Time is relative right now. The jury’s still out on any semblance of a summer movie season. Thus, the Midwest Film Journal is celebrating — at least in the astronomical sense — Endless Summer. In this intermittent series, which will run through the autumnal equinox on Sept. 22, we’ll look back at summer films from seasons past. Big, small, light, heavy, wild successes and weird misfires. Our multiplex is full and open for Endless Summer.
Independence Day and the End of History
In 1989, Francis Fukuyama — an American political scientist and advocate of Ronald Reagan’s neoconservative foreign policy — wrote The End of History and the Last Man. In it, he argued that the spread of Western liberal democracy and free-market capitalism would spell the end of social evolution, with mankind having finally achieved its ideal political equilibrium. Not a utopian free society per se but one that would ultimately spread across the globe and create a peaceful hegemony under American values.
During the 1990s, The End of History and other political science books like it were a guiding light for the American political class and American popular culture. We’d done it. The Soviet Union was disbanded, Russia was diminished and the specter of Communism as a political order had vanished. As a plus, America was allowed to freely bomb whomever the fuck it wanted. The military-industrial victory lap of the Gulf War gave every American a raging red-white-and-blue unipolar hegemony hard-on.
No film better captures that moment of the American political imagination than Independence Day, the definitive blockbuster of its decade. Yes, independent cinema came into its own again during the 1990s. That’s indisputable. But we’re not talking about small movies made with soul and heart. We’re talking big, bombastic expressions of the social order stroking itself in the mirror. Independence Day would never be made five years prior or even five years hence. There has never been another movie that captures so completely, so shamelessly, the American id at the close of the 20th century.
“What about Jurassic Park?,” you ask. Nah. Man versus nature is as old a science-fiction trope as possible, and the end result questions our true nature. Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace or Titanic? Big budgets, big adventures … and movies that could exist decades prior. Armageddon? The Matrix? Both question the powers that be. Make no mistake: Sticking up the middle finger at the big man is as essential to the 1990s as is fealty to the stranglehold held by the American political class. The former’s rebellious attitude feels of a kind with mid-’80s expressions of the conservative “everyman,” distrusting of a bureaucratic system that has let down his vision of America. The latter was, and is, ahead of its time.
Neither hold a candle to Independence Day, a multi-character narrative that depicts American global leadership as benevolent and true. A world where we lead a new world order of democratic nations in the fight against an unexpected extraterrestrial foe. Where Americans from all walks of life are heroes: President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), who finds himself displaced in the White House and longing for the fighter jet he flew in the Gulf War; Steven Hiller (Will Smith), an Air Force pilot who longs for the stars; David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), a Greenpeace computer genius whose brain holds the key to saving the world; and Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), a PTSD-stricken, crop-dusting heartland redneck whose past abductions give him a unique history with the alien antagonists.
Its scope of faith in the American way of life rivals the extraordinary scale of destruction that director Roland Emmerich delivers on famous landmarks across the world. That same trust in the eventual triumph of American spirit sets it apart from other similar tales of alien invasion. Emmerich lifted liberally from The War of the Worlds; how could he not? Tentacled aliens from beyond arrive on Earth and sucker-punch humanity before being felled by a virus. Simple. Except in both the book and all subsequent adaptations, the virus that saves humanity is not of our design. In some interpretations, the hand of God is heavier; in none are the actions of man the deciding factor in our eventual victory. Here, David designs the virus that fells the invaders and saves humanity. Humans — and only humans — are the deciding factor in this story.
Other alien-invasion films depict humans winning, but few with the scale of Worlds or Independence Day have ever done it so indisputably, and with such gusto.
The win in Independence Day is indisputably American, too. It’s right there in the title and spoken aloud in Whitmore’s classic speech, perhaps Pullman’s greatest contribution to the cinematic arts:
“And should we win today, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday but as the day when the world declared in one voice, ‘We will not go quietly into the night. We will not vanish without a fight. We’re going to live on. We’re going to survive. Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!’ “
This isn’t just the annihilation of alien invaders but also the cultural turning point where Western ideals finally prove triumphant across the globe. You don’t celebrate Independence Day? You sure as fuck will now!
Seems notable that the alien creatures are a communal culture.
Independence Day all seems so silly now. Even Fukuyama admits The End of History was maybe a little premature. He’s still a renowned political scientist and thinker but has distanced himself from his book’s conclusions in the three decades hence. To be fair, it’s hard to imagine being a remotely intelligent individual of political prominence in the 1990s watching America’s grip on the world morph into complete shit at the turn of the century thanks to enthusiastic conservatives with neither empathy nor a grasp on reality.
Bill Clinton’s neoliberalism kept things steady for the wealthy class until George W. Bush ran everything into the ground within eight years. And now? Well, most burgeoning 1990s democracies in Europe, Asia and South America have fallen into illiberal order once again, and our current government could give less than half a fuck. In many cases, we created those slides to protect our own international interests.
Even prior to Bush II, though, American popular culture had increasingly shied away from such celebratory stories of our global dominance. Action-Hero President was a brief fad that ended as quickly as it appeared; this and Air Force One loom large in the public imagination but are really the only two major examples. A remake of War of the Worlds arrived in 2005, and, like many action-adventures after the events of September 11, told the story of a normal man lost amid the chaos only to find salvation thanks to the dumb luck of nature. Onscreen worship of military hardware continues to this day, but with slightly less fetishism and occasional lectures from the costumed heroes that have replaced “real” everyday heroes within the heart of our violent power fantasies.
This essay does not long for the days when American hegemony was unquestioned, when our confidence accumulated so freely while poor Americans were left in the dust and Black Americans were farmed by private prisons to make a profit at the encouragement of our cultural biases. There is no question that the rise of neoconservatism and the belief that America had reached an ultimate stage in human evolution was, at the time, the most virulent strain yet of the selfish, fascist thinking that birthed our present situation — where a large number of Americans are perfectly fine with an incompetent at the helm of our military and federal system.
Any movie that exists reflects the values of its day, and blockbuster films capture the widest possible audience by catering to the public’s moods. I do not wistfully reflect on the 1990s, a decade during which I was in my childhood and only recall from that perspective. I had a good childhood. I got to see Independence Day on the big screen. It scared me. As an adult, I watch it and understand its place in things. The political messaging. The jingoism. The pride. The simplicity and corrupted optimism of it all.
The 1990s were not the end of history, by any stretch, but Independence Day is a perfectly preserved relic of a singular moment in American history. A truly definitive piece of cinema.