Thursday, July 01, 2021

Independence Day Resurgence (2016)

So, it took twenty long years for filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin to give audiences…this movie.

I won’t mince words about it: Independence Day: Resurgence (2016) is a terrible, awful, no good movie. 

I’ll go further. This is quite possibly the worst big budget studio release in a generation, or at least since I’ve been reviewing movies.  

Big, would-be emotional moments in Emmerich’s Independence Day: Resurgence fail utterly, and even the supposedly spectacular action scenes are flat and lifeless. Beloved characters and actors return to the franchise, and have almost no impact whatsoever.

Now, I know there are readers out there who hate Independence Day (1996) with a passion, but I don’t feel that way. 

For all its inherent, generic, goofiness, ID4 remains a nineties pop-culture touchstone. The scene of the alien flying saucer destroying the White House is absolutely iconic. 

And the dramatic material, while schmaltzy, nonetheless carries authentic emotional impact. President Whitmore’s (Bill Pullman) final, inspirational speech in the film, about the human race joined as one, finally, in opposition to an outside threat, is remarkably delivered.  It also captures an idea often spoken, by the likes of President Reagan and others: that the human race will only truly be united in opposition to an alien attack.  

If the Earth is at stake we will come together as one.

For whatever flaws the 1996 film possesses -- namely and most importantly, the relentless pandering to a wide audience -- ID4 still feels like a huge pop culture event; one with grand, carefully orchestrated special effects, and an ominous sense of build-up and tension as the alien attack on Earth commences.

The new film, Resurgence feels utterly slapdash in comparison. It looks like a cash grab that should have been released in 1998, two years after the original film premiered so as to capitalize on some of the good will generated by the original film.

But this is twenty years later -- not two years -- later, and Independence Day: Resurgence is a disaster of epic proportions. It’s shocking, actually, to watch the whole enterprise go up in smoke before your eyes.

Twenty years after an alien invasion nearly destroyed humanity, the human race is once again thriving. 

Utilizing technology reverse-engineered from captured and shot-down alien ships, the Earth Space Defense, sponsored by the UN, has established based on the Moon, and operates from an HQ at Area 51.

As the twenty year mark nears, however, a mission to the Congo -- consisting of scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), Dr. Marceaux (Charlotte Gainesbourg) and the warlord Umbutu (Deobia Oparei) -- discovers that a crashed alien ship has been transmitting a distress signal to deep space.

Similarly, those who were once telepathically-linked to the aliens -- including ex-President Whitmore (Pullman) and Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner) -- begin receiving mental impressions again.

Meanwhile, at Earth’s Moonbase, where hot-dog pilot Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) is stationed, a small spherical ship approaches. It is shot down immediately, but is not actually part of the invasion. Instead it harbors the secret to defeating the aliens, known as “Harvesters.”

Soon, a 3,000 mile-in-diameter Harvester vessel approaches and destroys Earth’s defenses. It begins to drill into the Earth in an attempt to remove Earth’s core, killing the planet.

Levinson, however, believes, that there is a way to stop the procedure. The aliens possess a hive mind, and killing the Queen will stop the drilling operation.

There is a good (and very Japanese-ish/kaiju or Gerry Anderson-ish) idea embedded in Independence Day: Resurgence, but that’s about it. 

Specifically, the movie features the idea of a unified Earth developing a multi-national defense force against external threats.  It's a pseudo SHADO.  

All the Earth planes and ship designs featured in the film are futuristic in design, powered by the alien’ anti-gravity technology.  There isn’t a lot of dialogue about this upgrade in the film, which actually works in the movie’s favor.  It is a brand new world we encounter here, twenty years after the invasion, and a lot of the technological progress is (rightly) un-commented upon.  Rather, it is merely accepted as being a fact of life.

Beyond that idea, there’s not much here to recommend Resurgence to thoughtful audiences. The movie features three creative specific failures worth describing in detail. One involves the actual invasion, the second involves the new characters, created for the sequel, and last regards the handling of the characters who return from the original.

Let’s take each issue in turn.

In Independence Day, there was a slow-burn build up to the attack, and accordingly, a sense of suspense and mounting anxiety.  The aliens didn’t just arrive and start smashing landmarks. A signal was detected, suggesting a coordinated attack around the globe, and then a mysterious countdown.  That countdown was detected too late, and an evacuation of government sites began, only half-successfully.

I understand that the mystery is gone now about the alien intent. We know they are hostile. So the same card can't be played a second time.  

However, the whole premise of this movie seems to be, simply, that bigger is better. That’s it: shock and awe, CG style.  

Accordingly, we get a huge spaceship arrive, latch on to the planet, and pretty much wipe through Europe in one over-the-top scene. The ship is huge, the destruction is huge too, but it is over in a few short moments. There’s no sense of a pitched battle, no sense of the people who live in the affected city (London).  It’s a digital cartoon, without human scale, and therefore, without human impact.

The second such scene, with Julius Levinson’s boat escaping the giant space ship, is played more for laughs than horror, and it feels impossible. We know he is going to survive, even as every other ship in the sea is pulped. Why, because he's the movie's indestructible comic relief.

The special effects are lacking in human impact, perhaps, because the new human characters are conceived and performed in the most generic way imaginable. 

Liam Hemsworth, Jessie Usher, and Maika Monroe are utterly forgettable as this “next generation” of characters, and the audience doesn’t ever come to truly care about them. They never leave a footprint on your mind, let alone on your heart.  Jake (Hemsworth) and Hiller (Usher) are given some back-story conflict that goes nowhere and means nothing. It's just a way to waste time, and make you feel that there is a "history" to these cardboard creation.

But you know the movie is failing on a catastrophic level when it looks, for a minute, that the young heroes have died in an escape from an alien saucer, and you find you just don’t care.  The movie’s soundtrack rises to a crescendo, and you realize that you are supposed to be concerned, engaged.  You are supposed to care.

You don’t. 

I can’t remember, offhand, another blockbuster movie where the crowd-pleasing moments, the big victories, the prospective failures, fall so utterly, horribly flat. The young, underwear-model cast is never able to generate any real or genuine interest on the part of the audience.

The returning characters don’t fare all that much better.  Bill Pullman registers strongly as President Whitmore at first, but then the character is sacrificed for what is, finally, a meaningless death. He gives another speech that is supposed to register as inspiring and stirring, but plays as a pale shadow of the original ID4 oratory.  His death, again, doesn't reach the emotional heights the movie aims for.

Judd Hirsch continues to be over-the-top as the senior Levinson, while Jeff Goldblum feels oddly disconnected from the material, simply walking through the part. By contrast, Vivica A. Fox gets what should be a powerful death scene, but again…the moment carries almost no emotional weight. She's been given so little screen time here, that there is no chance to reconnect with her.

Of all the original characters, Dr. Okun is the only one who comes off well. Brent Spiner steals practically every scene he is in, but even he can only do so much heavy lifting.  He gets the last lines of the film, which should be a rallying cry for the sequel, but feels more like a slapdash joke.

At his best, director Roland Emmerich can rouse audiences with efforts such as Stargate (1994) or Independence Day (1996), and at his worst, he provides audiences empty thrills and brain-dead narratives like 10,000 BC (2008) and 2012 (2009). His Godzilla (1998), widely-derided, falls somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Independence Day: Resurgence is a new career low, as it leaves out even the emptiest of thrills. The whole movie flies on automatic pilot, with no apparent creative investment. It's all just a formula, without heart, without emotional connection or creative distinction. We have no idea, from this film, why we should love these characters, or invest in their world.

The title of this sequel was once proposed as Independence Day: Forever.

How about Independence Day: Forget It.

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