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The Curious Colonial Politics of ‘Independence Day’

The Curious Colonial Politics of ‘Independence Day’: 20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

Based on the first installment, from 1996, we can wager at least one thing about Independence Day: Resurgence: the aliens will not be portrayed in a flattering light. In the original, the first thing the invaders do with their city-sized space ships is to unleash explosive heat rays on the hapless earth population, spreading fire and devastation across the globe. When one alien is captured, it turns out to be a slithery abomination in an oozing bio-flesh suit. The alien isn’t a very good conversationalist either. When the clean-cut President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) asks the captured monster what it wants the human race to do, the humorless critter replies, “Die. Die.”

So—invaders are nightmarish genocidal atrocities who strip planets of resources, killing all the inhabitants. Seems like a pretty strong anti-imperialist statement. Right?

Well, maybe. Earth invasion stories have always had a complicated relationship with historical imperialism. H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, the 1897 granddaddy of alien invasion stories, made it clear that the Martian invasion had a lot in common with more terrestrial invasions. “The Tasmanians … were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space if 50 years,” Wells’ narrator muses. “Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

Independence Day borrows a lot from War of the Worlds, including the heat ray, the giant-headed aliens and the virus that saves the earth (the common cold for Wells, a computer virus for Team ID4). But unlike Wells, Independence Day carefully avoids making the connection between alien and earthbound colonial projects. Almost the entire action of Independence Day takes place in the United States, but none of the characters ever pauses for a moment to say, “You know, those aliens—they’re just taking this land from us the way we took it from the Native peoples. Columbus was smaller-scale but did stuff that would put the aliens to shame. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain?”

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

In fact, the film is willfully determined not to notice the parallels between alien empire and American empire. Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), the alcoholic fighter pilot who sacrifices himself to destroy the alien ship, is a Vietnam veteran who’s supposed to have been captured by aliens 10 years before the film begins. A slimy hive mind of subhuman enemies held him hostage—and now he has his revenge. Alien abduction is a lot like being captured by the Viet-Cong, except that with the aliens there are no uncomfortable questions about who is the aggressor. The Vietnam fighter pilot gets to go out in a blaze of destruction and glory, without a second thought about civilian casualties or the morality of telling folks on another continent how to govern themselves. Payback is pure and clean.

So the doughty earth forces completely destroy all the aliens. There are, as far as we see, no survivors. This eradication is obviously justified: The aliens, the movie insists, are pitiless and cannot be negotiated with. They are other and evil, and destroying them is unequivocally good.

This is why alien invasion stories are not necessarily anti-imperial. Independence Day divides the universe into a noble us and a dangerous them. If they are pure evil, then we must do everything we can to defeat them—up to and including seeking them out on their homeworld and destroying them. That’s what happens in Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel Ender’s Game, in which Earth responds to an attack from the vicious alien bugs by destroying the creatures’ home world. And it’s not exactly lightyears from our time in Iraq, where the (manufactured) threat of a first strike from Saddam Hussein validated yet another American invasion of the Middle East.

An alien invasion story is only anti-imperialist if, like War of the Worlds, it encourages the people of imperial powers to see themselves in the aliens. Independence Day doesn’t do that. Instead, it presents America as the unproblematic champion of the world’s oppressed and colonized people. In the movie, U.S. forces are themselves multiracial and multi-ethnic; Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum play bold American heroes in an army and nation untroubled by any hint of racism or anti-Semitism. As far as Independence Day is concerned, we’re all just one happy multicultural blob of alien ass-whupping. At the film’s conclusion, when the aliens are defeated, you see African people in tribal dress and Arabs near pyramids celebrating American victory. The United States fights on behalf of colonized people. We see it on our screen, and who can doubt it?

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

“The Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday,” the United States President declares in Independence Day, anticipating the defeat of the aliens and the moment when the uniquely American celebration will become more universal. The liberation of the American colonies from English domination, is, in the film, the blueprint for the liberation of the world from alien colonial empire. Everyone, everywhere, all at once, will become American—which ends up being a rather imperial vision.

Independence Day isn’t so much about the ills of colonialism as it is about the transcendent goodness of America. Americans never act like aliens—which means that the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee and Vietnam never happened, or aren’t worth dwelling on.

The aliens invade on July 4th to let America know that the earth is ours, from sea to shining sea. And if someone, somewhere, doesn’t see us as liberators—well, they must be aliens too. And what do we want those unpatriotic, ungrateful aliens to do? Die. Die.

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