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Film Review – Independence Day: Resurgence

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016; Directed by Roland Emmerich)

There may be no better predictive model for the current style of the Hollywood blockbuster than 1996’s Independence Day. The cinematic decade of which Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s hugely successful, extremely corny, doggedly entertaining alien invasion epic pastiche represents an obvious middle point includes many such important signposts to our outsized movie present. From Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 and Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000 (vital beachheads of the comics superhero invasion that has conquered Hollywood) to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Jurassic Park and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy of 2001-2003 (important demonstrations of the viability of computer-generated special effects in central filmmaking roles), we can locate many of the foundations of the blockbuster as we now know it (and frequently lament it).

But to my mind, it was Independence Day that, more than any other film, forged the big-budget movie world that we now live in. ID4 (as it was dubbed by studio marketers) was full of shameless borrowings from past hit films, featuring a rag-tag band of plucky American underdogs facing a global existential threat portrayed with SFX verisimilitude (using CGI, yes, though with many more models and practical effects than is generally appreciated). It was shot through with militaristic jingoism and liberty-bell-gonging platitudes with an added twitchy tinge of paranoid conspiracism (given his subsequent work, this was clearly Emmerich’s hand at work) that, while presenting as harmless contemporary folk-myth whimsy at the time, feels more sinister now given America’s current political predicament.

What Independence Day’s 20-years-hence sequel Independence Day: Resurgence makes surprisingly and often painfully clear is how skilled and likable the original’s deployment of unpretentious popcorn-flick entertainment really was. As goofy, predictable, and derivative as it was, as many city-destroying spaceships as you could comfortably pilot through the gaping holes in its plot and character development, ID4 was undeniably fun and charming, coasting on the endearing qualities of its unlikely co-stars, an on-the-cusp-of-superstardom Will Smith (indeed, in the role that pushed him past that cusp) and the indispensable blockbuster-elevating Jeff Goldblum. It was also, as mentioned, willing to be kind of weird, finding space for the peculiar talents of Randy Quaid as an anti-government, alien-abduction-believing kook (alternately, as himself), a wild-eyed Brent Spiner as mad Area 51 scientist Dr. Brakish Okun, and Judd Hirsch carpet-bombing Semitic stereotypes as Julius, the nagging Jewish father of Goldblum’s world-saving David Levinson. It was fundamentally stupid nonsense, but it was almost irrationally easy to enjoy.

This is how truly, incredibly terrible Resurgence is: it has inspired me to wax nostalgic about one of the cheesiest American blockbusters of the past quarter-century. Perversely, Independence Day seems like Citizen Kane in comparison to its thoroughly lackluster sequel. Saddled with incompetent dialogue both expository and exclamatory, thin characterizations, poor acting, CG spectacle at once overwrought and underimagined, scale, pacing, and tension amateurishly applied, and one anemic idea after another, Resurgence is nothing of the sort. It’s more of a degradation, and an unsurprising one given sole director Emmerich’s precipitous decline as a filmmaker since he and Devlin made ID4.

In a rare, nearly-meta convergence of release date and in-text story, Resurgence follows the original Independence Day by exactly 20 years. This allows for the natural aging of returning cast members and an easy explanation of Earth’s technological quantum leaps (utilizing technology salvaged from the hulks of the alien invaders’ destroyed super-ships), but also leaves potentially fascinating storylines of the aftermath of and rebuilding after the War of ’96 languishing in the narrative background, as we’ll see. Earth is now apparently politically and socially united, albeit with America in a primary leadership position, and preparing with great expense and techno-military infrastructure for the aliens’ anticipated return assault. Its great cities have been rebuilt (Washington D.C. is virtually identical, and London, Paris, and major Asian cities have their landmarks restored as well, though perhaps not for long), defense bases are spread across the solar system, and both the sacrifices and triumphs of the prior war are commemorated and celebrated with characteristic mock-solemn American bravado (the obelisk of the Washington Monument now carries the names of millions of the dead).

Key figures in the fightback against the malevolent extraterrestrials in 1996 have varying levels of involvement in the new order, alongside related characters. Levinson is the Director of Some Alien-Killing Research Organization, while his father Julius hawks his book about how he saved the world (an offhand comment of the elder Levinson inspired David’s computer virus plan to defeat the alien mothership) to disinterested retirement-home denizens. Former President Tom Whitmore (Bill Pullman) struggles with nightmares of the extraterrestrials, while his former fighter-pilot daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe) is an aide to the new Commander-in-Chief, President Elizabeth “Nuke Them From Orbit Then Have a Campaign Rally” Lanford (Sela Ward). Her fiancée Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), who lost his parents to the attack in ’96, chafes at the restraints of a position as a space-tug pilot on the lunar defense base alongside his buddy Charlie (Travis Tope).

Jake was busted down the ranks after his reckless piloting nearly killed fellow flying ace Captain Dylan Hiller (Jessie Usher) in a training flight. The son of Will Smith’s well-remembered cocky hero pilot Col. Steven Hiller, who is said to have died in a test flight but was really claimed by a star’s taste for better scripts (or not), Dylan is essentially a walking, talking propaganda poster as the leader of an elite international squadron; Chinese pilot Rain Lao (Angelababy; yes, that’s her real stage name) is the only other one of its members to get any real screentime, and then mostly as fodder for Charlie’s puppy-dog affections (and to help with the Chinese box office numbers).

Dr. Okun is back, too, despite having apparently been snatched and tentacularly strangled to death by a captive alien in the first film. He’s been in a coma at Area 51 for two decades, cared for by his devoted assistant/lover Dr. Milton Isaacs (John Storey), and his sudden reawakening is one of several forebodings that the long-dreaded return of Earth’s ultimate antagonists is at hand. Levinson and fellow alien researcher Dr. Catherine Marceaux (Charlotte Gainsbourg) find similar suggestions that the aliens (and perhaps another space visitor as well) are back in Central Africa, where stern warlord Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei) and his people fought a brutal, often hand-to-hand guerrilla war against a landed ship’s alien crew for years. And back on the lunar base, Luke and Charlie will be at the front lines of the aliens’, well, resurgence.

One of the things that makes Independence Day: Resurgence’s abject failure to be any good even as stupidly rousing popcorn entertainment so maddening is how many far better potential sequels concepts it leaves discarded in its dull inexorable wake like husks of alien superships. As the credits rolled on the original ID4 twenty years ago, I wondered if a possible sequel might take a tonal U-turn and address the daunting rebuilding of human civilization on Earth, perhaps with some mopping-up of surviving alien forces thrown in for action-sequence fodder. Resurgence shunts this complex story into its initial expository background and lacquers over simplistic jingoism: Earth is back, better and more unified than ever! But the U.S.A. is still in charge, woo!

But Resurgence leaves more tantalizing material by the wayside as well, especially one potentially cracking narrative of badass alien-killing that resides not merely in one critic’s fevered imagination and involves considerably fewer depictions of large-scale construction projects. The merely-sketched subplot of Umbutu’s protracted guerrilla war against a surviving alien enclave in Central Africa fills a minor storytelling function early on, and there’s just the slightest beat about the warlord’s deeply-felt family losses in the conflict. But the character soon degenerates into a stereotypical (and more than a little racist) background role, his stiff-jawed warrior’s ethic played for comic relief alongside Floyd Rosenberg (Nicolas Wright), a bureaucratic drip thrust into mortal danger. But what a conceivably intense and fascinating left-turn of a sequel it would have been to have made a harrowing, intimate horror-thriller about his people’s draining battles with the aliens (which may have presented an opportunity for postcolonial metaphors and atonement for the soft-imperial flag-waving of the original) instead of relegating it to backstory duty.

Such a storytelling choice would have required a filmmaker of a whole other stripe than Roland Emmerich, however. His movie aspires to grand ambition but lands on a scale more narrow and venal. Driven centrally by empty nostalgia, it proceeds in predictable swoops of action and reaction, punctuated by sophomoric humour, wan characterizations, and wasted, almost exasperated onscreen talent. Goldblum’s performance in the original was, along with his Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, the foundation for his enduring reputation in movie fandom as a stealth savior of blockbusters. But even his ah, ah, you know, particular line delivery style can’t overcome a fatal dearth of lines worth delivering. The Lesser Hemsworth isn’t better than the material and doesn’t really try to be. Usher is an automaton, with none of the enjoyable irritated attitude of his fictional father. Spiner, a fine comic actor, is made a clown. If Pullman isn’t openly embarrassed by his role in this fiasco, he surely ought to be. Only Maika Monroe, so riveting in the indie-horror nu-classic It Follows, summons any commitment and intensity, and even then can only impart it wordlessly when she’s freed from the burden of speaking her painful dialogue.

All of these factors and more combine forces to render a model of the big, dumb Hollywood blockbuster into a case study in what happens when the deceptively fine balance of the form is clumsily upset. Independence Day was broad, bombastic, silly idiocy that hit its marks with the fine eye of a skilled archer; Independence Day: Resurgence not only fumbles and misses those marks, its bowstring snaps and blinds it in one eye. This woefully atrocious movie is the most direct and lamentable product of Independence Day‘s mixed legacy.

Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. March 10, 2017 at 7:34 pm

    Im one of the people who liked the first one so Im still a bit curious about checking this out someday.

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