The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
Every city has the place where the punks go, that anodyne strip of sidewalk where the sneery disaffected kids congregate on the weekend nights when there isn’t anything else to do. In 1990s Baltimore, for whatever reason, that place was the corner outside the Towson Commons, the suburban multiplex just north of town. On any given Friday night, you could head to that corner and find a few dozen kids with mohawks and lip rings all aimlessly milling around, awkwardly attempting to flirt with one another or sell each other bad drugs. Every once in a while, a cop car would pull up and tell these kids to move on, and the group would drift en masse across the street and then gradually trickle back. This was the routine. This was what we did.
But a couple of Fridays into January 1996, the punks weren’t outside the movie theater. It wasn’t because it was cold out. It was because From Dusk Till Dawn had opened, and that movie’s selling points—vampires, gore, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel, George Clooney with painted-on tattoos and a big gun—were squarely within teenage-punk zones of interest. That night, the punks were inside the theater. The screening room was basically nothing but teenage punks. It was glorious.
Before the movie, the theater showed a one-minute masterpiece of a trailer. Ominous music played as vast shadows slid across the faces of monuments. Cars rear-ended each other as people gaped at the sky. A wall of flames consumed a city block full of cars. And in the trailer’s final shot, a blue beam shot down from a huge flying saucer and exploded the White House into splinters. On that night, in that theater, the whole crowd erupted into cheers. It was the best shit that any of us had ever seen.
At the time, the man who occupied the White House was Bill Clinton. He’d be reelected in a landslide a few months later. I don’t think any of the punks had any particular problem with Bill Clinton at the time, though god knows they would now. It was more that we were getting to see whole-scale destruction on a vast scale, that we could go to the theater and watch all symbols of order die in flames. We were down.
Everyone else was down, too. The following week, that teaser trailer played during the Super Bowl, and I probably had 15 different conversations about it the next day. Independence Day was still more than five months from release, and it was already the biggest movie of 1996. We were going to get to see those bigass spaceships blow up everything. We couldn’t wait.
When Independence Day did open, it was almost a surprise that the movie presented the immolation of the White House as a bad thing. In the film, the distinctly Clintonian president escapes the blast. Later on, that president gives the kind of speech that soundtracks halftime-show jumbotron montages, a scene that continues to give me goosebumps even though I fully acknowledge how fucking stupid it is. And then that president goes on to fly a damn fighter plane in an aerial assault against alien invaders.
Independence Day is a distinctly pro-president movie. But it’s also a movie that knows how much fun it is to watch shit blow up. Forty-five minutes into the film, we see those flying saucers unleash their blue light-beams, obliterating New York and Los Angeles and Washington in a few scant minutes of screen time. Millions die, but the movie barely asks us to be sad. None of the major characters are killed off in those blasts. A few comic-relief side characters get zapped, but even the film’s one dog gets a dramatic escape scene, somehow evading the apocalyptic explosion by jumping into a closet.
Independence Day is not a horror movie. Director Roland Emmerich never asks us to be afraid or disturbed or empathetic. Instead, he speaks the language of the summer blockbuster. Characters react to incomprehensible mass death by firing off one-liners or vaudevillian comic bits; the moments of emotion are stagey and hackneyed, as if Emmerich can’t wait to check them off the list and leave them in the past. He knows that we came to revel in the euphoria of complete annihilation, to watch buildings go boom, and he delivers.
The effects in Independence Day are noisy and shallow, and not especially convincing: Emmerich’s SFX team was predominately composed of German film students, and most of the effects shots are miniature models zipping around, not CGI creations. But Emmerich effectively communicates the scale of what he’s showing, right from the opening moment where the shadow of the spaceship dims the sight of the American flag on the moon.
Before Independence Day, planetary-level destruction wasn’t really part of the cinematic toolbox. We’d seen aliens and giant monsters and nuclear explosions, but we hadn’t seen anything like this. That visceral joy in apocalypse is a little hard to access now, and that’s partly because half the big blockbusters of this century have had scenes where entire cities get wiped away. Independence Day is, in a lot of ways, the movie that invented blockbuster-level spectacle as we know it now—the bridge between Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay.
Roland Emmerich belongs to the generation of filmmakers directly inspired by the pop visions of Spielberg and George Lucas. As a college student in West Germany, Emmerich switched his major to film after seeing Star Wars. He filmed his early German B-movies in English, with the specific intent of getting those films into American theaters. American distributors didn’t bite, but Carolco Pictures did bring Emmerich in to direct the 1992 Jean-Claude Van Damme/Dolph Lundgren flick Universal Soldier.
Universal Soldier was a hit—as was Emmerich and producer/co-writer Dean Devlin’s follow-up, the ridiculous 1994 Egyptian-alien adventure Stargate. Both Universal Soldier and Stargate combine vague sci-fi ideas with unapologetic B-movie energy. That strategy, scaled up, is what they used for Independence Day. Emmerich had the idea for Independence Day while doing interviews to promote Stargate, thinking out loud about what it would be like if miles-wide spaceships appeared above Earth’s cities. Once you’ve got an idea like that, the movie writes itself.
Independence Day uses every shortcut possible. It’s a pastiche of movie imagery. There are visual references to sci-fi spectacles of the past: The Day The Earth Stood Still, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The pilots at the Marine airbase talk and act exactly like slightly more glib versions of the pilots from Top Gun. The air battles look like the air battles in Star Wars. The characters are all broad types who don’t seem to have active internal lives. And Emmerich makes it all work—partly because he knows how to move swiftly from one scene of devastation to the next, and partly because one of those broad characters is played by Will Smith.
Rewatching Independence Day, you can pinpoint the exact moment that Will Smith becomes a transcendent, generational movie star. Smith’s Captain Steven Hiller intentionally crashes his F/A-18, bringing down an alien fighter in the process. Hiller parachutes to safety, then screams at the alien ship, talking triumphant shit and ripping the invader’s cockpit open. When a tentacular skeleton-monster rises up out of the dry ice, Hiller makes a face, punches the beast, and deadpans, “Welcome to Earth.” And then Hiller pulls out a cigar, glares down at his defeated foe, and says, “Now, that’s what I call a close encounter”—two one-liners, when one would’ve done just fine. It’s loud and dumb and perfect.
Smith was only just finishing up his run as a friendly pop-rapper and sitcom star. Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air had aired its final episode just a month and a half before Independence Day opened. Smith had been in a few movies, but only one of them, Michael Bay’s 1995 action flick Bad Boys, had given him any kind of starring role. But the Will Smith of Independence Day was exactly what the world wanted to see: brash, charming, and tough enough to punch an alien but goofy enough to make a couple of dumb jokes immediately afterward.
Of course, Will Smith is only part of an ensemble cast. Emmerich and Devlin saved money by casting recognizable comic character actors who weren’t quite movie stars. This was the exact same route that Steven Spielberg went with Jurassic Park, and Emmerich was shameless enough to cast Jeff Goldblum as another nebbishy doomsaying math-genius scientist type. In Independence Day, though, Goldblum gets to save the day, though nobody bothers to explain how his computer-virus scheme could possibly work on an advanced alien spacecraft. (In the ’90s, computer viruses were still mysterious enough that you could use them to get just about any plot from one point to another.)
There’s no central star in Independence Day. Instead, Bill Pullman and Robert Loggia and Mary McDonnell and Gossip Girl mother Margaret Colin make stoic pronouncements as they stare at screens, while Randy Quaid, Judd Hirsch, and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Brent Spiner supply constant comic-relief riffage. Nobody makes as big an impression as Will Smith, though. Nobody even tries. Instead, these qualified actors do their jobs and keep things moving. The fact that one person from that cast turned out to be a charismatic supernova almost seems like a happy accident. Emmerich hasn’t directed another movie-star performance like that one since.
Smith aside, the real star of Independence Day is spectacle itself. Emmerich crams the film with cinematic-language Americana, but he also presents an image of a planet united against a common enemy. That image turned out to be universal. Independence Day was the highest-grossing movie of 1996 at the American box office—and, at the time, the second-highest of all time behind Jurassic Park. (Jeff Goldblum movies drew money in the ’90s.) But Independence Day earned even more of its money overseas. The rest of the planet was just as ready for planetary destruction as we were.
Indeed, Independence Day was the kind of movie where anyone could project whatever meaning they wanted onto it. You could, if you were so inclined, see the aliens as a projection of the ambient threat of environmental collapse—a threat that Emmerich would later make literal in 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow. But Goldblum’s character is always going on about recycling, and the movie plays that for laughs. Independence Day never takes a stand on anything except, perhaps, the existence of alien corpses hidden in underground bunkers. My local paper’s right-wing film critic wrote a whole essay about how the aliens were really symbolic of illegal immigration and how the movie’s success was reflective of how much Americans don’t want that. Once you’ve got people on all points of the political map drawing their own conclusions, you know your movie is a hit.
The fact is, those aliens didn’t symbolize anything. They were just aliens. In Twister, the second-highest-grossing film of 1996, the tornadoes were just tornadoes. The success of those two movies unlocked a new phase of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking. Twister and Independence Day were both special-effects disaster flicks—light on dialogue and story and big-name stars, heavy on deafening and disorienting displays of special-effects wizardry. Hollywood noticed. A year later, there was a new wave of ’70s-style disaster movies like Volcano and Dante’s Peak—as well as the biggest blockbuster in history, which itself was a sort of disaster movie. Two years later, Armageddon and Deep Impact rumbled through theaters, transforming the aliens of Independence Day into big hunks of rock and somehow upping the spectacle even further.
After Independence Day, Emmerich tried to hit that one note as many times as he possibly could. He and Devlin followed Independence Day with 1998’s breathtakingly shitty Godzilla. The rest of Emmerich’s career has been a series of variations on that disaster theme, movies like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 and White House Down, with occasional dips into inexplicable fascinations like the theory (illustrated in 2011’s Anonymous) that Shakespeare didn’t really write Shakespeare’s plays. In 2016, Emmerich made his 20-years-later sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence. By that point, we’d seen the world destroyed dozens of times. Emmerich couldn’t get Will Smith to return, so he spitefully killed off Smith’s character offscreen. Nobody wanted to see that shit, and the sequel died a quiet death in theaters.
Roland Emmerich has never made a great movie. You could argue that he’s never even made a good one. He almost certainly changed Hollywood filmmaking for the worse, making it bigger and dumber and louder and less coherent. But Emmerich also gave us the visceral thrill of the White House being blown up, and that’s still the best shit.
The contender: Independence Day and Twister aside, most of the hits of 1996 were sleek and star-driven action vehicles (Ransom, The Rock) or broad, busy comedies (101 Dalmatians, The Nutty Professor, The Birdcage). But then there was Tom Cruise, who had one of those charmed years that movie stars sometimes have and who defined the year almost as much as special-effects destruction.
Cruise headlined two of 1996’s biggest movies. Cameron Crowe’s brisk romantic drama Jerry Maguire broke down and rebuilt Cruise’s movie-star persona, reeled off a half-dozen immortally quotable lines, snuck in some nice sports-world satire, and still found room to tell a grown-up story about two people realizing that they make each other happy. Maguire was the No. 4 film of 1996, and it was also the only big-studio film nominated for Best Picture. It’s a good one. But I prefer Cruise’s other big hit from that year.
With Mission: Impossible, 1996’s No. 3 movie, Cruise (producing himself for the first time) more than adapted an old spy TV show; he transformed it into a whole different animal. The star brought in director Brian De Palma for extreme-camera-angled and Hitchcockian hijinks. Cruise pulled off some truly great action set pieces. And he launched the stunt-centric franchise that would eventually turn him into the American Jackie Chan. Also, I like the bit where Emilio Estevez gets his face impaled.
Next time: James Cameron’s Titanic, an over-budget mess that seems destined for failure, instead becomes a historic cross-cultural phenomenon.