Overview: Twenty years after humanity beat back an alien attack, humanity is forced to do the same thing again, except bigger. 20th Century Fox; 2016; Rated PG-13; 120 Minutes.
Bigger Than The Last One: Twenty years after Independence Day redefined the summer blockbuster, Independence Day: Resurgence is here to un-redefine it. Well, maybe “redefine” is a strong word. It’s not as though explosion-laden and effects-driven films were invented in 1996. I’m sticking by “un-redefine,” though. Resurgence is decidedly not a 2010s blockbuster. Since 2008, verbal spectacle, not visual, has been the defining trait of this kind of movie, whether we’re talking about the grim self-seriousness of The Dark Knight or the self-deprecating humor of Iron Man. This year, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War carry those respective torches. That same year, by the way, audiences (and most critics) roundly rejected the sublime beauty of Speed Racer. It’s the scripts, not the images, that are now the blockbuster’s primary focus.
No one seems to have told that to Roland Emmerich, though. Resurgence, for better and worse, has both its feet planted firmly in the past. This film feels like a relic from a time when bombastic special effects were exciting rather than commonplace. In 1996, the White House getting shot by an alien laser and exploding wasn’t something you saw every day. In 2016, there are television shows with action on a similar scale. Resurgence was put in a tough position. To justify its existence as an Independence Day sequel, it had to offer something genuinely new. But since Independence Day set a standard which has since fallen out of fashion, Resurgence was never going to succeed by following in its footsteps. Its only path to success was to abandon both the contemporary model and the outdated one of its predecessor. It had to do something entirely new.
Only 90s Kids Will Remember: Obviously, that didn’t happen. Resurgence is more or less the same film as Independence Day, only everything is bigger and Will Smith isn’t there. Under normal circumstances, I’d be quick to judge a sequel for so closely adhering to its forerunner’s structure, especially if that sequel had two decades to come up with something new. But there’s something vaguely admirable about Resurgence’s neurotic commitment to the ’90s mold. It’s like watching someone stoically drive off a cliff rather than swerve into a pit of quicksand. You made a terrible decision, but goddamn it you stuck to your guns. The only thing about Resurgence that even attempts modernity is its story’s gay couple, though the way the film dances around their sexuality is itself decisively ’90s. It’s a shame that one of Hollywood’s most prominent gay directors seems to actively resist the inherent queerness of his work.
It doesn’t hurt that one of Resurgence’s primary throwbacks is actually an improvement on its modern contemporaries. The action in this film isn’t anything special – largely the sort of space dogfights that Star Wars is about to make an annual affair with a surprise kaiju battle in the third act – but what it is is visible. Emmerich understands the lost art of visual spectacle in way that few directors do anymore. Films these days tend to suggest their action rather than depict it. Super-quick cuts and unsteady cinematography are stitched together by contiguous sound to create the implication of action; the images themselves are incidental. By comparison, Resurgence’s relatively clear and coherent visual style seems downright dated. Emmerich sets the film’s climax in the bright and sunny Nevada salt flats and frames it entirely in wide shots, as if to make absolutely, positively sure that you can see everything that’s going on.
Too bad for Emmerich that what’s going on is so uninteresting. Ten years ago, the calamity and mayhem he conjures might have still seemed novel. Now, this destruction imagery is so played out that blockbusters are actually starting to apologize for it. Emmerich seems to realize this, and as such the film doesn’t lean as hard on his signature city-levelling as its marketing would have you believe. Most of the action is of the pew-pew laser gun variety. The film limits its trademark Independence Day-ness to a brief sequence at the end of the first act. The film’s most amusing (and most honest) moment comes in this section. The descending alien mothership touches down over Washington D.C. and stops within inches of the rebuilt White House. It’s a cute reference to the original (the film is mercifully sparing with these), but it’s also the film admitting with a cheeky shrug that it could never hope to touch the novelty of the original.
Those Dang Millennials: It’s ironic that a film nominally about a younger generation fighting to live up to their parents’ shadows can’t do the same for its own parent. The film’s five ostensible leads – Liam Hemsworth as a hotshot pilot whose parents died in the first attack, Jessie Usher as a hotshot pilot and son of the now-deceased Will Smith, Maika Monroe as a former hotshot pilot and daughter of former President Bill Pullman, Travis Tope as a hotshot pilot whose primary bond with his best friend Liam Hemsworth seems to be that they’re both orphans, and Angelababy as a hotshot pilot and the niece of…someone important, I guess? – are all defined by their relationships to the previous generation. Even some of the minor characters pointedly mention that their parents are dead. This is, I suppose, what the film thinks it’s about. In reality, Resurgence isn’t about anything. This generational theme is present only in backstory. There’s no follow-through.
Here is the script’s incompetence in microcosm. Deobia Oparei plays an African warlord whose people fought a ground war against the remaining aliens for a decade after the initial invasion. (He’s recently taken control after the death of his father, because of course he has.) His advice for killing them? “You have to get them from behind.” He brings this up twice, each time with the dramatic intonation and emphasis that ensures it will come into play in the finale. Except it doesn’t. It doesn’t come into play in the final battle at all. It’s one thing to employ such Screenwriting 101 techniques in your mega-scale production, but failing to employ them correctly is quite another.
Watching Resurgence, I was reminded of Michael Bluth opening the paper bag that said “Dead Dove: Do Not Eat!” Maybe the best that can be said for this film is that it is exactly what you’re probably expecting it to be. If this film had been made one year after the original, I don’t think it would look much different from this. Blockbuster cinema has changed radically in the 20 years since Independence Day, and it’s weird that this iteration of the form is now retro. You could call it lazy, or stubborn, but I was mildly charmed by it. I don’t think that being proudly loud and stupid are virtues, necessarily. They certainly aren’t here. Today’s blockbusters are all about trying to appear intelligent or well-written (few actually are) as a sort of atonement for their genre. It’s nice to see a film on this scale that doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. What it is isn’t very good at all. But like Michael Bluth, you’re looking inside a paper bag that has Independence Day written on it. I don’t know what you expected.
Overall: Independence Day: Resurgence is a trashcan fire, but in the bitter cold of today’s blockbuster standard, you could do worse than huddle around it for some warmth.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox