There’s a surprising number of people who recall Roland Emmerich’s 1996 alien invasion flick, Independence Day, with a good bit of fondness. It is not, by any sort of objective or critical standard, a good movie. The acting is over-the-top, the script is a mess, the technical details more so, and frankly, it’s just sort of dumb. But there’s a goofy kind of gleefulness to it, as if it’s in on its own joke and doesn’t really mind. It’s silly, mostly lighthearted (as far as end-of-the-world disaster movies go), and is mostly salvaged by some terrific casting and solid chemistry among those cast members. Most of us tend to overlook all of its glaring mistakes and happily grin our way through it whenever it pops up on Saturday afternoon cable. It’s a stupid puppy of a film. Think of it like the Deep Blue Sea of alien invasion flicks.
Of course, inevitably, such things get the sequel treatment and as such, Emmerich returns to this world this week with Independence Day: Resurgence (a horribly awkward title that constantly makes me think of the equally poorly titled video game Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance). This time, it’s 20 years later and Earth has settled into a peaceful existence, bolstered by massive technological leaps, thanks to salvaged alien technology from the prior outing. We’ve established permanent bases on the moon, and are exploring the farther reaches of the galaxy, while also maintaining an unprecedented world peace, thanks to the nations joining together way back when. Of course, all good things come to an end, and a distress signal that was sent back in ‘96 now brings a new volley of alien baddies, this time in larger numbers and with a ship of incomprehensibly large size.
Many of the original players return — Jeff Goldblum is now the director of Earth Space Defense, Bill Pullman is now a delusional wild-eyed and bearded old man, and Vivica Fox has successfully transitioned from exotic dancer engaged to a fighter pilot to widowed pediatrician (Will Smith passed on returning to the franchise) and parent of a fighter pilot. Judd Hirsch returns to annoyingly stammer and dodder around, and Robert Loggia has about 90 seconds of screen time in what is the most unfortunate final film appearance since Raul Julia passed after Street Fighter. The film mostly focuses on a new generation, and that’s the beginning of its many, many problems. It stars Liam Hemsworth as Jake, a rebellious pilot with a chip on his shoulder (sigh), Maika Monroe as Patty, daughter of Pullman and a former pilot and current White House staffer, who is engaged to Jake, Jessie Usher as Dylan, the son of Fox’s character who is also a fighter pilot with an old grudge against Jake, and a handful of other people. Incidentally, the time I spent writing those descriptions is roughly the time spent in the film dealing with their backstories.
Look, I have a lot of thoughts on the film itself, and spoiler alert, they’re not happy thoughts. If you want the quick version, this shot of Jeff Goldblum basically sums up how I felt about the movie:
Yeah. It’s fucking terrible. And not in the stupid puppy way. It’s terrible in the ugly-in-its-soul, rabid-and-should-be-put-down way. It’s horribly written, with stilted, awkward pacing and a scatterbrained story that tries desperately to knot together several disparate plot threads — the clash between Jake and Dylan, Goldblum’s quest for more information, another alien race that once fought the bad guy aliens, Patty’s relationship with her dad and her love of Jake, and oh Jesus Alien-fucking Christ, none of it is interesting. None of the character’s interpersonal relationships are even remotely stirring. They’re so rotely scripted, so banally slapped together that there’s nothing to root for. Of everyone involved there are two vaguely saving graces - Goldblum (because he’s Jeff fucking Goldblum), and William Fichtner (because he’s William fucking Fichtner) as a harried general trying to pull what remains of the armed forces back together. Everyone else is basically just running and screaming and crying and then running and screaming again, sometimes while crying. There’s no life, no soul to any of the other characters, and as a result, there’s no life or soul to the film itself.
The original film succeeded, even if at a very low level, because the characters were played with some heart. Even if they were each their own walking cliche, they were fun. That sense of fun, of tongue-in-cheek silliness, is gone here. What remains is a calculated effort to pull at the same heartstrings, but with such clumsy, deliberate heavy-handedness that it’s too easy to see the numbers being crunched behind the scenes. Pull lever X to make character 1 cry, push button Y to make character 2 angry. There’s nothing organic or real from either the script or the performances, and so there’s no joy or sadness to be felt at any of the film’s obviously scripted wannabe emotional notes. It’s like watching someone high on Valium try to play the guitar with boxing gloves on. It’s a noisy, jangled fucking mess that no one wants to sit through for more than two minutes, let alone an interminable two goddamn hours.
It’s not helped by Emmerich’s determination to outdo himself in the effects department. He went with everything bigger and badder, and it collapses on itself almost immediately. The new alien ship is supposedly an absurd three thousand miles wide, and it lands thunderingly on the planet, causing calamity and disaster across the globe. The problem is the scale is too big, focusing too much on the massive, city-crushing damage and completely leaving out the human element. There’s no sense of humanity to it, no understanding of the true impact of such a world-altering event. Everything is so massive in size that it obscures any sense of reality or true understanding, like a blackout drunk calculating infinity. It tries so hard to show you the widespread devastation, but instead it’s like watching my four year old smash his haphazardly constructed Lego buildings — I mean yeah, he looks like he’s having fun, but there’s nothing particularly enjoyable or emotionally affecting about it. All you have to do is look at a handful of screenshots to understand:
You see? That doesn’t look like a shot from a movie, it looks like concept art. It’s designed to look like mass destruction, but really it’s so far removed from any sense of humanity that you just sort of shrug and impatiently wait for it to end hoping that something more interesting will happen next. And that’s not gonna happen.
Independence Day: Resurgence isn’t a good movie, and as far as summer blockbusters are concerned, that only barely even matters. The bigger problem is that it’s also not a fun movie. During its entire lumbering 120 minutes, the only emotions I felt were boredom, frustration, irritation, and disappointment that I skipped stopping for tacos because I didn’t want to be late. Had I known that seeing the beginning — or the end, or anything in-between — matters not one bit, because the film itself is a pointless exercise in moneymaking, a heartless return to a film that was never really good enough to warrant coming back to. It’s a boring slop bucket of a movie, filled with moldy leftover characters and the fetid remains of an era gone by, not fit for viewing by even the most lackwitted dullard of a moviewatcher.