You can mock its many plot holes if you want, but we're pretty sure the reason Independence Day dominated the box office in 1996 was because millions of people thought that seeing New York slowly enveloped by a gargantuan ball of fire was worth every cent of the ticket price. The ad campaign sold the film on that image -- the fire rolling down between New York skyscrapers. And by God, we lined up on opening night.
Seriously, you can leave after this scene.
And even if you watch it today, there's something oddly realistic about it, especially when compared with more recent Roland Emmerich stuff like 2012, which made the destruction of L.A. look like a very expensive video game cut-scene:
The difference, of course, is that the fire in the streets in ID4 is not CGI. It's real fire.
That sort of thing isn't easy to do in real life -- after all, how do you make the fire go sideways? Fire doesn't normally plume horizontally, which is a good thing most of the time, but the whole point of the aliens' city-destroying weapon was the unearthly way the blaze would slowly spill outward and engulf the city.
For the effects team, the solution to this shot was relatively simple.
Can you tell what you're looking at? That's a model city on its side. You'd probably recognize it better like this:
They called it the death chimney. Just turn the city model sideways, put the pyrotechnics at the bottom and put the camera at the top. Then they shot the explosion at a high shutter speed so that when the film was slowed down, they got their horrific, creeping wall of unstoppable fire.
See, this is how destruction used to be filmed back in the day. Someone spent weeks making a detailed model of New York, then you set it on fire and hoped to hell you didn't screw it up so they'd have to build it all over again (because then the model builder would find you in the parking lot and beat your ass).
"Roland Emmerich is a dick."