Review: Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)


Independence Day: Resurgence is undeniably stupid, but I had fun watching it. It’s so gleefully foolish and profusely clichéd that I’m half-convinced director Roland Emmerich was trying for camp; whatever the aim, it had me in fits of laughter a few times. While I wouldn’t describe Resurgence as the abyss of 21st-century blockbuster filmmaking most critics and many viewers have branded it, it’s also not a satisfying sequel to its 1996 mega-hit predecessor.

The original Independence Day is smarter than most people give it credit for being: it deftly revived the science-fiction disaster flick of the 1950s by affixing contemporary blockbuster elements and executing top-notch special-effects spectacle. Independence Day combined the militarism, jingoism, and braggadocio of Top Gun with UFO lore and the scientific veneer and tech preoccupations of Michael Crichton. The film even functions, via the two main characters (Will Smith’s fighter pilot and Jeff Goldblum’s computer expert), as a kind of buddy action-comedy, each character representing different influences on the film. Independence Day remains one of the cultural (not artistic) high-points of 1990s Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking.   

Now it’s 20 years later and Hollywood is rebooting anything and everything. I had heard rumours about a sequel since the original’s release, but I guess it makes sense to see it now, amid the wave of Nineties nostalgia, and following the huge success of Jurassic World. Like Jurassic World, Independence Day: Resurgence is a sorta-sequel, sorta-reboot, capable of standing alone yet fixated on its connections with its predecessor. While the meta-commentary is more overt (and more interesting) in Jurassic World, Independence Day: Resurgence frequently holds up the memory of the original film, reminding us of that film as if to prove its own reason for existence.

For example, as the film opens, snippets of President Whitmore’s famous rousing speech from the original film echo through space as the camera zooms in through galaxies and nebulae to the alien homeworld. A signal flickers: they’ve been alerted to the fate of the first expedition to earth and are sending reinforcements. When the actually invasion comes, after about half an hour of setup, it’s unsurprisingly the 20-year anniversary of “the War of ’96.”

Sadly, Independence Day: Resurgence avoids the long, suspenseful, inexorable buildup that characterizes Emmerich’s other SF disaster films (Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012), and which I consider the best feature of his films. (I’ve always enjoyed the rainy first half of Emmerich’s Godzilla a fair bit. No apologies.) Nevertheless, for the first act of Resurgence, earthlings keep scratching their heads and wondering what’s happening. Everyone, that is, except for a crazed, bearded former-President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), who’s tormented by nightmares portending the aliens’ return, and David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), who has spent the years since the War of ’96 working for the UN, trying to prepare for the inevitable second wave.   

In the aftermath of that war against the extraterrestrial invaders, humanity has set aside its petty differences and come together in a shiny vision of humanitarian universalism. There’s still a US President, but she has to, you know, confer with other world leaders on big screens; once again, Emmerich balances his interests in both American patriotism and progressive politics. The entire world is at peace, except for, apparently, a region in Saharan Africa ruled by a warlord, Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei), who successfully fought and won a guerilla war against the leftover aliens in his region. Early in the film, Levinson visits the giant spaceship hidden in the desert, which was hitherto unknown to the international community. The ship seems to have been drilling into the earth’s core before the mothership was shut down during the war. There, Levinson also meets up with a fellow scientist and old fling, Catherine Marceaux (Charlotte Gainsbourg, for some reason), who has been researching a bizarre circular symbol that keeps reappearing in the accounts of people who were psychically affected by the aliens. (Deep breath.) And this is just some of the setup jammed into the first half hour.

The other important point is that, in the intervening years, humans have also harnessed the leftover alien technology to enhance our weapons and vehicles, a fact introduced fairly quickly and then assumed throughout the rest of the film. It’s a great idea but it’s underdeveloped; basically, it means better guns and faster helicopters for us.

Perhaps these technological improvements influenced the film’s insane rendering of space and time. Resurgence moves at a lightening pace, and so do the characters within it. At various points in the film, I was unclear about how much time had passed between scenes, and I was continually surprised at how quickly characters were flying from continent to continent. Resurgence is also shorter that the first film, but it has at least twice the plot. The film displays a manic desire to shoehorn in as many characters and subplots as possible. In one particularly memorable and hilarious tangent about halfway through the movie, a group of treasure hunters sailing in the middle of the ocean are introduced during a sequence of catastrophic destruction. As locations around the world are levelled and the treasure hunters’ situation is threatened, they explain that they don’t want to abandon the $100 million in gold in the sunken wreck beneath them. It’s the end of the world, and they’re worried about sunken treasure! This is a perfect example of how nearly every new character, no matter how minor, is given a measure of motivation and a micro-arc to complete. In spite of all this, none of the characters have any substantial depth, and, hence, although we meet dozens of characters we have no emotional investment in the storyline.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I did feel one strong emotion watching the film: a desire to see more Goldblum. Simply put, there’s not enough David Levinson. The new cast of young up-and-comers is uniformly uninteresting. One of the kids is Whitmore’s daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe), and another is the son of Cap. Hiller from the first movie (Will Smith). Played by Jessie T. Usher, Dylan Hiller is still a fighter pilot but he’s more straightlaced than his father. Instead of an obvious love triangle involving Patricia, Dylan, and Liam Hemsworth’s rogish pilot Jake, the film let’s Patricia and Jake just be together and is more intent on alluding to an accident that has estranged Dylan and Jake. This is the sort of half-baked character motivation the film is jammed up with, almost to a ludicrous degree. I will only take the time to flesh out a few more examples. For instance, David is followed around by an annoying, cowardly, bureaucrat watchdog (Nicholas Wright, one of the screenwriters). Of course, the coward learns to become a warrior under the tutelage of the warlord, who explains his secret for killing the aliens: “You get them from behind.” Also, the long-haired mad scientist of Area 51, Dr. Brakish Okun (Brent Spiner) turns out not to have been killed in the previous film but to have merely been in a coma for the past 20 years. While he was under, his boyfriend brought him orchids. Oh, and David’s father (Judd Hirsch) is also back, and he survives a tsunami that levels coastal cities riding the crest of the wave on his fishing boat so that later on he can drive a bunch of orphaned kids across the desert on a school bus to find his son. They need the bus at Area 51 so that David and his father and the kids can flee from a giant alien Queen in the bus during the climax.

Yes, it’s that insane. Emmerich and four other screenwriters wrote Resurgence. So, we could chalk all this up to too many cooks, or a butchered edit job, or yet another cynical and vapid attempt to reboot a franchise. Those are all plausible and more-than-likely factors. Maybe I just appreciated how not-serious the movie was. More than the original Independence Day, this is a B-movie with a budget. It’s also not a lazy film, despite its stupidity. There’s too much going on, too much attempted to be considered a lazy effort. Part of me can’t shake the camp factor. The move is just so silly. The film plays out like a snowball rolling down a hill, adding in more and more things, growing larger and larger until it hits a rock and explodes. More than the action scenes, it was these crazy tangents and unnecessary character moments that made me enjoy the film.  

I won’t tell you what happens to the treasure hunters in the middle of the ocean.

If movies weren’t so damn expensive these days, I’d say it was worth a matinee on a hot summer afternoon. Well, there’s always Netflix.

4 out of 10

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016, USA)

Directed by Roland Emmerich; screenplay by Nicholas Wright & James A. Woods and Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich and James Vanderbilt; starring Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Liam Hemsworth, Maika Monroe, Jessie T. Usher, Brent Spiner, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Deobia Oparei, Nicholas Wright, and Judd Hirsch.