Let me tell you a story about a bubbly, outgoing 15-year-old girl.
Insert obligatory Woody Allen joke or some other such reference to how weird it is that I’m opening a review of the new Independence Day by talking about a young girl.
Her name is Amber.
Actually, I never got her name, but she had red hair and freckles, exactly like my cousin Amber. So, I’m going to call her Amber.
I had never met her before Friday night, and I’m sure I’ll never see her again. If I had not chosen to sit in that particular row of the movie theater we would have never met at all. However, there I was, waiting for Independence Day: Resurgence to start, and there she was one seat away from me with her father, best friend and younger sister. Without even meaning to, I somehow ended up talking to all of them, the ice breaker being me helping them figure out which song was playing over the theater PA (it was the theme to Forrest Gump).
Amber told a story about how she and her friend had just been in line at the concession stand where they chatted up a Finding Dory-loving three-year-old and his mother. This little kid thought he had uncovered the biggest secret in the land when he proclaimed, “Did you know there was a Finding Nemo?” Amber blew his little mind, though, when she pointed out, “Yes, I did. Did you know we were actually around your age when Finding Nemo first came out?” The kid’s mouth flew open, and all he could muster was a stunned, Keanu Reeves-esque, “Whoa.”
Little did Amber realize she was about to have the same conversation from the opposite side of the divide because I was around her age when the first Independence Day came out, a couple of years younger than her in fact.
Back in 1996, it didn’t seem like there had ever been anything quite like Independence Day before, the perfect marriage of ground-breaking special effects and an ingeniously drawn out marketing campaign, a blockbuster movie formula we now know all too well. By July 4th, ID4 had taken on the feel of a pop culture event, one you had to be a part of because everyone you knew was talking about it. The film itself was, well, let’s just say a bit hokey, but the first-of-its-kind visuals made it feel unique.
In 2016, Independence Day: Resurgence is just another special effects movie. Disaster porn shots of global destruction and monument toppling? Oh, we just saw that kind of thing last month in X-Men: Apocalypse and earlier this year in London Has Fallen. Your aliens better be more inventive about it than Magneto and Gerard Butler (or, technically, the London-monument hating terrorists Gerard Butler fights).
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Amber actually one-upped me. I saw the first Independence Day in theaters in 1996? Well, she just finished watching it 30 minutes ago. Her whole group watched it together before coming to see Resurgence, and they were all on an ID4 high, gushing about how they hoped the President’s daughter was in the new movie. They literally squealed with glee when I told them not only was the President’s daughter back, albeit played by a different actress (Maika Monroe), but so was the President (Bill Pullman), the Area 51 scientist (Brent Spiner), the computer expert (Jeff Goldblum) and his very Jewish father (Judd Hirsch).
“The Area 51 scientist? How could he be back? Isn’t he dead?” they all asked, echoing my own thoughts. “What about the computer guy’s wife? Why isn’t she back?” they pondered, again mirroring what I thought when the Resurgence cast was first announced in 2015.
Even as the lights dimmed and the curtain rose, signaling the start of the movie, Amber was still curiously pondering how exactly the Area 51 scientist could be back. She asked me if I thought maybe he was now a corpse but a corpse possessed by the aliens and thus their spokesperson of sorts in the new movie. Probably not, I guessed, but we were about to find out.
Once we got past the trailers and into the actual movie, my attention was occasionally divided. Out of the corner of my eye, I couldn’t help but notice Amber staring up at the screen in a rhapsodic pose befitting a Pixar character, her chin often perched on the back of her hand as she learned forward in her seat. It was as if she was telling the movie, “Hi, there, grandpas Emmerich and Devlin. Tell me a story. You know, that one about when the aliens came back. I can’t wait to hear that one.”
She was the visual embodiment of someone completely engaged with a movie, laughing at all the jokes, letting out the expected “Ahhhh” when the cute guy does something cute, moving forward in her seat during the tense parts, leaning back during the quieter parts, etc.
I envied her because try as I might to simply take Resurgence as a big, dumb popcorn movie I just couldn’t give in to its limited charms. Big, dumb popcorn movies where shit blows up have an understandably low bar of quality, but Resurgence somehow comes in below that bar. It’s just a straight-up bad movie, poorly scripted, unimaginatively directed and sorely lacking in charisma from its uniformly bland performances (other than Goldblum, of course, who’s even more Goldblum-like than usual).
The set-up: it’s been 20 years since the alien attack of 1996. Earth has enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace and harmony and technological advancement, thanks to harvested alien tech and the way the aliens gave us a common enemy to unite against. Our eye is now forever aimed at the sky, the new President (Sela Ward) overseeing a world council which consistently defers to the technical expertise of David Levinson (Goldblum) on all things alien. The moon has been converted into a defense outpost, manned by young pilots like Jake (Liam Hemsowrth) and his friend Charlie (Travis Tope) and overseen by Chinese generals. Jake’s fiance just happens to be Patricia Whitmore, the former President’s daughter who now works as a speechwriter for the new President, and he just happens to have a beef with Steven Hiller’s grown step-son, now top pilot Dylan (Jessie Usher).
All is not necessarily well. Former President Whitmore is experiencing disturbing visions, as is anyone else who was once linked into the alien’s consciousness back in ’96. These visions are so intense they cause Dr. Okun (Spiner) to awake from his 20-year coma. Meanwhile, the only in-tact alien ship from the battle of ’96 has just automatically restarted, and David has no idea why. But his sorta, kinda one-time girlfriend (Charlotte Gainsbourg) might help with that as will an African war lord (Deobia Oparei) and a comic relief accountant (Nicolas Wright) assigned to David by the US government.
And then the aliens come back in a ship so big it exerts its own gravity, which it uses to lift entire cities, monuments and all, that are then dropped on other major cities. We try all of our first movie tricks to fight back, but the new alien queen basically says (without actually speaking, of course), “Bitch, please. Like we’d seriously fall for that again.” Then we have to come up with second movie solutions to change things up.
That sounds cool. Monuments falling on other monuments? That’s at least kind of new, right? So, why am I crapping all over this movie? Let me count the ways:
There’s no tension. Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich loosely modeled the first movie after War of the Worlds, and they used a ticking clock to masterfully build the tension in the first half. They, unfortunately, have no model to go off of with Resurgence, and have no real way to build tension.
There’s no longer any question of whether or not the aliens mean us harm. Resurgence has Pullman and Spiner ranting “They’re coming back!”, but it’s a “well duh” proposition. When the aliens do arrive it happens quite suddenly, as if the first movie was all about build-up and payoff and the sequel should just jump to the payoff.
There’s no character investment. We see an Asian city destroyed much in the same way we saw major cities destroyed in the first movie. We even track someone as they are emerge from the back of a car, caught completely unaware their city was under attack. Who is this person? What’s his name? No idea. Never seen him before or after. He’s just some guy who dies.
Compare that to the first movie where Devlin and Emmerich worked very hard to connect these attacks to at least one character we knew (e.g., so many of them narrowly escaping the White House, the stripper, her son and their dog in L.A., etc.). Resurgence tries to do that too, but it is usually from a vantage point of looking down on things instead of being a part of it. As a result, the destruction doesn’t really mean anything to us, and then when it does escalate to threatening the main characters there’s never any sense that any of them will die (or that we’ll particularly care if they do).
There’s precious little mystery. We know all about the aliens now. That bullet’s been used already. Any new wrinkles Resurgence offers to the franchise mythology are instantly forgotten.
Worse yet, Resurgence isn’t even overly hokey in ways which can make it enjoyable on an ironic level, as many probably now feel about the first Independence Day. The morning before I saw Resurgence I was venting on Twitter about how it’s total and complete bullshit that they recast the role of the President’s daughter with a more conventionally Hollywood-pretty actress like Maika Monroe when Mae Whitman is still around, fresh off of carrying her own movie last year (The Duff). Now, I wonder if the part was recast simply because Whitman read the script and wanted nothing to do with it. The same goes for Will Smith, whose absence is sorely felt.
When I watched the first Independence Day as a pre-teen, I felt like I was watching a movie about adults who looked like adults, with major roles reserved for the President, his speechwriter, her genius ex-husband, his funny dad, a stripper and her fighter pilot boyfriend, an alcoholic cropduster, etc. When I watched Resurgence as an adult, I felt like I was watching a movie about a bunch of babyfaced kids plucked from the CW and MTV. Oh, some of the adults from the first movie are around, but not in any meaningful way. The script simply doesn’t care about the returning characters as much as it cares about the new ones, which would make sense in a “passing the baton” kind of way if these characters were worth a damn. They’re not. Travis Tope’s lovelorn Charlie gets a few laughs as does Hemsworth. Monroe has a female empowerment moment. That’s about it. Brent Spiner’s still-kooky Dr. Okun is more entertaining than all of them combined.
But that’s where Amber comes back in to things. In an odd way since she wasn’t even alive back in 1996, Resurgence has been made for her. Her dad (and I) could laugh at all the Goldblum-isms and Spiner one-liners, but this is a movie predominantly about a group of young pilots (including the now token-Asian girl) and their love lives. And, again, that would be fine if they were well-drawn characters, and/or if the movie was well-constructed and told a good story. None of that is true, though. The best I can say is seeing all the shit blow up and hearing Goldblum mumble in Resurgence is intermittently entertaining, but, well…
Amber laughed when she was supposed to. She swooned on command and rose her first in triumph at the end, quickly demanding, “Ohmygod, I loved it! They have to make a third one.”
Oh, Amber. Come on. You deserve better than this. Demand that Hollywood gives you a better blockbuster to love than Independence Day: Resurgence.