On July 2, a huge mothership appears in orbit over the Earth and sends out flying saucers, each of them 15 miles wide, to hover over the great cities of Earth. Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith) is deployed, as his girlfriend Jasmine Dubrow (Viveca A. Fox) takes her son Dylan (Ross Bagley) to leave Los Angeles. David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), a satellite tech from MIT, decodes a signal that he believes is the aliens’ countdown to an all-out attack. Aided by his ex-wife Constance Spano (Margaret Colin), the White House Communications Director, he and his father Julius (Judd Hirsch) get access to President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) and inform him of the threat.

The President orders evacuations of NY, LA, and DC, but it is too late. Each saucer fires one beam that incinerates the city below, killing millions. The President, the Levinson’s, and a few others escape on Air Force One as cities all over the world meet the same fate. Jasmine and Dylan escape from the car and take shelter.

On July 3, counterattacks begin, but force-fields protect the ships, and each saucer launches fighters which decimate the human Air Forces. Steven lures one fighter into crashing in the Grand Canyon, subdues the alien pilot, and flags down a convoy of refugees to take the creature to Area 51, where the President is located. Secretary of Defense Albert Mimzicki (James Rebhorn) reveals that Area 51 has had an alien ship on ice since 1947, plus three alien corpses.

Scientist Brackish Okun (Brent Spiner) examines Steven’s captured alien, but it comes to and telepathically invades Okun’s mind, then speaks with Okun’s voice to threaten Earth and attack the President until the alien is killed. Whitmore learns that the invaders plan to strip Earth of its natural resources. He launches an attack on the ship over Houston, but it survives. Jasmine and Dylan commandeer a truck and rescue other survivors, including the injured First Lady (Mary McDonnell), then takes her to Area 51, but the latter dies after being reunited with the President.

On July 4, David writes a computer virus that will disrupt the alien ships’ computers. The plan is to upload it via the refurbished alien fighter, which Steven will pilot. With Morse Code, volunteers are gathered to fly jets to the warships. Steven and David upload the virus into the mother ship and deploy a nuclear missile. With the aliens’ shield deactivated, the fighters attack and one missile carried by former soldier, now crop-duster, Russell Casse (Randy Quaid) is crashed into the saucer’s weapon, destroying the warship. Human military forces all over the world are informed of the enemy’s weakness.

The film was directed by Roland Emmerich and written by him and Dean Devlin. It launched the disaster-film resurgence of the 1990s. It was criticized by reviewers as histrionic and dumb but was the highest-grossing film of the year, with its likable character actors and enormous explosions. It was nominated for two Oscars and won for visual effects, which are mind-blowing. The script was written on a 2-month vacation in Mexico and 20th Century Fox okayed it in one day. At first, the US military offered vehicles and planes, but backed away when they heard about the Area 51 references. Conspiracy theories, anyone? A promo costing more than a million dollars was aired during the Super Bowl.

The big Independence Day speech by the President, it was hoped, would get Fox the rights to the title, as a movie named Independence Day had already been made, and it worked. That speech was voted the most pompous soliloquy ever delivered in a mainstream Hollywood movie and the cheesiest speech of all time, but I seem to remember speeches like it during the Vietnam Era. John Wayne was no slouch in that regard. David Arnold’s pounding score won a Grammy. The film spawned a sequel and several books, not to mention a British play that moved the whole story to the UK and mentioned H.G. Wells. And there were the toys, action figures, and video games. Basically, it was War of the Worlds, but instead of cold viruses doing in the aliens it was computer viruses.

The scene in which Will Smith dragged the body of the alien over the Salt Flats contained an ad-lib—What the hell is that smell?—but he was not referring to the alien, but to the decaying brine shrimp that fill the Salt Lake. Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, and Will Smith ad-libbed constantly. Apparently, on the Bonneville Salt Flats, you can get a sunburn on your legs even with long pants on because the light will reflect up your pants leg. The film was banned in Lebanon because it depicted Israeli and Iraqi soldiers joining forces, which is pretty sad. There was some resistance to hiring Will Smith, but it launched his movie career.

Brent Spiner’s Doctor Okun is a copy of the digital effects supervisor on Stargate, right down to the haircut, or lack of it. The airbase from which the attack on the flying saucers took off was the same from which the atom-bomb-laden Flying Wing took off in War of the Worlds. The scene of a small elite air force attacking overwhelming odds was based on film provided by the Israeli Air Force. When Dave turns on the computer in the small spaceship, it says, “Good morning, Dave.” It all began with Roland Emmerich answering questions about Stargate, specifically if he believed in aliens. He said, “If they’re here, why are they hiding in the back woods? They should come out and make an entrance.” Then he turned to his fellow scriptwriter and said, “I think I have an idea for our next movie.”