What, Adam Baldwin was too busy?
by Thom Yee
Of all the, globe-spanning, widescreen, blockbuster movie genres, the disaster movie has been one of the most peculiar and inconsistent even as it’s persisted through decades of more contemporaneously popular sci-fi, action, and, lately, superhero movies. In some of them a high concept like hyper-intelligent monkeys are the problem, while many more lean towards environmental catastrophes like tornadoes or even global warming (“We didn’t listen!”). Some have even centred on the arcane, calendar-based prophecies of ancient civilizations, but no matter the premise, most of them find some way to specifically peg modern society as the real problem, and every one of them hinges on the notion that, no matter what’s come before, this time is different, and there’s nothing we can do but pick up the pieces. Sometimes I think that’s what made Independence Day’s alien invasion scenario so popular, because an alien invasion, an assault from outside forces, is an external threat, an easy one, one we can put a face to that isn’t our own and one we might be able to fight back against. The rest of the time I know that its popularity comes from the fact that most disaster movies are terrible. Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean Independence Day was good.
As far as movies go, Independence Day was probably one of the most defining of its era, not only for the children that grew up in the ‘90s but for the broader audience that had been conditioned to shut their brains off before watching popular movies. Nowadays, if only for my own personal amusement, I’d like to think it’s possible for a multimillion-dollar costing, multibillion-dollar earning, multination screening movie to not only entertain but to occasionally make you think, but back in the ‘90s, we relied on our biggest stars like Will Smith to charm us out of the need for anything more, and y’know what? We turned out fine.
Anyway, the first thing that really attracted me to 1996’s Independence Day in a misspent youth of not realizing the value of only being a kid was the image of a fighter plane doing aerial battle with an alien spacecraft. For me it was the simple juxtaposition of a relatively familiar and terrestrial weapon going up against an unknown, exotic, and far more advanced alien technology that made the movie fascinating, though it also had more than its fair share of problems. Were we really to believe Jeff Goldblum’s little Powerbook was able to interface with an alien computer system AND upload a virus that could override their system? The American showdown with the aliens was pretty close fight, was every other nation in the world, all of whom haven’t invested as heavily in their militaries, really just as capable of taking their aliens down? What did the aliens even want? And did they really have no other backup tech once their force fields fell (“force fields fell”, try saying that five times fast)? All of those questions and more went mostly unanswered because movies like Independence Day aren’t about answering questions, they’re not really even about raising them, they just tend to incidentally if you think about them too much. Independence Day may be a disaster movie, but unlike many of the others, it sure as hell didn’t have anything to say. Maybe that’s why we loved it, and it’s with this knowledge implicit in our understanding of these movie that the sequel now debuts a massive 20 years later. The question, therefore, isn’t “Will it be bad?” but “Will it be the right kind of bad or the wrong kind?”
What’s it about?
It’s been 20 years since the people of Earth, after suffering mass destruction and a devastating loss of life, first repelled an invasion at the hands of a mysterious (and poorly defined) extraterrestrial race. Since then, mankind has united, ushering in an unprecedented era of peace and cooperation fueled by the new technologies built from the remains of the alien spacecrafts. But we always knew they would come back. We just didn’t think it would take so long, way after most of us stopped caring. But now they have. And, uh… they look bigger this time…I guess…!
If I had told you 20 years ago that there was going to be a sequel to Independence Day, you probably would have agreed with me, and there’s a good chance that, unlike today, that agreement wouldn’t have been just because Hollywood only seems to know how to make sequels and remakes. In a lot of very significant ways it seems almost insane that it took 20 years before we’d get a sequel to the biggest movie of 1996, especially a movie like Independence Day whose story actually warranted a sequel. Maybe even more than one since, regardless of the marketing tagline, we DID always know they’d come back. It really goes to show you how different the ‘90s were in terms of summer movie blockbusters and how Marvel really changed the game in building out single IPs into shared universe, multi-part franchises.
Now that it IS 20 years later and an era where one very particular type of blockbuster movie (superhero) has become dominant, a movie like Independence Day: Resurgence is at a bit of a disadvantage, a fact only compounded without the return of its star, Will Smith. Unlike the ‘90s, we’re no longer in a star-driven movie economy, but there was a short period of time, kicked off by Independence Day, when a new Will Smith movie would dominate the summer box office, and his absence in Resurgence only calls the need for this sequel, so many years later, even more into question. Even though the core concept of Independence Day WAS compelling, it certainly wasn’t very original or imaginative, and if Resurgence is really going to continue in the same vein as its highly successful original, there’s only so much we can really expect in terms of plot or structure or essential meaning. It is fair to say that in Resurgence, a lot of landmarks get hit (again), a lot of things blow up (again), and some potentially interesting but highly questionable plot points are raised (again). If we, as an audience, were also following in the same vein as the original, that would probably be enough, but we all know that even in the case of the seemingly mindless blockbuster, there’s a little bit more to a good movie than that.
Is it any good?
So many times the difference between a person’s favourite movie and one towards which they’re fairly indifferent comes down to little more than a few small but notable differences. Especially when it comes to movies like the original Independence Day and its sequel Resurgence, two movies that are so fundamentally similar — same director, same aliens attack, they cause mass devastation and destroy key parts of our infrastructure again, and humanity once again mounts a last ditch attack with the fate of the world in the balance — it should be hard to say what sets them so far apart from each other in terms of quality. But it’s not. Independence Day: Resurgence pales in comparison. The original Independence Day is a surprisingly easy move to love in spite of what the more intellectual side of your brain might be saying. It’s fast and generally exciting, usually moving at a good pace, and with stars that pull off their [admittedly shallow] parts well. It’s more than fair to say that some of the stronger moments in Independence Day have become iconic, and there are still people who invoke its example when it comes to favourite disaster scenes or presidential speeches. It had heart, and at the very least, for me, it passes the all-important test of “Would I leave it on or change the channel if it was on TV?”. If I ever run across Independence Day: Resurgence on TV, I’ll probably stay for a minute before switching to something else.
Now that may sound pretty bad, but I’m not quite prepared to call Resurgence a bad movie, it’s just a very weak movie. Much like the antigravity that the alien ships effect on huge parts of Europe and Asia, there’s a weightlessness to almost everything that happens in Resurgence that keeps the movie’s major events from sinking in. The stakes have been raised, the alien ships are big enough to cover entire continents rather than just cities, and humanity has had had 20 years to prepare its defences, but almost nothing in Resurgence hits as hard as the original.
Will Smith’s absence from Resurgence has been a definite point of contention for fans of the original, but, at least those that do return — Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Brent Spiner, and even Judd Hirsch — do a pretty good job of carrying the share of the load they’ve been given. Notice I didn’t say “their fair share”, because they have to split so much screen time with the disappointing new cast. Obviously a sequel set 20 years later is going to try to shift some of the focus away from the old cast and onto the new, but these new kids just aren’t up to carrying the franchise. Jessie Usher as Will Smith’s character’s son/replacement is exactly the bland version of Will Smith that he looks like, Liam Hemsworth reminds us once again why he’s widely considered to be the lesser Hemsworth, and Maika Monroe, easily the best of the three, is just kind of there, a presence that’s not too offensively off the mark, though, as the President’s speech writer, I did take a bit of offensive to how basic the speech she wrote was, particularly in a franchise known for its speeches. There’s also a Chinese pilot who’s most notable for occasionally being hard to understand (even for a Chinaman like me) and a best friend/co-pilot character to Hemsworth who falls exactly on the wrong side of annoying. There are several times with all of these kids where it’s apparent they’re acting against green screens, where they don’t bring the emotion necessary to the scene, and I’m not usually a guy to be overly sensitive about that sort of thing.
The storytelling in general in Resurgence feels unusually claustrophic, partially because so many scenes take place indoors, but mostly because the effects aren’t that convincing. This is a good-looking movie, but it feels artificial, almost self-contained even though we know catastrophe is being wrought on a global scale. With the way the story is told, it’s hard to get a sense of what’s going on because we don’t get as many shots of the aftermath(s) of the alien attacks as we did in the first, there are no moments of grim self reflection, and because there are so many weird blank spots where it feels like we missed something. The scene that establishes Hemsworth as a hotshot pilot is unconvincing because it’s hard to tell what happened in the scene that caused him to have to act like a hotshot in the first place. Later, when a group of pilots are in the alien lair, a bunch of them seem to disappear in the escape scene as the movie focuses only on the important characters, forcing us to wonder if we simply miscounted pilots before or if we’re just not supposed to question these things. In the movie’s final battle, a bunch of imprisoned aliens escape into the base and we have no idea what happens to half of them, which is particularly concerning because it’s been shown several times in the movie that even one lone alien is capable of taking out several armed, trained human combatants. This is the kind of sloppy storytelling that even the first movie, for all of its apparent faults, would be ashamed of, and the scene that finally fully explains what these aliens have been doing and the greater game they’re playing [expanded universe!], delivered by a friendly sounding probe thing, is much less impactful than when we find out what the aliens wanted in the first:
That was genuinely creepy, a real horror scene in a movie that people like me watched when we were young kids. There are moments in this movie that hold great potential, but even they’re woefully underexplored, such as early in the movie when we learn of the years-long ground war fought between the local African people and the surviving aliens of the only alien ship that safely landed back in ‘96 or later when we see the pilots, forced to abandon their fighter planes, making their way through the alien mothership with only their own steel and brawn to rely on. I would much rather have spent time exploring those scenarios, but instead we get a bunch of time spent with a small family of kids who are being driven around by Judd Hirsch’s, and, as stand-ins for Randy Quaid’s family from the first, they’re even worse because at least Quaid’s family was annoying. These kids don’t even register and their side of the movie winds up being a huge question mark when it comes to the director’s ability to edit a compelling movie together.
So should I see it?
I think Independence Day: Resurgence’s shortcomings stem from a fundamental lack of talent, somewhat on the part of the new cast, but mostly on the shoulders of the director, and, surprisingly with these big summer movies, that’s a more rare occurrence than you might think. It’s true that there are a lot of bad movies that are bad because of their directors, but even in the case of an abomination like Transformers: Age of Extinction, the problem isn’t that Michael Bay isn’t talented (far from it), the problem is that he’s a narcissist that does whatever he wants and doesn’t care about fans of the franchise. With many other big-budget movies, it’s the budget itself that prevents the moviemakers from taking risks because their investors want what seems like a more sure return. In the case of Independence Day: Resurgence, the new cast is disappointing, yes, but most of them would be good enough to pass, they’re just being directed by someone whose talents are those of a director of photography or an effects supervisor. There’s nothing wrong with that, those are positions that also require extreme talent to do well, but when Roland Emerich turns out disaster movie after disaster movie and all of them are primarily remarkable for their stupidity, that’s a problem, that’s a director who either refuses to learn from his mistakes or one who’s been consistently out of his depth.
On the other hand, I think even I’m surprised by how negative this whole review has been, because ultimately I’m going to say “Yes, you should see Independence Day: Resurgence.” A lot of that right now is probably coming from the more extreme disappointments of the last few movies I’ve seen (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Warcraft, and even X-Men: Apocalypse), but for the very specific, throw-back type of summer movie we all knew Independence Day: Resurgence was going to be, it’s right kind of bad to wrong kind of bad ratio is just good enough. If nothing else, it’s the type of movie you can have fun poking holes in.
Thom’s Independence Day: Resurgence final score
On the Edge
- Hey… wasn’t ’96 an election year? Did the original alien invasion save President Whitmore from that fall’s presidential election?
- And how will the current president’s (played by Sela Ward) death affect this fall’s election? Oh, and if you think that’s a spoiler, don’t worry, she didn’t do anything and her death didn’t matter.
- Finally, some sweet, sweet Brent Spiner ass!
- Man, Judd Hirsch hasn’t aged a day! He was a very old man 20 years ago and he’s a VERY old man now.
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