What struck me immediately was how effectively, and economically, the film goes about introducing all the players as they react to the first-contact scenario in their own way. President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), frustrated by the narrative that he’s an ineffectual leader, elects to stay in the White House—even as an alien ship hovers overhead—in hopes of curbing a panic.
Satellite technician David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) maintains a calm head, unlike his other coworkers (while still making time to recycle). And uncovers a hidden signal the aliens are using to communicate.
Interestingly, Will Smith's character, Captain Steven Hiller, arguably our action star of the film, isn't introduced until the twenty minute mark. He sleeps through much of the initial act. The film shows an easy chemistry between him and his *gasp!* stripper girlfriend and her kid. There’s also a clever set up of Hiller’s desire to fly into space for NASA. Sure there’s his rejection letter, but eagle-eyed viewers will notice the inside of Hiller’s locker is decked out with pictures of space. The dude really wants to be in space, which pays off later.
These are just the major characters, but even the minor characters shine. Randy Quaid’s kooky crop-duster, the energetic Area 51 scientist, Jeff Goldblum’s slow-driving dad. The film populates our imperiled Earth with characters you want to root for. So before the first green blast is fired, you’re engaged. It’s simple, but too many blockbusters today (including its sequel) overlook this step.
The first act leans pretty heavily on President Whitmore’s choices during the crisis, and as a political geek it was satisfying to see the film take its time playing out how thoughtfully the powers-that-be would react to the crazy scenario of a first contact. Whitmore sends a “Welcome Wagon” up to one of the ships hoping to establish some friendly contact, and although it doesn’t end well, it feels genuine that before the shooting starts our leaders first try to establish a peaceful line of dialogue with the aliens. ‘Murica!
While the White House blowing up is the image everyone remembers, there are a few other moments that really sold me on the stakes of the alien’s attack: Vivica A. Fox’s co-worker at the strip club has gone to an alien welcoming party atop an LA tower. She’s a character with maybe five lines in the whole film, but when the alien ship opens up to destroy the city, watching her earnest curiosity turn to horror really helps turn the destruction from abstract to emotional. Same goes for Jeff Goldblum’s raspy-voiced boss who simultaneously meets his end on the other side of the country: he’s another minor character, but he quickly endeared himself to the viewers. We saw him being sassy to his overpriced lawyer (always a plus) and desperately trying to contact his mother to ensure her safety. Those are just a few, as Will Smith’s Top Gun-esque buddy and the First Lady are also casualties of the conflict; victimless destruction, this isn’t.
The film is an ensemble piece and likes to interweave the disparate narrative threads, slowly bring them together: President Whitmore remotely commands the attack squadron that includes Captain Steven Hiller during the initial aerial assault, though the two characters won’t meet until later at Area 51. And when Hiller hitches a ride to Area 51 he doesn’t get into just anyone’s RV, but the kooky crop-duster we were already introduced to. Little touches like this give the film an inherent watchability that’s just so damn fun! The film starts by casting a wide net of characters spread out across the United States, and (to this viewer) there’s something intangibly exciting about watching the interweaving storylines draw together until they eventually converge at Area 51.
Rising to the Challenge
Along with the film’s destruction of national monuments (and near-destruction of golden retrievers), the President’s speech to rally the troops at the end is probably what everyone remembers the most. And it’s great, no questions there (side note: it was apparently written in 5 minutes by screenwriter Dean Devlin as he tried to just crank out a placeholder). What makes it even cooler though, is what the moment means for the President.
He starts the film frustrated by his own inability to play the political game and his perceived ineffectiveness as President. He yearns for the straightforward leadership of flying combat missions in the Gulf War, but his epic speech and subsequent action of flying into the final battle sees the President finally being just the type of leader he’s wanted to be, inspiring others with his candor and bravery (sure, the secret service would never let him fly in that final assault, at least not so easily. But man it’s a great moment).
And the President isn’t the only character that gets a satisfying arc. Will Smith accomplishes his dream of flying into space, successfully piloting the alien spacecraft. Proving NASA doesn’t know talent when they see it. Jeff Goldblum stops being an underachiever, reconnects with his estranged wife, and realizes his true potential as one hell of a smarty-pants.
Even minor characters get a satisfying conclusion. Vivica A. Fox’s character leads a makeshift search and rescue effort. Randy Quaid’s crop-duster ultimately proves his worth, sacrificing his life to take out one of the ship. Jeff Goldblum’s dad leads a prayer during the final battle to comfort the non-combatants.
In fact, that’s kind of the theme of the last act: humanity rising to the challenge instead of shrinking away. The characters face great odds but instead of cracking under the pressure, they emerge stronger. Some, like the president, have lost people. But there’s a sense that everyone achieves their true potential by the end of the film. It leaves a good taste in the viewer’s mouth, and I think it's a major reason why the film is so endearing.