Some people like “Independence Day” for its campy take on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”; or for its technical achievements, which won an Oscar and set director Roland Emmerich on the path for becoming the disaster director du jour; or for establishing Will Smith as the “King of the Fourth of July.”
Other people — like me — watch the movie religiously every time the Fourth of July rolls around. Let’s face it, when Smith’s Capt. Steven Hiller promises his step-son Dylan (Ross Bagley) fireworks, and you get them in the form of alien vessels crashing to the ground after a high-flying intergalactic space battle, why bother leaving the house to deal with traffic for your local fireworks show? And as Patricia (the positively perfect Mae Whitman) says “Happy Fourth of July, Daddy,” to President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman), I dare you not to feel something. Strong father figures and alien-war heroes? Sign me up!
Just as much as the movie is about space-age drama, it’s also about family, particularly fathers and their children (notably Jeff Goldblum and Judd Hirsch, who reprised their father-son hijinks for the sequel — and yes, that is all that will be said about that movie — as well as the Casse family storyline, led by Randy Quaid). But beyond that, “Independence Day” represents a real moment in cinematic history, as the top-grossing film of 1996, earning $817 million at the box office.
In honor of the 25th anniversary of the movie’s July 3 theatrical release, Variety takes a look back a few things you might’ve forgotten about “Independence Day.”
“Independence Day” Is Will Smith’s Second Highest-Grossing Movie at the Box Office
Until 2019’s “Aladdin ” grossed more than $1 billion worldwide, Smith hadn’t had a bigger worldwide hit than “Independence Day’s” $800+ million haul.
The reason why this is so surprising is because it’s tough to remember when Smith wasn’t a movie star. And it’s even more unfathomable to think that the 20th Century Fox wasn’t immediately on board to cast him, but that was the case for “Independence Day.”
When searching to fill the role of the fly-boy fighter pilot, the studio had other names in mind instead of the upstart entertainer, who was making his move to movies after hitting it big as the Fresh Prince (both with his rap career and the hit 90s comedy “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”).
In Variety‘s sister publication, The Hollywood Reporter, Emmerich and the movie’s writer-producer Dean Devlin recounted their battle with the studio to land Smith.
“Ethan Hawke was on our list too, but I thought at that time he was too young. It was pretty clear it had to be Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. That was the combo we thought,” Emmerich said. “The studio said, “No, we don’t like Will Smith. He’s unproven. He doesn’t work in international [markets].”
“They said, ‘You cast a Black guy in this part, you’re going to kill foreign [box office].'” Devlin added. “Our argument was, ‘Well, the movie is about space aliens. It’s going to do fine foreign.’ It was a big war, and Roland really stood up for [Smith] — and we ultimately won that war.”
Of course, Emmerich and Devlin were right to buck the industry’s racist “conventional wisdom” arguing that Black entertainers don’t sell overseas. “Independence Day” grossed more than $300 million domestically, with more than $500 million in ticket sales coming from abroad (not to mention the fact that Smith and Goldblum’s improvised dialogue is dynamite on screen, or the way they put their swagger on full display during their final action-hero strut through the desert).
Even still, it’s truly impressive to run the numbers and see just how hard Smith came out swinging with his first major blockbuster. With one punch of an alien and his now-iconic quip, “Welcome to Earth,” the actor ultimately earned his $5 million payday and then some, with the movie as the first step on his path to becoming the “King of the Fourth of July,” as he delivered one moneymaker after the next (albeit some to mixed reviews), including “Men in Black 1, 2, and 3,” “Wild Wild West,” “I, Robot” and “Hancock.”
“We wanted our hero in ‘Independence Day’ to be the all-American boy, and Will Smith is the all-American boy,” Devlin told Variety in a 1999 profile. “This guy has lived the American dream more than anyone I know.”
After casting Smith, the movie rounded out its core cast with Goldblum (who was riding high off the success of “Jurassic Park,” before leading his own sequel “The Lost World”) as David, the computer genius who cracks the aliens’ code, and Pullman as President Whitmore (who earned a cool $2 million for his efforts).
Among the movie’s packed ensemble are Quaid, Hirsch, Harry Connick Jr., Vivica A. Fox, Mary McDonnell, Robert Loggia, Margaret Colin, Harvey Fierstein and Brent Spiner.
If you’re the kind of movie fan who loves the “Great Bill Debate” of the 1990s — aka asking friends, “Was that Bill Pullman or Bill Paxton in that one?” — you’ll love to see that Paxton joined the “Independence Day” crew for the movie’s premiere at UCLA’s Dickson Plaza in Westwood on June 25, 1996.
Let’s also keep in mind that “Twister” was the second-highest grossing movie of 1996, so everyone’s a winner. (In third place at the domestic box office, Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible.”)
Blowing Up the White House Was a Big Deal — and the Visual Effects Won an Oscar
In his review for Variety, Todd McCarthy described “Independence Day” as “the biggest B-movie ever made” and “the mother of all doomsday dramas. A spectacularly scaled mix of ’50s style alien invader science fiction, ’70s disaster epics and all-season gung-ho military action-era, this airborne leviathan features a bunch of agreeably card- board characters saving the human race from mass extermination in a way that proves as unavoidably entertaining as it is hopelessly cornball.”
But what McCarthy called “a definitive popcorn picture,” also ultimately became an Academy Award winner, with Volker Engel, Douglas Smith, Clay Pinney, and Joseph Viskocil earning the prize for best visual effects.
One of the movie’s most brash moves was revealed in the campaign’s teaser trailer, which debuted during the 1996 Super Bowl, showing audiences that the aliens would blow up the White House. The clip ends with the ominous tagline, “Enjoy the Super Bowl… It may be your last.”
The buzzy moment certainly captured audience’s attention, but the bigger question was how the team pulled off the stunt in the early days of CGI and other computer graphics.
“I think old-fashioned effects will never die out because they’re simply too good. We sometimes make a combination of a model, motion control, photographed models for the foreground and then go digital, CGI in the background,” Emmerich explained in the movie’s behind the scenes featurette.
As the first step toward making the moment look real, the effects team built a plaster model of the federal building that was more than 14 feet wide.
“The White House has got such great detail in it that even in the most preliminary tests that we’ve done, that the White House holds up in an extreme close up,” Bob Hurrie, the movie’s visual effects production supervisor, explained during special features. “All of a sudden, this particularly miniature is very near and dear to our hearts because it’s got such wonderful detail. I do’t know if I really want to blow it up or not.”
The scene was shot with nine cameras at 300 frames per second, which is twelve time slower than the average 24 FPS speed, in order to capture the destruction in a way that looks much more dramatic than the one-second explosion that occurred in real time.
Emmerich went on to destroy the White House again in 2009′s “2012” and 2013′s “White House Down” (plus the director froze the building in 2004′s The Day After Tomorrow),” but the “Independence Day” explosion is certainly the most memorable.
The Movie Screened for the Clinton Administration
After blowing up the model White House, the alien invasion movie screened there. In 2017, Emmerich posted a throwback photo of himself and Devlin with President Bill Clinton, writing that, “It was an honor to get to meet him and show him our film.”
A few years later, Pullman recounted the experience of watching the movie “with Bill Clinton on one side and Hillary Clinton on the other” on “Live with Kelly and Ryan.”
Pullman recalled standing next to Emmerich and Devlin when President Clinton said there was an extra seat in the front of the theater. The actor reluctantly took the spot, saying he was shaking as he walked down the stairs to join the first family to watch the movie.
“It was a terrible nerve-wracking experience, because you can’t go, ‘Am I good in this part?'” Pullman laughed. “I was waiting for him to do that — [to say],’You were very presidential here’ or something — but none of that happened.”
President Whitmore’s Monologue Solidified the Movie’s Title
If it seems a little on the nose that Whitmore’s speech rallying his band of makeshift troops to take flight and fight the alien invaders ends with the line “Today, we celebrate our Independence Day,” that’s because it was intended to be.
In the commentary for the film, Devlin explains that he and Emmerich wrote the now-infamous monologue as part of their effort to convince the studio that “Independence Day” was the way to go in terms of the movie’s title.
“That last line was not originally part of the speech,” Devlin admitted. “But at the time we were shooting the scene, there was tremendous pressure on us to change the title of the movie, and we did not want to change the title of the movie, so to hammer it home, we threw that line into the ending of the speech.
Over the years, it’s been revealed that the studio’s preferred title was “Doomsday,” (which I think we can all agree is somehow more generic). And for the first time in more than two-decades, Pullman riffed on the character for a new Budweiser ad, partnering with the Anheuser-Busch beer brand as part of his efforts to get more Americans vaccinated.
“I can’t imagine a better or more meaningful moment to reprise this iconic role than Independence Day this year,” Pullman said in a press release announcing the campaign. “I am proud to partner with Budweiser on its continued efforts to promote COVID-19 vaccination awareness and education. While the world has overcome so much in the past year and a half, there is still more work to be done. I hope this film can serve as a beacon of hope and progress for our country and beyond.”
“Independence Day” is streaming on HBO Max.