From deepest space, a fleet of alien ships arrives undetected, and places their (15 mile wide) craft over various key structures around the globe. And then proceed to blow them all to hell. Leading the fightback though, is the Prez of the good ol' U.S. of A...
The high concept of Independence Day (or ID4 as the merchandising has it), is War Of The Worlds meets Earthquake, and the film certainly delivers on the spectacle and disaster front. Flying saucers, each 15 miles wide, appear in the skies over the world's major cities and, after a tense countdown that only genius cable TV engineer Jeff Goldblum understands, huge zappo rays blast said metropoli into smoking rubble (although the only ones we see destroyed are Los Angeles, New York and Washington).
US President Bill Pullman, an ex-fighter pilot struggling with a wimp image, leads the fight back - but the aliens' impenetrable force fields mean our planes get knocked out of the skies. Yet all hope is not lost. Hotshot pilot Will Smith, big brain Goldblum, big heart Pullman and sundry other "representative" human beings get together at that secret US base (where an alien ship has been kept since the Roswell incident) and come up with a harebrained plan "that might just work" to save the world. Avowed athiests start praying, many-clawed aliens sneer at our pathetic resistance and the once UFO-abducted goon Randy Quaid looks forward to payback. As Pullman makes a patriotic speech, the audience feels a warm glow prompted by the sure and certain hope that the last reel will see monster butt stomped on a solar system scale as overworked effects men try to come up with a climax to top the devastation of the first two acts.
What the film doesn't manage is to make our inevitable victory over the aliens as convincing as their initial crushing of the Earth. Instead it falls back on such implausiblities as Smith being able to work the controls of a spaceship designed for a species with eight-foot tentacles and everyone in the world doing what the US President says is good for them.
Independence Day comes close to being a great film even though it violates the so-called First Rule Of Hollywood that you can't make a good film without a good script. It not only has a truly ridiculous script (utilising such corkers as "they'll never let you fly the Space Shuttle if you marry a stripper") but has a deadening dose of religiosity and an even more crippling orgy of red-white-and-blue patriotic pride. The likeable, second rank all-star cast try hard - Brent Spiner gets Man Of The Match award as a comical mad scientist - but there's little that can be done with characters such as the Stalwart General (Loggia), the Gutsy First Lady (McDonnell) and the Screaming Queen Who Calls His Mother (Fierstein).
Early on, the film exterminates memories of the feelgood UFOs of Close Encounters as an attempt to communicate with the aliens is greeted with a raygun blast, but the Spielberg film it borrows from most is 1941 (with Quaid even doing a Belushi impersonation).
What you get for your money is not depth but breadth, and here is where Independence Day delivers. From its eerie opening as the unshifting sands of the moon are disturbed by the passage of the alien mothership to the astonishing images of mass devastation - fireballs erupting through entire cities, hundreds of flying cars in flames, hordes of extras scythed down like wheat - this delivers all the stuff 1950s films (Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers) and 1980s TV series (V) had to leave offscreen. Like 2001, Star Wars and Jurassic Park, it ups the special effects stakes and gets closer to putting on screen the images you've had in your mind while reading epic sci-fi.
By the time it comes out on video, we'll feel guilty about revelling in the film's silly flag-waving paranoia and this is one movie that will lose much when it goes to tape. Enjoy it now, while it's absolutely huge.
Taking Hollywood ridiculousness to unscaled heights, this may well be the biggest guilty pleasure of all time, but what a guilty pleasure it is.