The ’90s are never going to go away.
A few weeks ago, we saw the trailer for Independence Day: Resurgence, a 21st century sequel and the latest attempt to cash in on the nostalgia of a millennial demographic which apparently has some disposable income left to grab.
It’s worth going back to the original—a soaring Roland Emmerich thriller about how no force in the universe could take down the United States: not when the president, a famous rapper, and a scientist all get together in a fighter jet to kick alien ass.
It’s the polar opposite of The Matrix. Rather than admitting even the slightest unease below the surface of American life, it barrels forward as a jingoistic romp, giving us America as a crotch-grabbing, trash-talking, hyperpower without a care in the world.
The movie lays it all on pretty thick. The title and its July 4th-weekend release let you know where it’s coming from. As if that wasn’t enough, the plot literally centers on the President of the United States as an action hero.
President Thomas J. Whitmore is neither a cerebral Democrat or a dour Republican; his party is unmentioned. Instead, he’s an apolitical, Clinton-era cool guy, putting on a flight suit and piloting a jet a decade before George W. Bush tried to pull off the same move. With an inspirational speech and a steady hand on the flightstick, he effortlessly becomes the first sitting American president to charge into battle since George Washington. Despite the demolition of the White House, Independence Day lets the presidency become grander and more powerful than ever, an unquestioned leadership position not only for America, but for humanity itself.
That vision made sense in the ’90s. Any earlier, and the absence of Russia or the Soviet Union would be too obvious. After 2000, such unity in a sharply divided country would feel like a nonsensical pipe dream—in the 2006 novel World War Z, racists keep Barack Obama off of a unity ticket during the zombie apocalypse. But here, in 1996, the president can proclaim that “the 4th 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 intothe 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!”
While The Matrix consciously centers characters with unprivileged identities, Independence Day gives us a post-racial Will Smith, swaggering, smoking cigars, and literally punching ET in the face. Credit where credit’s due for diversity, but neither Will Smith’s casting nor his character really suggest anything other than absolute racial unity in the United States. He offers a sense of cool, without a hint of underlying conflicts.
And then there’s our third amigo, Jeff Goldblum’s computer scientist. He’s obviously Jewish, adding another layer of diversity, without suggesting the possibility that anyone could be excluded from ’90s America. The character also showcases American ingenuity, adding brains to Smith’s cool and the president’s leadership.
It’s all such pleasant nonsense, it’s tempting not to think about its simplistic optimism. It quietly excludes women from the plot altogether, other than to offer up a few strippers for eye candy. The pillaging aliens, who have come to loot the Earth’s resources, somehow fail to provide the obvious analogy to late capitalism. Humanity triumphs, no questions asked.
Twenty years later, the movie seems almost childish, without grander aspirations evoking cheers from (American) audiences. Science fiction is growing up, and the movie offers nostalgia in almost its purest form—a whiff of youthful ignorance about a complex world.