Independence Day: what alien invasions tell us about current global politics
When Soviet communism disintegrated, political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously declared that it was “the end of history”. He argued that Western liberal democracy and capitalism had triumphed as the world’s only viable system, and though humanity would still face bumps in the road, the ultimate progression to this eventuality for all nations would prove inevitable, even if it took many years.
The United States emerged from the aftermath of the Cold War as the world’s only remaining superpower. It was, as political commentator Charles Krauthammer declared, “the unipolar moment”. Former president Richard Nixon urged the United States to seize upon this opportunity to export American capitalism and democracy to the rest of the world.
While in reality the United States approached the new world order cautiously, one film that reflected the bombast and optimism of the “unipolar moment”, and captured the imagination of audiences (it was the highest-grossing film of 1996) was Independence Day (1996).
The story is a simple one. In the run-up to America’s July 4 weekend, the world is invaded by intergalactic space aliens bent on the destruction of the human race. Most of the world’s major cities are obliterated in the initial attack. Then the survivors, led by the US president and ex-Gulf War fighter pilot Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman), regroup, retaliate, and ultimately defeat the invaders, declaring the July 4 an international holiday. In a global war against a fearsome, inhuman “other”, American values become universal values.
In keeping with the politics of disaster movies, the nation before the attack is characterised by division, weakness and a decline in traditional values, with indecisive leaders and broken families. The cataclysm then brings about the restoration and renewal of conventional military strength and patriarchal dominance. Reunited in the desert following the destruction of the alien mothership, the African American fighter pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith) and the Jewish scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), who masterminded the plan, embrace each other and their wives, led by the president of the United States. It is a triumphant, multicultural, resolutely patriarchal vision of a nation confident in its ability to take on all-comers.
Released last week, Independence Day: Resurgence tells essentially the same story. It strains to reheat some of the original’s major action set-pieces, particularly the destruction of the world’s major cities, notably London among them.
But this second film has to respond to a different geopolitical context – and it struggles to present the United States as one voice among many, a diluted system of global governance with America nominally at the helm. What is interesting about the opening few scenes before the aliens return, is its idealised vision of Fukuyama’s key idea: global liberal democracy has brought world peace.
But when that peace is disturbed, it is shown to be incapable of responding coherently to the impending threat. Former president Thomas Whitmore, again played by Bill Pullman, is asked once again to ride into battle to take the fight to the alien invaders. Again, the scientist Levinson formulates the plan to defeat them. Watching these (relatively) old men do their bit for humanity’s resistance the second time around tries to be rousing, but it is desperately unconvincing. Along with the film’s overreliance on CGI, its attempt to stimulate a semblance of patriotic fervour feels, looks, and sounds utterly fake.
Why? Perhaps because this post-9/11 United States is still hobbling its way out of the recession of 2008 and is facing the very real possibility of electing Donald Trump, a populist reality TV star looking to pull up the drawbridge and retreat from America’s role on the world stage. In such a context a message of cooperation and togetherness seems entirely out of step with the way the world looks now.
The possibility of global stability in the aftermath of the Cold War has evaporated on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, with the rise of Islamic State, the war in Syria and the division caused by the migrant crisis in Europe. Climate change is happening.
The world is simply a much scarier and more uncertain place than it was in 1996, and it seems ever less likely that the United States has the will or the capacity to act as a global leader as it might have done 20 years ago. Independence Day: Resurgence’s tired reversion to old formulas and archetypes does little to convince us otherwise. We see disaster after disaster on the nightly news, whether it is caused by war, terrorism or climate change, rendering the film’s scenes of destruction entirely tasteless.
Indeed, the irony of its release on the day of the UK’s disastrous referendum on its membership of the European Union, the result of which has sent the world into economic and political chaos, is difficult to ignore. When Nigel Farage declared June 23 “Independence Day”, he demonstrated ignorance on virtually all levels, not least in cultural terms.
For a whole generation of people, “Independence Day” is roughly equated with visions of apocalypse. Film critic Amy Taubin described the original film as a “feel-good picture about the end of the world”. Independence Day: Resurgence is desperate to capture the optimism of its predecessor, but it is difficult to feel anything other than deeply concerned.
Publication date: 27 June 2016