American monuments had been pulverized on film many times before, of course; the gimmick was a staple of '50s science-fiction. But it took the outsider perspective of Independence Day director Roland Emmerich -- a German expat -- to take on the nation's most symbolically loaded landmark. Nobody else could have done it with the exuberance of ID4. You can almost hear the laughter off-screen; when the alien ship blasts the President's home to smithereens, it gets away with something. Emmerich would return to destroy the White House again, this time from the inside, in 2013's White House Down.
Timing worked in Independence Day's favor. Emmerich's movie arrived during a strange moment in the summer blockbuster's evolution, when the era of brawn -- of the indefatigable American ubermensch as popularized by Stallone and Schwarzenegger -- had peaked and begun to wane. Simply blowing things up looked tired. Ambitious visionaries like James Cameron, meanwhile, had made huge strides in the realm of computer-generated imagery, with the quantum leap of The Phantom Menace and The Matrix not far in the distance. Independence Day director Roland Emmerich split the difference. His thirst for excess made the alien-invasion movie an unabashedly over-the-top spectacle. But like Jurassic Park before him, he shored up his CGI with a whole lot of clever, handcrafted practical effects.