Storyclock Research Log

Independence Day

By Ryan Polly

Independence Day

We'll never forget July 4, 1996 -- the day Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, and the brave men and women of Earth’s armed forces held off an alien invasion that could have wiped the human race from existence. We commemorate that momentous day by using the Storyclock Notebook to analyze ID4’s story structure and visualize it in the form of a clock.

Let's Break It Down



Opening Image

PAINFULLY GLORIOUSLY 90’s OPENING TITLES. The confusingly bold choice to follow a giant title reading "INDEPENDENCE DAY" with a smaller title reading "JULY 2". A plaque on the moon for moon stuff. The camera zooms into the words, “We came in peace for all mankind”. A shadow covers the surface -- a shadow from a gigantic spaceship.

S.E.T.I. (hyperlink because cool) picks up a radio signal from space. Space Force Command is contacted and they discover that this object from space is -- dot dot dot -- slowing down.


In New York, David plays chess with his dad Julius. He beats him (smart, strategic) and it’s revealed he still isn’t over his ex-wife after years of being separated. Because who is.

In D.C., we meet President Bill Pullman. He talks to his wife (who’s in Los Angeles at the time) on the phone while eating breakfast with his daughter. He’s a good man but not exactly America’s best president. Because who is.

In Nevada, Russel, a drunk ex-fighter pilot flies a crop duster over the wrong fields, unable to do the simplest thing without embarrassing himself and his three children. Because who is.

Normalcy Disrupted

The gigantic spaceships appear in the sky all over the world. Everyone freaks out.

Captain Steve Hiller of the U.S. Air Force wakes up in LA (always two hours behind) and attempts to read the newspaper in his driveway like every other normal person, but is foiled by the appearance of LA's giant spaceship. He heads to base to report for duty, leaving Jasmine (his girlfriend, whom he seems afraid to commit to) and her son Dylan.


David manages to find a hidden signal in Earth’s satellites revealing a countdown timer, because smart. He calls his ex-wife, Connie (chief of staff for the Pullman Administration), to tell her to evacuate the White House, but she hangs up on him.

Rational Approach

President Bill Pullman tells people to evacuate the cities and not to panic. Meanwhile, everyone panics.

The President sends in three helicopters to deal with the giant space ship. Things don't go great, as the aliens give a little taste of their love for explosions by blowing those choppers up.

Acceptance and Break Into Act 2

David and his father arrive at the White House and tell them about the signal. The President and crew evacuate the White House in the nick of time -- which, coincidentally, is up. The spaceships obliterate all of the world's most revered miniature scale models, in a sea of miniature slow-motion flames.

Trailer Moments/Promise of the Premise

Capt. Hiller and a bunch of other pilots stage a counter attack and are surprised to find the Destroyers are heavily shielded. A dogfight starts with smaller alien ships and every pilot is killed (including Marine Captain Harry Connick Jr., previously believed to be invincible) except Hiller, who takes down one of the smaller ships, punches its alien pilot in the face, and delivers the single greatest line in the history of American cinema, cementing Will Smith's position as a GD national treasure.

Meanwhile on Air Force One, the President and his staff argue, before Julius busts in (the security of the Pullman Administration ...isn't great) and talks about Area 51. The President denies it exists. But, turns out, he's stone cold wrong.


The President and his crew roll up to Area 51, where Lieutenant Commander Data shows them an alien ship they've had since the 50's, along with two dead alien bodies, which they keep in cylindrical aquariums, as one does.

About this time, Hiller shows up with an RV caravan and his alien (still knocked out, because Will Smith punches so hard). Now all of our main characters are at Area 51. Everyone celebrates the fact that they have an alien body to dissect, in hopes that they can find something -- anything -- to help them defeat the aliens.

Things Get Worse

Unfortunately, the alien comes alive and kills a bunch of doctors. This commonly happens during alien dissections, particularly when the alien was never dead to begin with. Will Smith can only punch so hard.

It takes control of Lieutenant Commander Data telepathically and tells the President and crew that they will stop at nothing to kill them all. President Bill Pullman fears annihilation and decides he will nuke the alien ships.

Hero's Last Resort

He nukes one of the alien ships.

Game Over

The nuke levels Houston but leaves the alien ship unscathed, which was sort of what they were going for but not really.

The military's department of great news takes this opportunity to inform Steve that the military base he was supposed to meet Jasmine at has been destroyed.

Steve steals a helicopter and heads to the military base anyways to rescue Jasmine and Dylan. He snags the First Lady as well, reuniting her with the President and their daughter. But sadly, the doctors can’t stop the First Lady’s bleeding, and she dies.

David gets depressed and starts throwing garbage around. Julius tries to encourage him and inadvertently inspires him with a crazy plan that just might work, dammit.

Breakthrough and Rebirth/Break Into Act 3

David shows the President (and I guess every other character in the movie, because sheesh that secret classified room was filled with people) his plan to take out the mothership by planting a virus in its mainframe (the most vulnerable part of any computer), which should theoretically kill the shields and allow the military forces all over the world do what they do best. Military Stuff™️.

Hiller volunteers to fly the alien ship for the Military Stuff™️, with David accompanying for the Science Stuff™️.

Hero Gains Upper Hand

President Bill Pullman gathers the troops and delivers one of the most rousing, inspirational speeches ever put to film. David and Hiller infiltrate the mothership and plant the virus, killing the shields on the destroyer. The fighter pilots -- led by the President (because as we all know, the President can do whatever he wants) -- begin firing missiles into the destroyer. They proceed to dogfight the smaller ships, as well.

Shadow's Final Push

After the virus is planted, David and Hiller’s ship is taken control by the mothership. They grab their cigars as they embrace certain death, knowing that the nuke they fire into the ship will kill them too.

The Destroyer readies it’s primary weapon, the city-killer laser beam. But the entire fleet is completely out of missiles...

Ultimate Breakthrough

Russel sacrifices himself and flies his jet all up into the laser. The Destroyer becomes the Destroyee.

Wasting no time, America immediately calls up the rest of the world's military stereotypes so that they, too, can know the secret to defeating the alien ships (blowing them up).

Meanwhile, in space -- Hiller and David launch the nuke directly into the mothership's control room, naturally triggering the "unlock our ship from the dock" command. They quickly make their escape out of the mothership and it explodes behind them, with sound and everything (space was different in the 90’s).

Final Image

David and Hiller walk away from their burning ship smoking cigars like the badass BFFs they are. They kiss their loved ones, shake hands with the President, and watch as pieces of the mothership rain down to Earth like fireworks in the evening sky. God bless America.

Symmetrical Moments

  • Russel is introduced, a drunken pilot crop dusting the wrong field / Russel dies, a war hero who saved millions of lives
  • Steve shows the engagement ring to Harry Connick Jr. / Steve marries Jasmine
  • David shows the president the countdown and tells him about the hidden signal he found / David tells the president his plan to take out the aliens

Final Thoughts

Dialing scope with a blunt instrument, this movie may be the gold standard for the "CUT TO: THE PRESIDENT" genre. While not perfect, its fun and innocence is hard to ignore. And boy does this thing move. Like a mother***er. With little regard for nuance or subtlety in its relentless pursuit of the next scene, this film moves fast and it moves shamelessly, unwilling to go quietly into the night. Unwilling to vanish without a fight. It's going to live on. It's going to survive. Today, and until the end of time, we will celebrate INDEPENDENCE DAY for the big dumb wonderful thing it is.

Maybe you've got your own big dumb wonderful ideas. With the Storyclock Workbook, you have no excuse for not turning those ideas into big dumb wonderful stories. So kick the tires and light the fires, baby.

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