I come here not to bury Independence Day, but to praise it.
Many defenders of the 1996 blockbuster are criticized by the film’s detractors as having rose colored glasses toward the movie based on the age they were when they first saw it. Of course, they’re absolutely right. It’s hard to deny the power of an effective wave of hype, a palpable excitement about a movie that is nearly inescapable. It’s a phenomenon that doesn’t quite exist anymore; to be sure, excitement for new movies still exists in droves, and this can be seen with the release of each new Marvel movie and others, expanding even to the television world, creating a “must-see” buzz. But with the exception of last year’s Star Wars revival, a true hype phenomenon feels like a thing of the past, the wealth of great movies, books, and TV so vast and word of mouth spread so well by the Internet that a big, crazy buzz around a film seems less unique. Debuting just as the Internet was beginning to rise as a culture, the 1996 Independence Day was simultaneously the last film of its era and the birth of a new kind of blockbuster, the traditional “big summer movie” experience both on and off screen that we’ve had for the last 20 years. The marketing campaign, led by the iconic image of the destruction via UFO of the White House, helped to create such a fervor that entire websites were created to discuss the film and any news about it, including how it got made. One of the first major film fandom and news websites, Ain’t It Cool News, adopted the image of the destruction of the White House as its background wallpaper, which is still there to this day. My little United Artists theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan had decked out the hallway leading to the theater showing the film with tons of Christmas lights in place of stars and model spaceships bought from Toys R Us. Given all that, it was hard to not be swept up in the excitement about the movie.
It helped, of course, that the film turned out to be well made. Not necessarily “good,” as many film critics have dutifully discussed for the last twenty years, but well constructed in the most paint-by-numbers way. A precursor to millennial mashup culture, the movie is simultaneously a Spielberg rip-off, a revival of the Irwin Allen 70s disaster film, a Top Gun remake, a alien creature feature, and, of course, a Star Wars riff. Filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin had mashed up Lawrence of Arabia and Chariots of the Gods fiction in their last hit, Stargate, so they simply repeated and amplified the formula: crib from enough classics and you’re bound to strike gold. Helping elevate the film juuuuust above schlock was a huge, talented cast, led by the then-nascent star power of Will Smith. It’s the very definition of “crowd pleaser,” the kind of film that gleefully destroys cities but stops in its tracks to make sure that a single, lovable dog is saved. It’s hokum, but well made, enjoyable hokum.
It’s also perhaps the last major blockbuster that ends in as definitive a manner as possible, leaving no cutesy hints of a sequel. The aliens are destroyed, humanity wins, the end. So alien (hah) to us now, a major summer movie that simply ends and isn’t trying to set up a shared universe or several spin off franchises for years to come. That’s not to say that the Hollywood of 20 years ago was more noble, since, sure enough, a sequel to Independence Day has been speculated and talked about and in development since the release of the first. To their credit, Emmerich and Devlin refused to merely jump into a second film, insisting that they wanted to find the right story to tell. Years passed, and interest waned. Until a year ago, when rumblings of a sequel suddenly turned into news of its production, and a trailer limped its way onto screens a few months later. Now, after two decades, it has arrived.
I come here not to praise Independence Day: Resurgence, but to bury it.
Not out of hatred or annoyance, but out of pity. Resurgence is a massive, ugly, shambling zombie of a film. Not the vicious, flesh eating ghoul that exists in popular culture, but the zombie from voodoo folklore: a doomed, sad creature, unaware why it continues to exist, shambling sadly forward with no true purpose. Watching the film is like watching a career drunk fall off the wagon, an experience that is occasionally thrilling, generally off putting, and by the end you wanna pick them up and concernedly ask “you okay, buddy?” There are moments and ideas present that are fascinating and even compelling, but put together in a way that elicits not joy but merely confusion. The few bright spots only serve to show that it didn’t need to be this way.
This concept for a sequel to Independence Day 20 years later provides a decent starting point with some truly interesting ideas, and at least one criticism the movie can be spared is that of being a pale retread of the first film. Since the events of the “War of ’96” as it’s known in the film’s world, the entire Earth has come together as one republic, and though some petty differences remain, each nation and culture is still intact yet working together toward a common goal. That goal, it seems, is the technological progress (via the integration of alien technology left by the defeated visitors) of humanity in order to prepare the Earth against any future assault. Having established several bases in the solar system (though, oddly, that’s apparently as far as the alien tech will allow humans to go), they begin to mysteriously go dark, and humanity braces for the inevitable. Sure enough, a giant alien ship appears…though of completely different design then those of the enemy aliens. Fearing the worst, humanity strikes first, shooting the ship down. It’s then that the real enemy aliens show up, and it’s revealed that the smaller ship was of another race trying to help humanity defeat the nasty aliens. The race is on to rescue and revive the friendly alien ship while dealing with death and devastation from the returning evil alien race and their massive Queen. There’s nothing new to sci-fi spectacle filmmaking in that description, to be sure, but as a sequel to the first ID4 it’s inspired enough, similar but fresh.
Where the film really suffers is in its characters, either presenting us with new people and not giving us time or reasons to care about them, or giving us returning characters whose presence and purpose in the film is confusing at best and superfluous at worst. The first film used tried and true archetypes to anchor itself (the Cocky Pilot, the Noble President, the Brainy Geek, the Stripper With a Heart of Gold, etc) but here even the archetypes have disappeared, leaving a mix of confused actors in its wake. There’s no question that Will Smith’s decision to not return has hurt the film in a big way, not just in terms of narrative (his character is lamely revealed to have died off-screen during a test pilot mishap) but emotionally, too. No one else in the film has the level ofstar power and charisma to make the proceedings fun, and thus we’re left with a bunch of “who is that again?” mixed with “oh! It’s that guy! Uh…what’s he doing?” character types. Bill Pullman tries valiantly to give his crazed and broken President Whitmore a compelling arc, but the script and editing do him no favors. Jeff Goldblum is…well, Jeff Goldblum as per usual, but even his delightful quirkiness is swallowed by the drab nature of the film at times. Newcomers Liam Hemsworth and Jessie T. Usher play generic brash fighter pilots, and Maika Monroe, so great in horror fare like The Guest and It Follows, is both oddly cast and misused as the assistant/caregiver/fighter pilot/romantic lead character of Whitmore’s daughter. Nicolas Wright plays a character who we’re not properly introduced to and then has no business being in any scene other than to make some weak attempts at comic relief. Sela Ward plays the new president only to…die unceremoniously. Vivica Fox returns in order to…die unceremoniously. Judd Hirsch returns to seemingly die unceremoniously but then show up and drive a school bus. A story of compelling characters, this film is not.
Devoid of any compelling personal storylines, all the film has left to fall back on are its action sequences. Fortunately, this is where I believe it actually shines, providing a brand of spectacle that honors the first film without being a dull retread. Emmerich has always stolen from other, better filmmakers, but if he has a signature style it’s in his scenes of worldwide destruction and mayhem, and they’re a unique flavor that I happen to really enjoy. Not only are the alien ships (and the aliens themselves) bigger and badder this time around, but there’s clever little reversals of expectation that show up in these scenes. Instead of the giant UFO blowing up cities via an energy ray, it merely travels on its way across the planet but, due to its mass, has its own gravity, which uproots any object in sight and sends it crashing to the ground after it’s passed. The White House is the only building that *doesn’t* get blown up. A dog is saved but at the expense of a joke. Strategies that worked against the aliens in the first film explicitly don’t work here, and the final battle isn’t Star Wars again but rather Godzilla (perhaps unsurprising for Emmerich, but a welcome change for this film). Any money that Fox spent on the movie is present in these scenes…and only these scenes.
The rest of the film, the non-action sequences, look like a SyFy Original Movie cheapie, and this helps to sour the tone of the movie. If there was a specific creative choice by Emmerich, Production Designer Barry Chusid and Director of Photography Markus Forderer to make the film look “drab,” then mission accomplished. I don’t think I saw another color on screen besides blue and grey, and combined with the lackluster performances you’d be in danger of falling asleep. However, the film is paced so rapidly that you don’t even have a chance to get that bored, as each scene crashes headlong into the next. The film is edited to within an inch of its life, leaving it feeling like entire connective tissue has gone missing somewhere on the cutting room floor. It leaves you with the feeling of someone telling you a story fast and with enough force so that you won’t get distracted and leave before the end.
Ultimately, Independence Day: Resurgence isn’t sure why it exists, or even why it has the title Independence Day. The first film has a crowd pleasing streak of jingoism, a “rah-rah” spirit helped by the film’s setting and solidified by Pullman’s St. Crispin’s Day-aping speech. Here, the 4th of July setting is perpetually in the background, hardly mentioned, and when Pullman appears to be about to give a sequel to his rousing speech the scene just…ends and moves to the next one. The biggest “rah rah” moment comes at the end, which unlike its predecessor sets up a blatant sequel. Only this time, not only is one not needed but also not wanted. Resurgence isn’t a dull fiasco like this summer’s Warcraft, but it isn’t the getting-by-on-nostalgia-and-sheer-star-power success of last summer’s Jurassic World. It’s a decent attempt at something different, but ultimately a failure. Today, we celebrate our Independence Day…and sadly, this isn’t it.
This article originally appeared on Pixcelation.com on July 4th, 2016.