Independence Day: Ambivalence

resurgenceI saw Independence Day: Resurgence last night.  You might be asking the simple question: why?  To understand, we must go back twenty years, to when I was a barely self-aware seven-year old child.  Independence Day was one of the first films I can remember seeing in movie theaters.  In the nineties, an era of American prosperity and relative peace, we apparently relieved our new existential malaise by creating stunning visual fantasies wherein we destroy the world, evidenced by the glut of blockbuster disaster movies unleashed by Hollywood year after year.

Independence Day was the amalgamation of many things: classic sci-fi flying saucers (but in a creepier way), exploding monuments and incredible practical effects, military dog-fighting a la Top Gun, the not-yet-declassified Area 51, and just an overall capture of the zeitgeist of the nineties.

It is a classic film, to be sure.  I enjoy watching it every single time I do.  It’s got a wonderful cast, from Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith, to Bill Pullman and Brent Spiner, to Margaret Colin and Vivica A. Fox.  Even twenty-years later, a great deal of the special effects still hold up.   Some of the visuals continue to evoke chills from me, a residual inside seven-year old me.  There are so many quotes.  Everyone knows The Speech.

That said, Independence Day is not really that good of a film.  There are plot holes galore.  There is a smattering of one-dimensional and stereotypical characters.  A few of the effects really don’t hold up at all.  It’s a great time capsule, yes, but those times are gone now.

Which brings me to Independence Day: Resurgence.  A twenty-years later sequel is a fascinating idea.  Earth is now united as it was promised at the conclusion of the first film.  Humanity is prospering together, using the technology scavenged from the crashed alien ships to advance their own on an incredibly short time horizon.  The only thing missing here is, well, conflict.

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Enter the aliens.  In the first film, the aliens are described as moving their entire civilization from planet to planet, consuming its resources and moving on.  They are summarily annihilated at Earth.  The end.  Well no, they’re actually coming back for revenge (or something).  Okay, moving on.

The main heroes in Independence Day: Resurgence are as follows:

  • Dylan Hiller (Jessie Usher), the son of Steven Hiller (Will Smith, hero of Earth), who is now an elite fighter pilot.  His father was written out of the sequel because of failed salary negotiations killed in a test flight incident off-screen.  One of several unceremonious ends for our previous films heroes.  That’s about all I can say about him.
  • Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), another elite fighter pilot who is relegated to service work on the Moon base after nearly killing Dylan in a flight competition or qualifier or test or something.  They used to be friends but now they’re at odds.  They will have to work together to save the world, of course.  He’s engaged to…
  • Patricia Whitmore (not Mae Whitman), the daughter of Thomas Whitmore, badass fighter-pilot, President, hero of the first film.  She is also an elite fighter pilot, though is also interning at the White House for new President Sela Ward.
  • David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman), and Dr. Brackish Okun (Brent Spiner!) are your alumni leads here.  Wait, wasn’t Dr. Okun killed in the first one?

So what exactly happens in this film then?  Long story short, the old aliens show up in a bigger ship (3000 miles across!) which latches on to Earth and starts drilling to the planet’s core.  Our heroes find a way to stop them and they bugger off back to space.  That’s it.

The finer points are (barely) more interesting, but here are some assorted thoughts on the plot, in roughly chronological order:

  • The opening titles of the film are a first-person view of flying through space nebula, revealing a planet with a massive crater carved out of it and debris drifting around.  It zooms into the perspective of an alien receiving the distress call from Earth, then freaking out — quickly transitioning to President Whitmore awaking from a bad dream.  Hooray for a friendly face.  He doesn’t look good though and he’s scribbling circles with lines through them.  Y’know, the shape of the old flying saucers.
  • id4_1Soon we’re on the moon.  Already, there’s too much CGI.  95% of this movie must be CGI.  It’s not as bad as the Star Wars prequels, but it’s pretty bad.  Jake is helping mount the moon’s shiny new laser cannon (based on the lasers from the old ships) when it starts to fall, threatening to crush the base below.  Jake defies orders, uses his little space tugboat to push it back and saves the day.  A quickly resolved conflict for the sake of drama.  It’s manufactured, artificial, and unnecessary.
  • David is in Africa.  He’s checking out one of the ships that landed on Earth to drill.  I didn’t realize those saucers could land, or that the weapon was used for something other than people destruction.  The ship had powered on mysteriously.  He and party go on board to discover that a distress signal went out into space and something has answered.  Uh oh.
  • id4_3David’s party includes a dude from the government, Floyd.  The less said about his character, the better.  Floyd is the worst.
  • There’s a warlord there with David named Umbutu who had hunted the aliens from the landed ship for years.  He has psychic issues concerning the aliens’ reactivation, due to a previous mind-meld a la the kind Whitmore and Dr. Okun each had in the first film.  Speaking of…
  • Dr. Okun is alive and in a coma (for twenty years! Thanks exposition dialogue to an empty room).  He jolts awake suddenly, I’m assuming at roughly the same time as the previous awakenings.  He has banter with his caring doctor friend that’s a little too cheesy, yet I can’t help but feel excitement that Brent Spiner is back on screen.
  • The government gets word that something is on its way from a gravitational distortion in Saturn’s rings.  It’s a cool image.  There are a lot of cool images in this movie, yet they don’t seem to have the patience to really focus in on them and make them iconic.
  • Before the classic aliens show up, though, a large pod ship emerges from a wormhole.  It is destroyed by the moon space laser, despite protestations from David.  For a second I thought this was the ship that ruined Saturn.  It’s not really clearly established that it isn’t.
  • David heads to the moon on Jake’s craft to salvage the pod.  They brush through the debris field of the mothership destroyed in 1996.  Yeah, there’s no way that debris would still be there twenty years later, especially that densely packed.
  • On Earth, President Sela Ward is having an anniversary celebration for the War of 1996 in Washington DC.  DC, by the way, is totally rebuilt, with the Mall being more or less replicated but with futuristic skyscrapers in the background.  A helicopter flies without blades thanks to alien tech.  It feels off.
  • id4_2The Capitol is adorned with many flags, due to Earth unity.
  • General Grey (RIP Robert Loggia) is there.  I had no idea he was in this film before he died.  At least there is a brief In Memoriam in the credits.
  • The aliens arrive in a pitch-black ship, brushing by the moon and sucking up moon dust with its own gravity.  Cool in concept.  The reveal however, lacks the dramatic weight of the original.
  • The Moon base is quickly blown away.  A fighter fly-by for the celebration, including Dylan, watches it happen up close.  The moon base commander was the uncle of pilot Rain Lao.  She is sad.  Hooray character motivations.
  • id4_4The ship heads toward Earth, breaching the atmosphere in a storm of fire and clouds, like the original ships had done, but on a larger scale and with less believable effects.
  • It pulls Hong Kong off the Earth’s surface with its own gravity (uh huh), and drags a path across Asia from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai to Paris to London, crashing the Burj Khalifa into the Thames, and the Petronas Towers into the Tower Bridge.  The salvage craft, more or less stuck to the ship’s gravity, flies through this carnage.  David shoehorns in a line that they love to get the landmarks.  Oy, who wrote this film?
  • So basically, Asia is gone then?  Or just the cities with the big buildings?  Is the gravity selective (that’s not how gravity works), or is it just bad writing? (yes)
  • id4_5The ship lands, spanning across the Atlantic, crushing chunks of DC with its feet.  Instead of a laser blast, this is how the rest of the humans in this film die.  Crushed by a giant spacecrafts landing gear.  Alright then.
  • Jasmine, the stripper with a heart of gold from the first film, is now a nurse/doctor at a DC hospital.  She helps evacuate patients during this while a wall of destruction heads her way.  A helicopter lands to pick her and a new mother and her baby off the roof as the wall of fire is right there.  The mother and baby make it, but Jasmine falls into the chaos.  Dylan is, of course, there to see that in person too as his fighter came to the rescue.  That’s really how she dies.  Yep.
  • The destruction stops at the White House, where the ship’s leg grinds to a halt, impacting the building just enough to make the American flag on the roof tip over.  In case you didn’t get the metaphor.
  • id4_7The President and important folks make it to Cheyenne Mountain safe and sound.  But what about the other thousands on the Mall for the celebration?  General Grey?
  • Did I mention Julius?  Oh Julius, you lovable scamp.  David’s father is still alive and, for lack of a better term, as Jew-y as ever.  He wrote a book about how he saved the world and now apparently lives on a boat.  He happens to be on said boat as the alien ship’s gravity pulls up the ocean, along with many boats and cargo ships.  He tries to outrun them, but appears to meet his end when a freighter barrels down on his boat.
  • id4_8Just kidding, he’s alive and rescued by children driving a station wagon through knee-high flood waters as they spot him sitting in his chair on the boat.  What?  Also, where are they?  I have no idea.  Florida, maybe?

Hold on, I need to take a break here because this is when my eyes went back into my head from rolling them so hard.  It happened again when writing this just now…

  • At sea, a treasure hunting boat finds itself near ground-zero of the alien ship.  The crew is annoyingly stereotypical, preferring to not give up their fortune for their lives when told to evacuate.  The alien ship starts drilling into the sea bed, creating a giant maelstrom in the Atlantic.  Somehow this boat is unaffected.  As they are the Only Ship In Range able to monitor this for the government, they are asked to help.  One of my favorite bits of dialogue from a very hit and miss script happens when they ask for one-hundred million dollars as a joke and the government accepts.
  • Meanwhile, Cheyenne Mountain is destroyed along with the President and her important people.  It’s at this point that I should probably mention William Fichtner’s character, General Joshua Adams.  He’s now the President due to line of succession.
  • id4_13At Area 51, Okun lasers open the wreckage of the alien pod ship and a white sphere rolls out.  It awakens, revealing an entirely new species of alien who is also at war with our villains.  It was sent as a warning to humanity and contains a knowledge base for technology that can provide a counter-attack.
  • Thomas Whitmore goes off to talk to an alien prisoner.  He gets briefly strangled but learns of their plan, or something.  The alien nearly escapes the containment room, but Umbutu sneaks behind it and cuts it open with a katana.  Attack them from behind, he foreshadowed earlier.  The best part of this scene is seeing the alien emerge from the bio-mechanical suit.  Somehow this film doesn’t borrow a lot of imagery directly from its predecessor — this is one of those times that it does.
  • Earth (read: America) mobilizes a counter-offensive.  The entirety of the armed forces are apparently about fifty planes.  They strike at the center of the ship, the alien queen’s center.  They are gunned down by defensive systems, and then attacked by alien fighters.  It’s a battle similar to the first film, but shorter, more CGI-filled, and less dramatic.
  • Our heroes escape into the ship’s hull, which is another cool image — the teal haze and otherworldly feeling are modernized well here.  Inside they crash, but not after their fusion bombs are neutralized by shuriken-like alien shield drones.
  • The inside of the ship has its own ecosystem, with plants and water.  Our heroes all survived their crash (of course) and they have a firefight with alien infantry.  I don’t remember the aliens in the first film ever wielding guns, but they do now.
  • id4_10One of the best scenes of the movie happens when Jake draws the attention of the aliens inside the ship.  He wanders out onto a platform, calls up to the deck, flips them the bird, and urinates in front of them.  It’s crass, but a totally “up yours” moment in a film in which they’re sorely lacking.
  • They fly through the ship in a blatant attempt to reproduce the climactic mothership escape from the first film.  There are even fighters in pursuit and a slowly closing door!  It’s like poetry!
  • The alien queen detects the sphere’s presence when it awakes and her ship detaches along with a swarm of fighters to capture it at Area 51.
  • Umbutu, who taught himself to read alien (whose language I might add looks pretty cool), reveals to Dr. Okun that the sphere is their target.  They stage a plan to draw the queen’s ship away from Area 51 by using an old radar truck (?) and the space tugboat, rigged with fusion bombs.
  • Meanwhile, somehow Julius and kids end up in the desert.  They made it there from Florida?  On a tank of gas?  In a day!?  Whatever.
  • President Whitmore, now clean shaven and walking without cane (to signify strength of character), gives a nice speech and offers to sacrifice himself as the bomb pilot.  His daughter is sad.
  • Julius takes a bus full of children and reaches David, who’s observing the diversion and preparing the base’s shields.
  • This whole Julius and the kids plot is so unnecessary.
  • The diversion works.  Patricia escorts her father where he needs to go and the bomb explodes inside the shields, completely destroying the queen’s ship and obviously killing Whitmore in a noble conclusion to his arc.  The end!
  • The aliens continue to live.  Well, as it turns out, the queen has shields of her own around her multi-stage bio-mechanical suit.
  • Fighters attack the queen, including Patricia looking for revenge.  They are taken down by tentacles and gunfire.  She ejects.  By the way, the queen’s giant suit is also holding a just a giant gun.  Oof.id4_9
  • Alien prisoners have escaped inside Area 51 and are about to kill Dr. Okun and his buddy.  Umbutu saves the day!  He was originally on the battlements defending against the alien fighters, but ran inside when he heard of the aliens’ escape.  Because, y’know, he’s the guy who knows how to kill aliens.
  • id4_11Also, and I thought I heard it come up earlier in a throwaway line, Dr. Okun is gay.  The doctor who had cared for him was his partner.  Neat.  I wonder if that characterization was decided for the original film, though I bet not.
  • Okun’s partner dies during the attack.  It’s a well-acted scene by Brent Spiner, if, again, a bit too cheesy.  At least we get an Okun-rampage out of it.
  • The queen attacks Area 51, grabbing the sphere out of the containment room where Dr. Okun had been.  Our heroes Jake and Dylan (and Charlie and Rain) arrive at Area 51 in their alien fighters.  Honestly, I don’t remember when or how they got there, but they did.  They lose control of their ship and end up in a tornado of fighters now surrounding the queen.  They use the boost to get through and divebomb her majesty, ultimately killing her before she can destroy the sphere.
  • id4_12The alien ship stops drilling in the Atlantic, the fighters crash, and shortly thereafter, the 3000 mile wide ship lifts off and floats away into space.
  • Also, the treasure-hunting boat is safe!  Except, hold on a sec, what about that hole in the ocean right next to them?  If it’s a mile wide, and nearly as deep as the inner core that’s over 3200 miles down… then… you put in pi, carry the one… then that’s about 2500 cubic miles of Earth volume displaced from that shaft.  I’m not an expert on water flow rates, but I assume that the ocean near that boat would almost certainly be falling into that hole at a decent clip.  Somehow, that boat remains stationary on calm waters.  Right.
  • At Area 51, our heroes celebrate on the salt flats with the queen vanquished and happy reunions all around.  Dr. Okun opines on the sphere tech — they can spring humanity well into the future with advanced weaponry, space travel, wormholes, and so much more.  They are ready to kick some alien ass.
  • Cut to black.  Roll credits.  Sequel hook is obvious.

That’s the plot, with a bit of editorializing.  I probably left out things because this was all from memory after a single viewing, but that’s basically it.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense if you stop to think about it for a few seconds.  Did the aliens want revenge?  Did they want to harvest Earth’s core for resources or to destroy the planet?  Why bother returning at all?  What about the sphere?  Did they come for that too?  After twenty years, why is Earth’s new technology still so ineffective against the aliens?  Shouldn’t they have computer programs to take down their shields built off of their own technology?  Nothing makes any sense!

There’s also not a lot of tension.  For example, when they revealed Jake’s nervous friend Charlie, I figured he was a goner.  When he found himself paired with Rain on the alien fighter, I knew there was no way he would die, because she had the revenge plot armor from the Moon base attack.  Then there’s Julius.  He should have a) not been in this film or b) died on the ocean during the landing sequence.  The fact that he survived that tsunami cocktail of water and ships was ludicrous.  He’s a fragile old man facing down a vicious mix of nature and human creation.  Why does he get plot armor?  He doesn’t even factor into the plot.

Independence Day has big shoes to fill as a lighthearted disaster movie.  Resurgence fails on this account.  There isn’t really a lot of humor.  There are clear attempts at jokes and a few lines here and there that are overtly goofy, but they produced no laughs in the theater.  Maybe a chuckle once or twice.  Maybe.

For a sequel to a film famous for its gluttonous destruction of American cities and landmarks, there isn’t even that much here.  A few Asian and European cities get pancaked relatively early on in the film, and then we’re done.  There’s no slow build, no anticipation, just some carnage to foreign places and we move on without, literally, a second thought.  As I mentioned before, the only American urban destruction shown here is the alien landing gear crushing swaths of Washington DC, causing a lateral landslide of fire and buildings, and even that’s done in minutes.

The characters are flat.  Jake shows flashes of life once in awhile, Patricia shows a little emotion around her father, and Dylan has absolutely nothing to offer.  Even David can scarcely elevate the poor dialogue, even if his character was the only one whose attempts at humor sometimes hit the mark — mostly just due to being Jeff Goldblum.  Whitmore is decent, though underused.  He actually has something resembling an arc.  Ward’s President is bland.  Adams is alright.  The supporting characters are tedious, especially you Floyd.  Again, Julius is okay but his plot is superfluous.  Those kids add nothing to this film.

Brent Spiner is awesome.  I’m glad they brought Dr. Okun back because he is one of the lone bright spots of Resurgence.  Once they had him lead the investigation of the sphere, I knew he would be the key to the film; it made me warm inside.  Expanding his character to have a romantic relationship was nice.  As I mentioned before, it was barely even noted before becoming overt in the climax.  Quite well done, in my opinion.

The special effects, what Independence Day is mostly known for, are hit and miss — moreso miss.  The CGI is far too obvious.  The green screens are really not well done at all.  The physics is inconsistent (why did the ocean not continue to gravitate toward the ship while it drilled, for example).  I must say, though, that the gravitational physics did contribute some of the more memorable special effects scenes, though they were, naturally, very short.

The scale of the film is grander — a 3000 mile wide ship, star bases near Saturn and on the Moon, swift destruction from Hong Kong to London — but it feels so small.  There’s just the one big ship, which later breaks off only one more smaller ship heading for nowhere Nevada with a fighter squadron in tow.  That’s it.  Independence Day‘s world feels huge by comparison, as numerous alien ships swarm the planet and take out cities one by one.  People are shown across the globe trying to work together.  Here it’s basically just America, and even then, only Washington DC and Area 51.

The biggest problem with Resurgence is that the world is entirely detached from emotional investment.  Independence Day was set in the current time, in cities that existed: New York, Los Angeles, and Washington DC of 1996.  Places were recognizable.  The environments and culture were grounded in reality.  Resurgence begins on the Moon, in a base that exists in our dreams.  Its plot shifts to an unrecognizable Washington DC, only known to be so because of rebuilt monuments.  The first film is swarming in nineties nostalgia — real fighter aircraft, giant bricky cell phones, R.E.M., a pre-internet computer virus.  The united Earth of 2016 has nothing even approaching this.  None of the charm, none of the grit.  No immersion or world-building.  It’s just there; neat and perfect.  The alien technology has made our planes sleeker and our guns laser-ier, but they’re just so intangible.  It’s basically just another planet somewhere else.  Even when modern-day landmarks are pancaked, it doesn’t resonate in any way.

As I mentioned frequently, but cannot emphasis enough, the film feels unnecessarily rushed, full of needless filler, and lacks tension.  There’s no space to feel the anxiety, the confusion, the dread, and the mystery that the first one does so well.  Scenes are over before you have a chance to invest yourself in them.  Scenes that could be powerful are glossed over.  Characters that serve no purpose to the plot are included for… some reason.  If they’d cut the filler, expanded some scenes, as well as lingered on some of the creepier, or more stunning visuals, this would have been a much better film.  The dialogue is oft dreadful, overtly expositional, or hacky to the point where it feels like it was written by a fifteen-year-old.

To close, Independence Day: Resurgence is a film that had potential, but was diverted time and time again by empty spectacle, vapid characters, an odd mix of relying on nostalgia while also ignoring it, and throwaway plot lines.  With a sequel hook thrown out there, perhaps we’ll be seeing this world again, likely detached from reality even more by the advancements provided by additional alien tech.  Perhaps this next film will be better fleshed out, but after Independence Day: Resurgence, I doubt it very much.  I had to see this film to please my inner child while my adult self lowered expectations in preparation.  Suffice to say, my expectations were met.  This is not a good film; it has its rare and exceptionally brief moments, but it’s otherwise completely hollow.

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