How in the world could Independence Day possibly live up to its hype? For months now, the boffo trailer teasing the big-ass sci-fi thriller about hostile outer-space aliens who invade the earth, inspiring all of humanity to fight back, has been beamed to every planet in the universe; in some life-supporting galaxy far, far away, there’s probably a copy of Blort Weekly with a picture of Will Smith on the cover and a story about the special effects that make it possible to blow up the Empire State Building and the White House. So hysterically overinflated has the buildup been that it would take the actual blowing up of the seat you’ve parked your keister in for reality to meet anticipation.

Set aside that ”Go ahead, make my day” attitude, however, for an unexpected reward: This rootin’-tootin’ blockbuster is…adorable. It’s as happily techno-horny as any chapter of the Star Wars trilogy. As satisfyingly hokey and full of Designated Colorful Characters as any of the great 1970s human-face-of-disaster epics — the four Airport sagas, The Towering Inferno, etc. — on which director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin (the 1994 Stargate team, who also wrote the screenplay) drew for inspiration. Independence Day is as corny as Kansas, high as the flag on the Fourth of July. And if you’ll excuse the expression I’ll use, it’s intrinsically American fun.

But it’s a particularly of-the-moment American fun. And that, I think, is what makes Independence Day as much an emblem of American cinematic sensibility in the late 1990s as the Airport series was in the 1970s.

The story itself is simple enough to contain on one laptop computer screen: Spacecraft the size of floating islands enter Earth’s atmosphere and hover in strategic locations around the world, casting giant shadows and causing people to look up and drop their jaws in the universal expression of fear of the apocalypse. Smart thinking on the part of a bright satellite tech wiz (Jeff Goldblum), however, leads concerned government officials to realize that the aliens at the wheel do not come in peace; they intend to trash the joint. So the American president (Bill Pullman, as decisive as Bill Clinton oughta be) takes a bold stand: He will rally all the armies of the world and beat back the foe! Which they do, with a lot of exciting stuff along the way.

Why, exactly, do the rubbery extraterrestrials choose this particular time to make a house call? Aside from a throw-away reference to the aliens’ propensity for fouling up every nest they inhabit until it’s no longer livable — and so, children, recycle your plastic bottles! — ID never says. Depth is not what counts in this cataclysmic tale; charm does. And charm is the foremost of this epic’s contemporary characteristics. The script is witty, knowing, cool. Heck, hippest of all, the thing stars fabulously likable Will Smith, the winningest former rapper and TV sitcom star ever to grab a $70 million production and make it his own. As a snappy Marine fighter pilot, Smith is so deft, so unburdened by everything that’s riding on him, that he lofts us to giddiness. Blam, he slugs a particularly intrepid alien who has hit the Arizona sand. ”Welcome to Earth,” he snips. Wooohoooo! goes the audience.

Paired with Goldblum (enjoyably loosey-goosey and able to fire a few more laconic zingers than he was allowed in Jurassic Park), the two make an unlikely, yet completely endearing pair of brave bad boys. And Goldblum, in turn, is given Judd Hirsch as a warmly loving father — the first refreshing depiction of a substantially Jewish papa and son in a big-ticket movie since — oh, maybe Ben-Hur.

Independence Day counts on our own access to archives of popular culture for full enjoyment, another characteristic of the decade of aesthetic recycling in which Nick at Nite rules. Sure, you can dig the movie even if you’ve just spent a long stretch in solitary confinement. But you’ll have even more fun if you recognize gravel-voiced hysteric Harvey Fierstein in a small role, doing Fierstein theater; or appreciate jokes about the LAPD and the phrase ”Elvis has left the building”; or thrill to the absolute rightness of Brent Spiner from Star Trek: The Next Generation playing a scientist who studies…organic life forms! Yeeeeeeeee! goes the audience.

For its clever establishment of baby boomer as President (note to Jason Robards and Bob Dole: The era of Presidents as elder statesmen is officially over, screenwise), for its we-are-the-world sensibility, for its eve-of-the-millennium message of hope, and for its intrinsic lightness, ID is up-to-the-minute fun. It’s the first futuristic disaster movie that’s as cute as a button. Which, when all the special effects blow over, is what we Americans like in a monster hit. B+

Independence Day
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