Independence Day’s computer virus plan still doesn’t add up – but good storytelling is about more than just making sense

Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day turns 25 today, and there’s plenty to celebrate about this action sci-fi blockbuster. After all, this was the flick that cemented Will Smith’s status as action star, ushered in a new era of big budget disaster movies, and gave us the most delightfully bombastic speech of all time.

Yet ID4’s legacy is hardly blemish-free. Ever since the film hit theatres in 1996, critics and audiences alike have called it out for the shortcomings of its screenplay – especially the finale, where an alien invasion is averted by a computer virus cooked up by Jeff Goldblum’s David Levinson and deployed by Smith’s Captain Hiller. That’s right: the aliens were defeated because their mothership – capable of interstellar travel and presumably running on technology lightyears beyond our own – didn’t have the latest version of Norton Antivirus installed.

It’s a completely bonkers plot development, but is it really that bad? Looking back a quarter of a century later, I’m not so sure, particularly when you consider how other, more recent films like War of the Worlds and Signs play out. That’s because, unlike those movies, the computer virus plan that saves the day in ID4 – while utterly illogical – affords Levinson and Hiller something all good protagonists need: agency.

Could a computer virus really have defeated the aliens in Independence Day?

We’ll dive into what I mean by that soon, but first, let’s properly unpack the viability of Independence Day’s computer virus-based plan. Is there even the slightest chance it could have worked? Sadly, the answer is “no” – for two main reasons.

For starters, David would have needed to understand the alien mothership’s programming language, which is essentially the same as being fluent in a foreign language you’ve never encountered before… only it wasn’t even developed by humans! Then, there’s the problem of uploading the virus to the mothership’s systems. This would have required David to get his mid-90s Mac laptop to interface with a captured alien fighter (used as the deployment tool) – and yeah, good luck with that.

Admittedly, in the years since ID4’s release, both of these quibbles have been addressed.

A deleted scene included with the film’s 20th anniversary DVD reveals that David reverse engineered the aliens’ programming language using the extra-terrestrial signal he decoded earlier in the movie. What’s more, this scene partially addresses how David was able to transfer the virus to the alien fighter (it’s implied he uploaded it directly), although the link between his laptop and the fighter later still doesn’t really make sense.

Independence Day co-writer Dean Devlin has also shed more light on the nature of the computer virus itself, clarifying that alien technology was (conveniently) based on the same binary code we’re familiar with on Earth. This made it easy for David to write a simple virus that inverted the ones and zeros in the mothership’s systems, effectively short circuiting it.

Ultimately, though, none of these explanations is even close to airtight – and more importantly, they don’t appear in the film itself. So, any way you slice it, Independence Day’s computer virus plot point doesn’t stack up. And yet, for all its drawbacks, it’s far from the worst “scientifically”-driven resolution to a space invasion flick to grace screens in the last 25 years…

What’s worse than Independence Day’s computer virus?

Heck, the computer virus in ID4 isn’t even the dumbest virus-related plot point cinema has served up over the past quarter century.

That dubious distinction goes to Steven Spielberg’s 2005 Tom Cruise vehicle War of the Worlds which (like the H.G. Well’s novel it’s based on) sees Earth’s Martian invaders brought down by airborne pathogens that their otherworldly immune systems were helpless against. As plot twists go, it’s beyond contrived – the Martians are advanced enough to master interstellar travel and conquer our planet with chilling ease, yet somehow fail to prepare for germs – and results in an abrupt, unsatisfying ending.

Then there’s the big plot twist of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, which somehow manages to be even more ludicrous than anything dished up by either War of the Worlds or Independence Day. In this 2002 sci-fi thriller, it turns out that the aliens are vulnerable to water – y’know: the stuff that covers roughly 70% of the planet and is visible from space? Turns out these guys didn’t do their due diligence before giving their invasion plan the green light, which is very fortunate for Mel Gibson’s Father Hess and his family.

Of course, it’s not like War of the Worlds’ ending hasn’t come under fire, or that the conclusion of Signs hasn’t been called out, either. Nevertheless, the overall level of snark directed at both movies’ ill-conceived plot twists is arguably less pronounced than the scorn piled on Independence Day’s computer virus plot point – and that ain’t right.

Independence Day’s computer virus plot point gives us active protagonists

See, a fundamental component of good storytelling is having active protagonists; people who play a direct role in shaping the narrative itself. That’s something that Independence Day can boast, unlike other, ostensibly better crafted alien invasion outings like War of the Worlds and Signs.

In War of the Worlds and Signs, humanity’s salvation is largely out of our hands. Indeed, it takes a deus ex machina (literally in Signs’case, as Shyamalan also throws divine intervention into the mix) to rid us of our would-be rulers. There’s no real autonomy involved here; the characters just blunder on until they’re saved by the screenwriters’ clunky plotting.

By contrast, ID4 puts us fully in control, and if the computer virus plan we cook up is batshit insane? Hey, at least it’s our plan. Instead of waiting around for the aliens to get the sniffles or trip into a puddle, David, Hiller, and the gang actively engineer their destruction – and popcorn nonsense or not, proceedings feel a heckuva lot more engaging as a result.

Now, would it have been better if Emmerich and Devlin had settled on a plot point a little bit less absurd than Independence Day’s computer virus? Definitely. But with other films in the alien invasion genre are offer up equally nonsensical finales bogged down by passive protagonists, this 4th of July, let’s celebrate ID4 for an having an ending that – preposterous or not – at least gives its heroes their, well… independence.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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