At the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence Institute in New Mexico, technicians detect a radio signal coming from the moon. At Space Command, General William Grey and his team estimates that the source of the signal has a diameter of over 550km and a mass roughly one fourth the size of the moon.
In New York City, Julius Levinson’s playing chess with his son, David. It’s been four years and still David wears his wedding ring. David says smoking cigars isn’t healthy, checkmates his father and cycles to work.
It’s possible that the object might pass them by. Secretary of Defence, Albert Nimziki, wants President Thomas J Whitmore to deploy some Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles to blow it up. Grey says they’d risk turning one falling object into many.
The president wants to know more about the enemy, the object now in a stationary orbit. Part’s broken off into three dozen smaller pieces. Each piece is fifteen miles across.
Aboard a submarine in the Persian Gulf, somebody says they’re looking at a total radar blackout over a thirteen kilometre area. The screen quickly fills up with red. They now have two confirmed visual contacts.
More saucers have been spotted. One’s approaching New York, the other Washington. Grey recommends the president be moved to safety. The President refuses and says they’ll initiate the emergency broadcast system, advising people not to panic.
David has a binary code readout. He’s got a lock on the signal pattern so they can filter it out. It’s reducing itself every time it recycles so eventually, it’ll disappear.
Crockery starts vibrating. A huge shadow spreads quickly across the ground. People marvel at the thunderous, flame-filled skies. The skies darken over Washington and New York.
Smoke and flames fill the sky. A New York policeman leaves his car and several other drivers hit each other behind him. Everyone’s transfixed.
In LA, in the bathroom, Captain Steve Hiller watches panicked neighbours loading their cars, thinking it’s an earthquake. He tussles with Jasmine Dubrow’s son, Dylan. Steve and Jasmine hug and tussle.
Half the sky’s dominated by a massive alien saucer. There are a dozen or so strategically-placed worldwide. They’re using the signal David’s isolated to synchronise their efforts. In about six hours, the signal will disappear and the countdown will be over — checkmate.
While the president’s addressing the nation and the world, Connie Spano’s told her husband, David, wants to talk. David says the aliens have a hidden signal and will attack. The embedding’s very subtle.
David cycles through the panicked New York streets. Julius answers the door with a shotgun. David wants him to drive them both to Washington. The government doesn’t know what David knows. Connie walks to a White House window and soon sees David and Julius waving at her through the fence.
There are enormous light panels attached to the hull and onto the sides of a retrofit Skylift helicopter. This helicopter, plus two flanking, approaches what’s agreed to be the front of a saucer. David tells the president the aliens are using human satellites to beam their own signal. The countdown stops in twenty eight minutes.
The helicopters approach and initiate the communication sequence. The president tells Grey to evacuate people from the cities. All three helicopters are destroyed and the White House evacuated.
The presidential group soon boards Air Force One. David’s countdown finishes. Electrical energy is summoned beneath each saucer, sending a resulting pulse at the Earth. Flames consume everything in their path. People run screaming as cars fly through the air. The White House is destroyed.
The president wishes he’d have evacuated the cities earlier. Lots of people died. Grey says the First Lady never made it to Nellis and there’s no radio contact.
The fighter pilots are stunned by the enormity of the saucer. Amraam missiles are locked on target. Grey says fire at will. Amraam missiles and sidewinders can’t penetrate the shields. A swarm of shielded fighters emerges from the saucer.
Steve says they should get low and fast. Dozens of fighters attack El Toro air force base. Steve’s chased through the Grand Canyon. He deploys his parachute which covers the alien’s windscreen. Steve ejects and his plane hits a cliff. The alien comes to a rest in a cloud of sand. Steve opens the door, punches the alien and says “Welcome to Earth”.
Broadly speaking, the battle’s repeated all over the world with the same results. Human forces are down to just 15%. Grey says they’re looking at the destruction of every major global city in the next thirty six hours. Nimziki recommends a full nuclear strike. David expresses objections, asking if they haven’t heard of a nuclear winter. Julius then asks about Area 51.
Air Force One touches down at secret military installation Area 51. Before long, they’re twenty four floors beneath the surface. Major Mitchell introduces Dr Brackish Okun.
They’re shown an alien fighter that they’ve had since the sixties. Okun says in the last few days, all the little gizmos inside turned on. The aliens breathe oxygen and have comparable tolerances to heat and cold. They have eyes, ears, but no vocal cords. Otherwise, their bodies are just as frail as humans.
In the alien lab, Okun starts getting the biomechanical suit off the freshest alien. Suddenly, the head splits open and the arm starts moving. Its eye becomes mirror-like and an ultrasonic sound is emitted. Okun clutches at his ears. Things explode and the alien attacks the staff trapped in the lab.
The president is telepathically attacked and stumbles to the floor. Grey, Mitchell and another man shoot the alien through the glass. The president’s seen their thoughts. They’re moving from planet to planet. After they’ve consumed every natural resource, they move on. The president decides to nuke them.
Approaching a saucer, the pilot says laser targeting locked-on. Command asks the president if he wants to deploy. The president says deploy. Local reports say the missile’s on target. The screen shows a hit. Radio crackles. Target remains.
Julius finds David drunk and destructive. Julius says everyone sometimes loses faith. David should get off the freezing floor before he catches cold. David calls his Dad a genius.
At the site of the alien fighter, David asks Mitchell to shoot the Coke can off the fighter. The force field deflects the bullet. David presses a button, asking the Major to shoot once more. This time, the can gets hit. David infected the fighter with a computer virus.
If they plant a virus in the mothership, it will disable all the shields. They must fly the alien craft to dock with the mothership. The shields will be down for a few minutes. Nimziki scoffs, saying that nobody can fly the fighter. Steve respectfully asks permission to try. The president grants permission, then fires Nimziki.
Using Morse code, military personnel across the world learn the Americans want to organise a counteroffensive. They’re able to bring down the alien shields. The attack begins in five hours.
The president climbs onto a plane and delivers a rousing speech to the emergency pilots. They won’t go quietly into the night. They won’t vanish without a fight. They’re going to celebrate their Independence Day. Everyone cheers and some vigorously salute.
Steve and David fly out to the stars. They see the alien mothership. David presses buttons on his laptop and suddenly, the aliens are bringing them in. Steve and David notice millions of aliens preparing for an invasion. Their fighter floats to a docking bay.
David makes the windscreen opaque. The craft is locked in place and the virus is uploaded. Grey says delivery complete. Engage. In the air, the president fires a test missile at a saucer. His second missile actually hits it. Squadron leaders are advised to fire at will.
Julius has people with him and, wearing his yarmulke, tells them to all hold hands. He prays in Hebrew. Nimziki says he’s not Jewish. Julius says nobody’s perfect and continues praying.
The centre of the ship opens. Grey says they’re preparing to fire their primary weapon. The president asks if anyone has any missiles left. Russell has one. Mitchell asks the pilot to identify himself. He says it’s Russell Casse, requesting those guys be kept off him for a few more seconds.
Russell’s missile’s jammed. Instead, he flies straight up inside the saucer’s primary weapon. The saucer starts exploding all over and crashes to the Earth. The control room cheers. Grey says tell every squadron around the world the saucers’ weakness.
Inside the mothership, David loads and executes the Jolly Roger program. Steve fires two missiles at the alien in charge of docking. The fighter becomes loose and they make it out just in time. The nuclear warhead they left in the alien mothership detonates causing the entire thing to explode in a huge blue flash.
Starring Will Smith. Bill Pullman. Jeff Goldblum. Rated 12. Dir Roland Emmerich. Released in the UK 1996. Runtime 2hrs 25mins