Note: The following discusses a key scene in Independence Day and contains spoilers.
Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day doesn’t ask you to merely suspend your disbelief; it asks you to fill disbelief with helium and tie it to a rocket. The movie is a mad collection of goofy coincidence, questionable logic, and implausible outcomes. It’s also ripping entertainment, and so I launch my disbelief toward the heavens.
Of course, we can write off every dubious plot turn by saying the film creates rules for its own universe and stays true enough to these rules to make the story work on its own terms. Or we can shrug our shoulders and decide the nonsensical nature of certain elements are part of the movie’s charm. Or we can scoff at every improbable plot point, calling them gaffes that invalidate the whole thing.
Which is what most people – both fans and haters – have opted to do regarding that third act set-up involving a computer virus. You know the one: tech whiz David (Jeff Goldblum) realizes he can disable the alien spaceships’ shields by uploading a computer virus into the mothership. It works like a charm, but it left viewers giggling for seventeen years: Hey, I can’t even get my Mac and my PC to talk to each other. How in the hell is that laptop going to work with tech from another solar system?
That’s a perfectly valid question. Funny thing is, the movie comes thisclose to explaining it all.
Our first clue is in the movie’s early scenes, when David discovers an alien signal embedded within our own satellites. This sets up the alien “countdown,” which adds some tension to the first act, forcing David to fight the clock in convincing President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) of the aliens’ true intent.
But it also lays the groundwork for the virus as a plot point. When the third act arrives and David explains his plan, he says, “Just as they used our satellites against us, we can use their own signal against them.” This can be interpreted as suggesting the two technologies are indeed compatible. If they were able to easily upload computer code into our systems (perhaps even in a matter of hours), then we can assume the opposite would also be relatively easy, or at the very least possible.
In addition, the movie jumps ahead from David’s late night dad-inspired revelation (“I don’t want you to catch a cold”) to his early morning debriefing with the President. Exact times aren’t given, but we can assume it’s been a good five or six hours, maybe more. That’s a good chunk of time, and David spends it with a large number of Area 51’s top computer experts. David had by now spent the better part of a day and a half being familiar with the code he discovered, while the Area 51 gang is building upon decades of research on the alien ship they captured back in the 1950s, so we can also assume they’re not going in blind. Combine that fair amount of knowledge with all the off-screen time spent testing and re-testing, and suddenly it’s quite possible they figured out a way to make the two technologies compatible.
Granted, this assumption requires giving the movie a lot of leeway in assuming such an explanation isn’t just the accidental result of a misread line of dialogue, but I’m willing to grant it. Any movie where Will Smith punches an alien while a piss-drunk Randy Quaid saves the planet, well, it’s earned it.