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Elvis Presley was the King of Rock 'n' Roll. Michael Jackson was the King of Pop. And for a decade-long stretch, Will Smith was the undisputed King of the Fourth of July. The movie that first awarded him that title was, appropriately enough, Independence Day, the alien-invasion blockbuster overseen by director Roland Emmerich and writer-producer Dean Devlin. Blasting into theaters on July 3, 1996, Independence Day — or ID4 as its commonly referred to now — blew up at the box office big time, becoming that year's highest-grossing movie and catapulting Smith onto Hollywood's A-list.
Truthfully, the rapper-turned-actor was already on the come up, thanks to his starring role on the era-defining NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as well as Michael Bay's 1995 hit Bad Boys, which paired him with Martin Lawrence. But ID4 was one of the biggest spectacles of the '90s and Smith's loose, funny performance as Marine pilot Steve Hiller positioned him at the center of its success. The following year, he starred alongside Tommy Lee Jones in another alien-themed hit, Men in Black, which also opened over Independence Day and cemented his reign as that holiday weekend's multiplex ruler — a reign that lasted through the release of Hancock on July 2, 2008.
That's around the time that Emmerich and Devlin re-entered the frame with plans to help Smith retain the crown with a long-rumored ID4 sequel. "Before we sat down and wrote one word, we met with Will Smith and discussed it," Devlin told Yahoo Entertainment earlier this year during a conversation about his new Syfy series, The Ark. "We said, 'Here's the idea we have for it,' and he said he loved it and was super-excited about it. We wrote not just one, but two sequels with Will in mind because we wanted to do it with him."
According to Devlin, the original plan for the ID4 sequels — which would have been called ID Forever Part I and ID Forever Part II — was to turn Steve Hiller into Rocky Balboa... specifically the Rocky Balboa who gets completely clobbered by Clubber Lang in Rocky III. "He'd gotten rich, he'd gotten famous and he had to get the eye of the tiger back, you know?" the writer teases. And Hiller's extraterrestrial enemies take advantage of his complacency, striking back against Earth with extreme prejudice, necessitating a training montage makeover. "It's his chance to bring the old Will Smith out of retirement," Devlin recalls of how Steve would go from zero back to hero.
While that would have been Smith's overall arc across two sequels, Devlin and Emmerich also expected that the actor would make his own contributions to the script during filming. That's what happened on the original ID4 where Smith improvised his most famous line — "Welcome to Earth" — which he delivers to an alien along with a knockout punch. "The line that I wrote was, 'Now that's what I call a close encounter,'" Devlin remembers with a laugh. "But he said, 'Welcome to Earth,' when we did it."
"I directed second unit on the day that he was dragging the alien through the desert," Devlin continues. "We did five takes and he improvised every single time. Lines like 'I could have been at a barbecue' were all improvised and they were great. I was looking forward to having that experience again with Will where he would play on set and come up with great stuff."
With scripts for two ID4 sequels in hand, Devlin and Emmerich approached 20th Century Fox, which they had deliberately left out of the loop when they first reached out to Smith to gauge his interest. "We handed them into the studio, and they went crazy," Devlin says now. "They said, 'This is the best first draft we've read of any script.'" He and Emmerich quickly went back to Smith to deliver the good news... only to discover that the king had decided to abdicate.
"All of a sudden, Will turned it down," Devlin recalls. "I was shocked, because we told him we were going to write it and the studio liked what we wrote." In the intervening years, though, the actor had starred in M. Night Shyamalan's sci-fi flop After Earth, which Devlin thinks made him skittish about returning to the genre. "He was generally worried about doing sequels," the producer says. "I don't know what was going on with him, but ultimately he wouldn't do it. It was a huge disappointment."
Fox decided to move ahead with the first of the ID4 sequels anyway, but the loss of Smith necessitated major rewrites that landed the script in development hell. "The studio was asking us to make changes that didn't make any sense to me," Devlin says candidly. "Ultimately we put out a movie that I'm not crazy about."
On June 24, 2016, ID Forever Part I finally arrived onscreen as Independence Day: Resurgence, and reunited returning cast members including Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman while introducing a new generation of heroes played by the likes of Liam Hemsworth and Maika Monroe. Hiller is revealed to have been killed between movies and his place is taken by his stepson, Dylan (Jessie T. Usher), who captains Earth Space Defense when the extraterrestrials return. He's given additional motivation for taking the fight to the invaders by the death of his mom and Steven's widow, Jasmine (Vivica A. Fox), in the initial alien attack.
According to Devlin, one of the sticking points between the filmmakers and the studio was the amount of screentime given to the original cast versus the newcomers. "They really wanted to concentrate on the young pilots," he says of Fox executives. "They didn't want that much screentime with the actors from the original movie. They thought that young people wouldn't want to watch Jeff Goldblum, which I thought was crazy."
Something else that got lost along the way was a deeper understanding of the invading alien force and why they were so invested in attacking Earth. "In the first movie, we treated them like a force of nature," Devlin says. "It was a disaster movie, and they were the disaster. So we thought that the sequel was our opportunity to understand who the enemy is, and there was stuff in the first version of the script that I was really excited about. But that kind of got diluted as we went along."
Devlin isn't the only ID4 alum disappointed with how the Smith-free version of the sequel turned out. Speaking with The AV Club recently, Fox indicated that his absence hurt the movie. "I really feel we missed out by not bringing Will Smith back," the actress said. "We had most of the original cast on, but I think the one true link that was missing to the success of Independence Day 2 was that Will Smith wasn't there."
Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment in 2015, Smith himself said he felt "terrible" when he learned of his alter ego's fate. But he didn't address his specific reasons for turning the film down. "[Independence Day director] Roland [Emmerich] and I had talked about it," the actor said at the time. "The trailer looks really cool. I’m going to be sitting around with tears in my eyes when that one comes out."
Of course, Smith's career is in a very different place now that it was in 2016 or even 1996. The actor is still attempting to rehabilitate his reputation in the aftermath of the 2022 Oscars where he slapped Chris Rock onstage — an incident that almost certainly would have cost him the King of the Fourth of the July crown had he kept it beyond 2008. That doesn't stop Devlin from imagining the movie that might have been.
"I think there was a great movie to have been made," he says of the second Independence Day. "And I wish we'd made it."
Independence Day is currently streaming on Starz; Independence Day: Resurgence is currently streaming on Hulu.