‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ (2016): Review
Twenty years after hostile aliens nearly conquered Earth, mankind has united and used the technology to build a more advanced society, one that’s more prepared for an attack. Good thing, because guess who’s coming back for a second try? It’s Independence Day: Resurgence.
When making a list of the most influential science fiction movies in cinema history, 1996’s Independence Day is surely near the top. An epic mix of special effects and cartoon action, it was a hugely popular film that succeeded on its visuals but more so because of its numerous colorful characters. While for me it was never the masterpiece some believe it to be, it nonetheless is fun.
Times are different now. Sensibilities have shifted and many popular films have taken a more grounded approach, even with subjects that inherently shouldn’t be, such as comic book superheroes. With Independence Day‘s long awaited sequel, there is a smattering of that darker edge, even a bit of cynicism, but for the most of it, Resurgence is much like the mother ship that comes to attack Earth, a big, loud, lumbering behemoth with a hollow center. That may be the order of the day, but as much as the original became a defining film of that decade, Resurgence will be less so in this one.
A lot has changed in the time since Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith) welcomed aliens to Earth. He’s dead for one, his portrait hanging in the White House the only glimpse we see of the hero. But others have come to fill his cockpit seat, including his own son Dylan (Jessie T. Usher). We meet him as he passes that portrait on his way to see the president, Madam Lanford (Selma Ward), who is preparing her speech for the big twentieth anniversary celebration of mankind’s victory. Working for her is Patricia Whitemore (Maika Monroe), the daughter of former President Whitemore (Bill Pullman) who is plagued by headaches and visions, claiming the threat is coming back. He’s not wrong.
The technology left behind by the defeated aliens in the first movie have utterly changed the surface of the planet as we as a species made a gigantic leap forward. In the few images we get of the cities around the world, humans have adopted and adapted to a faster, stronger, more unified world. Not that we need to make assumptions about what we are seeing. The first thirty minutes of Resurgence are so full of expositional dialog it’s as if the screenwriters were putting together a Cliff Notes version and the director just gave it to the cast. Nearly every line spoken is a sentence that explains who a person is, what they are doing, and why. That’s not new in movies. But it immediately reveals where the makers have planted their flag. This is not a thinking person’s film, just as the first was not one either. The first film relied on practical effects that still mostly hold up. Here, it’s all CGI. They are under the impression that viewers want more, so they don’t just go bigger, they redefine the term.
Director Roland Emmerich is by no means a practitioner of the fine arts of subtlety. His films have long been the standard by which things getting destroyed on screen are measured. The images of the White House and The Empire State Building exploding under alien fire are now so iconic, they very nearly represent the genre. To say Emmerich has tried to one-up those effects in many of his following films would be an understatement of galactic dimensions. Here, he does destruction on such a scale, it’s almost unnerving. Millions die. Millions. A scene of London falling under attack is hinted at in the trailer but in its entirety is such a chaotic scrambled mess of buildings, planes, bridges, water, cars, people and more passing in front of the screen we lose scope and depth. Worse, it is, like so many of these kinds of scenes, nothing more than a maze for our heroes to try to quickly navigate through in trying to escape, leading to the inevitable snappy one liner at the end, which feels wrong when considering the untold deaths lying in their wake. There are no consequence for destruction.
Then there’s the mothership itself, a thing so big, the camera has to be in the Moon’s orbit in order for us to see it. “Three and half thousand miles wide” says one of our expositional characters, a figure few can really use as a comparative measurement. That said, it’s impressive, and as Emmerich gleefully abandons physics and logic, the ship settles on to the planet with big landing pads that cover entire cities. It begins to drill to the Earth’s core because, well, that’s a secret.
There are a few interesting things happening in all of this. One is the introduction of something I won’t spoil here but works well in setting up the sure-to-come sequel(s). It’s great to see Jeff Goldblum return as David Levinson. Goldlum is very good as always and seems to get the intended tone of the film even if most of his co-stars do not. Much like the first film though, he loses a lot of his dialog to bouts with his father Julius (Judd Hirsch), a distraction in both movies, this time finding his way to the finale in a school bus full of kids. Goldblum does get a bit of romance in this one though, with Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays a French psychiatrist who specializes in traumatized victims of alien encounters. In fact, this angle is another aspect that is intriguing, especially when we travel to Africa and learn of a ten-year war with aliens who survived the defeat in 1996, their massive ship being the only one that landed rather than crash.
Independence Day: Resurgence doesn’t lack for scale but it has no depth. There is no joy. The young cast, including Usher, Monroe, and Liam Hemsworth, are cardboard cutouts with perfunctory issues that have no weight or meaning. Chinese mega-star Angelababy, a petite, long-haired, model-actress, is Rain Lao, one of the fighter pilots and feels wedged into the story to attract the now massive Chinese movie market that American studios are desperate to get a piece of (the Moon base commander is Lao’s uncle, played by Chin Han). Her role is small and reduced to being a pretty girl for another character to lust after. There’s also some Chinese dialog and a few very deliberate shots of Chinese labeled ‘Moon Milk’. I don’t know why that tickled my ‘hmmm?’ receptors. Certainly, Asian elements in movies have long been part of cinema, with Blade Runner a great example of it being part of the story. But there’s something political about what’s happening in big-budget movies these days. Brent Spiner shows up again as Dr. Brakish Okun, and works hard to get laughs but doesn’t earn them. Let’s not even consider the medical implications of his story since obviously the nine screenwriters of the story didn’t bother to either.
Films like Independence Day: Resurgence, like the current flood of superhero movies, are mostly critic-proof, mega-movies built on nostalgia and effective marketing. Resurgence has all the right ingredients for the summer blockbuster and many will simply bend their appraisal of the film by suggesting that, for a popcorn, check-your-brain-at-the-door, film, it works just fine. It’s this mentality though that studios thrive on and push to endure, making it easier to churn out unchallenging, recycled material under recognizable names that make vapid experiences like this far too common at the movies. A few of the characters in this movie remark how the ships and aliens are bigger than the last one. Bigger, yes. Not better.
‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ (2016): Review
Director: Roland Emmerich
Writers: Nicolas Wright (screenplay), James A. Woods (screenplay)
Stars: Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Jessie T. Usher, Maika Monroe, Sela Ward, William Fichtner, Brent Spiner