When Independence Day hit in the summer of 1996, it was the epitome of the modern summer blockbuster. The hype started with a teaser during the Super Bowl showing the White House being blown up by an alien spaceship. I remember being hyped for this movie, as the alien invasion genre hadn’t been driven into the ground as thoroughly as it has today. The movie had a perfect release date – the fourth of July weekend of 1996, so I anxiously awaited that holiday weekend.
To complement the hype of the movie, a toy line was put into production. A line that was not produced by a major toy company like Kenner or Mattel, but a newer St. Louis based toymaker called Trendmasters Toys. Since I lived in St. Louis, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a deluge of Independence Day toys at my local Toys R Us in early June of 1996, but it was a pleasant surprise for me.
As with many lines, the human characters are the weakest part. I suppose if you would squint hard enough you could make out Jeff Goldblum in his action figure, but I don’t know in what world President Whitmore’s action figure resembles Bill Pullman at all. The aliens are the more interesting figures in this line. Before seeing the figures, I had no idea what these creatures looked like, as they had been hidden from marketing. The aliens are strange looking tentacled creatures, which actually turns out to be a suit for a smaller alien inside. When you use a control on the back, the front of the alien splits open and there is a smaller figure on the inside.
What makes the line different from other toy lines like Star Wars, for example, is the difference between Independence Day and other films. Independence Day is first and foremost a disaster movie. The first major world destruction movie that really takes its time and massive budget to show the destruction of major landmarks. To bring the global destruction aspect of the movie to the toy line, they created the “Los Angeles Invasion Playset” where you set up Los Angeles buildings, and knock them apart, and can set them up again for future attacks. In a post 9/11 world, this would never be made, but in the stable days of the 90s, this was a fantastical thing that we couldn’t imagine happening in the real world.
Even crazier than that is the miniature playset, “Defend New York City” It’s the same concept as the Los Angeles one, except smaller. You set up various New York City landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center(!), and knock them down. Talk about something taking on a very different context over time. No one could have predicted that eventually life would in some way resemble a Roland Emmerich movie.
Each figure and set came with a floppy disc that contained a different game. Since I had no computer at the time, these went unused, but what an interesting idea for an add on. Nowadays you get an action figure for $20 that if you’re lucky has a few good accessories, but in 1996, you could get an action figure and a disc that you could use to play a game for nearly half the price. I’m sure this was a perk for the first line, and future lines would have phased them out, but it was a neat idea, even if I couldn’t take advantage of it.
Trendmasters toys went on to make a line for another alien invasion movie, “Mars Attacks!” and a line for the “Lost in Space” movie, and the 1998 “Godzilla” remake, before closing its doors in 2002. The hardest thing to do in the toy business is stick around. You have stalwarts like Star Wars, WWE, and Transformers, but if you’re a new property, the odds are you’ll get an initial launch and then fade away. I don’t think the initial line for Independence Day did that well, I can’t imagine anyone seeing the movie and immediately wanting to buy the action figures. With Star Wars you had a variety of characters and aliens you could work with. Independence Day had the same ships and same aliens. The only difference is the human characters, and I don’t think anyone wanted a Randy Quaid action figure at all, especially one that probably wouldn’t have resembled Randy Quad.