Today I watched the news as Britain declared their “independence day”. I then went to the cinema to watch a movie about the whole world coming together, putting aside their petty grievances, and defeating a real threat to earth. No one can predict what will happen as we live through these interesting times, but I’m pretty sure I can predict that Independence Day: Resurgence won’t last long in cinemas.
I’m coming at this film with nostalgia goggles at coke bottle thickness. I was ten when I first saw it, at a time when nothing like it had been seen before. I’m sure many of my generation remember the absolute awe at seeing the White House destroyed in the promos. Could a movie even do that? When our dad installed a new sound system a few years later, we knew exactly which movie we wanted to test it with, because the sound of those ships coming overhead was seared into our brains. Thankfully, I wasn’t all that hyped for the sequel. Considering the too-late-sequels and reboots we’ve gotten over the years, absolutely nothing could get my hopes up.
I’m not going to whine about how this ruined the old film’s legacy, because it wasn’t offensively bad by any stretch. But there is really no way around the fact that the sequel fails to live up to the original. There were certainly moments I liked. There was some great design here and there. I had a few laughs not based on referencing old material, but it wasn’t enough. The movie doesn’t work as an Independence Day sequel, and it doesn’t work as a sci-fi destruction-porn movie.
What follows below has ALL the spoilers, because I want to explain exactly what I mean.
Their world, and ours, has had twenty years to prepare for the return of the aliens. Just like the original, we have a cast of characters in the same sorts of situations so we can watch the action from various prespectives. We have four fighter pilots this time, one of them being the “Will Smith” of the film, played by Liam Hemsworth. The actual son of Will Smith’s character is not the Will Smith of the movie. The Madam President of the film is quickly dispatched so that Bill Pullman can reprise his role, along with his daughter, who inherits his fighter pilot, “I belong in the air”-plot, sort of. We have on the ground characters, comprising of Judd Hirsh’s character and a bunch of kids. Both Goldblum and Spiner return as the scientists, and- you know what, that’s enough. The original had too many characters, and somehow this film has adjusted for inflation.
The original is not a good movie, by practically any criteria, but it is good at one thing: payoff. Every plot point and character has a resolution. Most of Emmerich’s films follow this structure, which makes them, if nothing else, feel like they have a reason for being. None of his movies are great archs or have deep character development, but they are very good at listing things that need to be addressed, and then checking them off. I actually genuinely enjoy Independence Day, flaws and all. But for some reason, Resurgence does not do this very well.
Take the characters. In the original, Will Smith wanted to go to space and marry a stripper, and in the end he did both of those things. His son wants… to maybe live up to his father’s legacy? To lead his team of pilots? We know he’s no Will Smith because he’s awkward! And he loves his mother, who he fails to save, so maybe he wants revenge? Honestly, I’m baffled no one asks him right out if he thinks he’ll ever be as good a pilot as his dad.
Liam Hemsworth’s character Jake wants to be a good pilot again after being pushed off the elite team. And he does get to do that again! But there’s no clever remark about it, or epic “hell, yeah” feeling. No payoff.
What about his hilarious buddy pilot? I have this sense that this sidekick and Will Smith Jr. were originally one character, but that they wanted both an antagonistic relationship to get the rivalry, and the fun buddy comedy of the original two pilots. This sidekick wants to bang the fourth pilot, and in the end he gets a date. They exchange maybe a handfull of lines. I know nothing about the fourth pilot except her dad died and I have to assume she is upset about this. She fails to scream any version of “for my father” when they battle the aliens. There’s no resolution for them because we don’t know what they need resolved. (Edit: it was an uncle, maybe?)
None of the characters have defining characteristics. The original used stereotypes and simple personalities, and that’s a quick way for us to “get” the characers so we can emotionally tune into the payoff. Here there is none of that. The African war lord maybe has a moment with the accountant? Every time I run through the film in my head I come up with other characters I forgot about.
The plot also has problems with payoffs. In the original we followed the action from the decision-making side, the fighting side, and the survival side. To me, these stories feel very well intercut in the original. Here, everything happens too quickly. Judd Hirsch and the kids travel from a devastated east coast to area 51 in what seems like hours. It’s patently ridiculous. Despite the massive scale of the attack, we don’t feel this scale because we have nothing small to compare it to.
The fighting in the original was so fun to my ten year old brain. Maybe my little grey cells are getting tired, but I had trouble seeing anything special in this. When the pilots get shot down inside the mothership and are suddenly running around in tall grass, rambo-style, I thought this was a great way to change up the flying action to something new. But they escape almost immediately.
One thing that reinforces the lack of “Independence-ness” of the film: The Speech. It is so weak as to be actually insulting to those of us who felt that “fuck yeah” feeling of global patronism of the original. The world is not called to action. The threat is too abstract for our popcorn minds to handle. The original aliens wanted to kill us, but now they’ve apparently changed their plans. They don’t care about destroying anything, just the molten core of the earth. A ticking clock that will end in Scorcher 6: Global Meltdown is not the same as believing the aliens will destroy every city on earth, one at a time.
Finally I just have to throw in the misuse of the classic music theme. It appears softly in several scenes where it has no business being, and when we finally defeat the aliens a proper musical score is noticably abscent.
Independence Day: Resurgence isn’t horrible – I swear. I liked the funny moments with the guys on the boat, and I kind of liked the bad-ass war lord. He wanted to avenge his brother, but again the film failed to provide a payoff in the form of a reference to this brother as a crucial moment. I definitely liked some of the designs. The aliens were creepy, and the godzilla-queen was cool. It was unexpected. The inside eco-system was cool, though wasted. I liked the new technology, and would have loved to see how the alien tech had been integrated into day-to-day life. I liked how the African war band had to fight a guerilla war against the aliens. The Brent Spiner bits were very true to the original, and yet added a new twist.
Let’s face it, we all knew this wasn’t going to live up to the original. That’s fine. The original was lightning in a bottle for many of us. It was the first of its kind. It was so stupid and so easily digestible. Resurgence lacks the payoff, that popcorn feeling. It is not terrible, it just doesn’t do much for me personally. There are moments that made me not regret seeing it, but I was left unresolved.
Dice roll: 3