On belated victory laps, cognitive dissonance, and the distinctly outdated purpose of Independence Day: Resurgence
Independence Day: Resurgence 20th Century Fox
Director: Roland Emmerich
Screenplay: Nicolas Wright, James A. Woods, Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich and James Vanderbilt
Starring: Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Jessie T. Usher, Maika Monroe, Bill Pullman, Brent Spiner, Sela Ward, Travis Tope, William Fichtner, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Angelababy and Judd Hirsch
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours
June 24, 2016
(out of four)
Twenty years have passed between the release of Independence Day and its sequel, and it feels like so much more than that. It's not that the original has aged any more than its mid-'90s blockbuster brethren, but that the new one, when it picks up, seems to be stuck in a world where it doesn't belong. A movie like this is more reunion than continuation, borne of nostalgia over all else. These way-too-late, not-really-necessary sequels (see also: Dumb and Dumber To, Zoolander 2, Basic Instinct 2, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 and, I fear, next year's Trainspotting 2) rarely stray from the model, making it rather easy to judge how well something like a second Independence Day preserves - its characters, its ideas, its aesthetics - as it goes for an encore performance all these years later.
Not well, as it turns out. If Resurgence were a character in its own movie, it would be former President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), unkempt and babbling unintelligibly about aliens, a cane and overgrown white beard betraying his relative proximity to the moment in the past that permanently defined him. As opposed to, say, the fine wine of Goldblum, whose David Levinson has revitalized and reinvented himself since saving the world two decades ago.
If only this movie, and director Roland Emmerich in particular, had discovered a way to do the same. Indeed, Independence Day: Resurgence might as well have been a BuzzFeed slideshow - "You Won't Believe What the Cast of 'Independence Day' Looks Like Now!" - for all its sense of modern insight and innovation. Better that than wasting two hours of our time for a belated victory lap.
Alexander Huls wrote a terrific piece about the massive impact the original ID4 made in 1996 - arguing, among other things, that all the things that made it a unique hit have long since become ordinary. Big cities and iconic landmarks being blown to pieces is now the norm for the American summer blockbuster. Which I suppose is the reason - or one reason, anyway - why Resurgence feels so irrelevant. Or the reason why its instincts - and that of its five credited screenwriters - feel so conspicuously off.
Despite the 20-year gap, the movie feels strangely reminiscent of the type of antiquated, '90s cash-grab sequel that turned the whole idea of sequels into a bad joke. The self-contained feature that spawns an obligatory follow-up that more or less repeats the exact scenario of the original. (In retrospect, I'm surprised "This time it's personal" wasn't the film's tagline.) We still see this today (The Hangover Part II, anyone?) but studios now generally look so far ahead on their properties' franchise potential that a movie like Independence Day, if made in 2016, would have had installments mapped out from the get-go. If nothing else, Resurgence is instructive of how tentpole models and expectations have shifted.
The logic of these two movies as a pairing boils down to this: Last time, aliens attacked us, we fought back, and we won. This time, those same aliens just ... attacked us again? So now we have fight back and beat them again? Except the alien ship is bigger this time. And our weapons are bigger. And instead of alien ships destroying cities, this time, alien ships pick up whole cities and use those cities to destroy other cities. Because, y'know.
The 1996 movie had Washington, D.C. and Area 51, you say? Peanuts, dude - this time we're going to the moon. What's that? Blockbuster action movies are all super teal now? Screw that, this is going to be the most teal of all of the movies. "My teal is tealer than your teal! My movie is the tealest," Roland Emmerich declared. This is his primary innovation.
But the movie as a whole comes across like a combination of aborted ideas and misused conventions. The original film got its star power from arguably the most charismatic actor of his generation; the sequel involves that character's son, played by an actor who fails to register any personality whatsoever. The original film featured a shamelessly silly subplot about a former alien abductee that concluded with said abductee getting violent, explosive revenge on his former captors. Stupid, yes. But at least it understood how revenge functioned as a plot device. This movie? This movie features a soldier whose parents were killed in the 1996 invasion. His idea of revenge - I am not making this up - is to urinate on the floor of the aliens' shiny new ship.
Resurgence goes out of its way to round up as many of the original cast members as were available, or willing, or whose characters were not officially 100 percent confirmed dead the first time around. But it never figures out how to use those characters, except as a self-serving shout-out to its own legacy. So Vivica A. Fox shows up - she's off the pole now, and apparently some sort of high-ranking government doctor or hospital executive. Fine - there could be a good story in there about the last 20 years of her life - but Emmerich treats her presence as nothing more than a cameo. She shows up, we recognize her, she gets one brief moment of drama as her son helicopters away to go fight some aliens ... and that's it.
The simplest way to put it is this: Independence Day may or may not have been any good, but it knew exactly what it was doing. Emmerich has now returned to the film that made his reputation, but has no idea what to do with any of it. Resurgence seems like the result of several combined, contradictory screenplays that no one (certainly not Emmerich) bothered to reconcile. In one sequence, as we're getting acclimated with what has become of this world, the film celebrates the fact that, since Bill Pullman's speech and Randy Quaid's drunken moxie and Will Smith's badass piloting skills and Jeff Goldblum's, uh, computer virus expertise (?) saved the day, there has been no armed conflict on Earth. Two decades of peace! In the very next sequence, we're casually informed that African warlords fought aliens in a ground war for ten years following the events of the first movie. If we're being charitable, we can try to interpret this seeming contradiction as political commentary - that while America and other world powers myopically celebrated their supposed grand victory, the Third World remained under threat and no one noticed or cared.
This interpretation, however tempting it might be, would be giving Emmerich the benefit of the doubt he has never earned. His movies have been so deeply anti-thought - always designed to create a surface impression of emotional and logical sense while actually making neither - that I can't very well try to convince myself there's a nuanced worldview hidden in the crevices of Resurgence's narrative framework. This movie is simply too lazy for that. What's more likely is that there was a developing version (or versions) of this sequel in which the world remained under attack following the climax of Independence Day - the fight transferring from the air to the ground - and another developing version in which those climactic events led to a period of world peace, with the aliens vanquished seemingly for good until a surprise second invasion. The version we got was an unholy (borderline accidental) alliance of those two competing concepts - a version in which the alien invasion was destroyed and there was peace on Earth, and in which aliens hung around on Earth fighting humans for a full decade. Both of these things, in Independence Day: Resurgence, are somehow true.
That the film includes various other elements that seem to be cribbed from altogther separate incarnations of this material - including a giant, technologically advanced orb of convenient information that simultaneously serves as red herring, information mouthpiece and a quasi-deus ex machina - is S.O.P. for Emmerich's post-ID4 films, which almost always feel at odds with themselves. He does, smartly, save his best visual - an alien galloping across the desert flatlands, fighting off fighter jets and a schoolbus - for the end; but at best, that merely gives us a brief glimpse of something stranger and more charming than anything else Resurgence offers. It suggests an Independence Day sequel imagined as a sort of goofy, apocalyptic Western. Maybe that's the idea Emmerich should have kept. Instead he gave us an overproduced collection of redundant afterthoughts.