ruin the movie? No, but it sullies it the same way the volleyball scene in Top Gun now makes everyone at least just a little uncomfortable.
Here’s the thing, though. The nerds were wrong. Nobody really should have cared about the virus issue. At the time only about .3% of the population even understood computer viruses well enough to process this critique. Heck today, that number hover around 1% (Full disclaimer: those stats are made up but I stand by them). The only reason any normal person claims to give a damn about the virus is because people want to be seen as smart and/or they wish to appease our nerdly overlords (Seriously, nerds are terrifying these days. Question the Independence Day virus and Anonymous might release your Internet search history). But, what everyone should have cared about was the 15 minute window.
What is the 15 minute window you ask? When Goldblum’s character is asked how long the enemy’s shields will be down after delivering the virus, the answer is about 15 minutes*. 15 minutes?! To coordinate a worldwide attack on 36 city-sized ships using Morse code?! This, people, is the detail that should give you pause. This is where the suspension of disbelief is stretched to the limit. These ships have been floating around the planet for like three days at this point, annihilating entire cities and military targets. Earth’s forces are decimated. Even assuming all 36 ships make the mistake of firing their primary weapon during the assault, giving Earth’s surviving military forces the chance to stick their finger in the barrel and bring them down, what are the odds that there are enough forces left to hit them all? I mean, at least one of these alien destroyers has got to be hovering over like Buenos Aires going, “These guys? Should we just go ahead and blow up these guys?” And Buenos Aires is like, “Hey United States, thanks for the intel, but we’re a little short on Boy Scouts who know Morse code and fighter jets over here.”
So, the rest of the world is celebrating their victories while officials in South America watch their 15 mile wide alien destroyer meander off with plenty enough remaining firepower to blow up every city left on the planet. Thanks for nothing, Buenos Aires.
Still a great movie. Go watch it. It’s probably on right now.
*Some of you are going to say that once the mother ship was destroyed all of the shields were shut down indefinitely. To which I say, no one ever says this is the case, and if it is the case that every alien ship down to the fighters-1,000s of ships-were tied to a single shield generator on the mother ship, then that’s the unbelievable aspect of the movie we should have been talking about all along.