It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Blind): Independence Day-Resurgence Review

Roland Emmerich, disaster auteur responsible for such works as Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012, recently said he found superheroes “silly” and expressed his disinterest in participating in the genre that has defined Hollywood for over a decade and a half now.[1] Emmerich contends that his films stand in stark contrast to “a lot of Marvel movies…in funny suits” by featuring “the regular Joe Schmo that’s the unlikely hero.” It’s hard to know where to begin in describing just how hollow this statement truly is. Since the original Independence Day in 1996, Emmerich has found considerable commercial success in the systematic destruction of civilization by encroaching natural (or unnatural) forces that humanity had long ignored or forgotten. As welcome as this vision of cinema in relation to our world sounds, its dependence on pitiful screenwriting, uninspired acting, and direction so hackneyed that it makes Zack Snyder and Michael Bay look brilliant by comparison is troublesome. In short, Emmerich’s earnest attempts to depict the fall of man with such tedious execution rides the rare line between pretension and out-and-out goofiness, which makes their labeling as “silly” accurate but incomplete.

Emmerich’s blissfully ignorant brand is perpetuated by the long gestating sequel to Independence Day in Independence Day: Resurgence. While the movie picks up real time (twenty years) after the events of the first film, humanity has managed to tap into the alien technology recovered from the previous attack and has established the Earth Space Defense (ESD) to act as an early warning/response team to the aliens’ return. Earth has experienced technological revolution thanks to the discoveries gleamed, coinciding with twenty years of peace. We come upon our returning characters (played by Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsch, Vivica A. Fox, and Brent Spiner) and newbies (Liam Hemsworth, Maika Monroe, Jessie Usher, and Charlotte Gainsbourg[2]) in various states of disarray just as the alien’s inevitably return with a vengeance, forcing them all to work together to defeat the fresh horde.

Let’s start with a positive: Emmerich is an expert when it comes to depicting things in scale. Many blockbusters neglect to articulate the dimensions within which the action takes place. At this point in his career, such skills are old hat for the director. Humans look brutally insignificant when posed next to the aliens’ monolithic spacecraft and even a heavenly body like the Moon plays like a quick flyover for the invaders’ latest megaship. A sequence around halfway through the film finds Hemsworth and Usher in the midst of the mothership; the massive interior looks more akin to a living, breathing ecosystem than the normally stark spacecraft that populate science fiction films. The art book that surely accompanies Resurgence’s release would undoubtedly be a gorgeous work, boasting pre-production visuals that stand up as beautiful in their own right.[3]

The problem comes in when you put said images in motion at twenty-four frames a second. The presentation of the action is nothing short of embarrassing for a director like Emmerich who has spent a career honing his craft as a disaster artist. The inescapable destruction of landmarks, such as London, were assembled with the grace of a student driver late for school on his girlfriend’s birthday. To describe them as operating on “auto pilot” implies a mechanical design to the madness on-screen that I failed to recognize. The effects look mostly convincing or as convincing as a towering alien mother-queen chasing a school bus as an aerial and ground battle rage above them is allowed to look. It all culminates into the very nadir of our disaster-obsessed movie going public: when the ashes clear, we realize that’s what left was hardly worth fighting for.

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It’s easy to attribute the horrible acting present in Resurgence to the dumpster fire known as the script[4][5] or the reliance on performing at green screens instead of each other. However, we can’t let them entirely off the hook. We all love Jeff Goldblum but it was no surprise that he resorted to his usual bag of tricks and tics. Like Christopher Walken, our admiration for Goldblum is at once natural and ironic, making him one of the most unique performers Hollywood has ever produced. I can’t find it in my heart to condemn him for this movie.[6] Additionally, Bill Pullman may have delivered the very first performance I’ve ever seen worth of both Oscar and Razzie consideration. Reprising his role as President Whitmore, Pullman imbues the former commander in chief with an unexpected weariness that often leads to manic fits of delirium and vaguely optimistic proclamations of resolve.

The rest of the cast could’ve been jettisoned entirely and you would’ve hardly noticed any difference.[7] Brent Spiner, who we all remember dying in the first film, is back for no other reason than to provide the movie with a semblance of a “scientific anchor”.[8] Judd Hirsch is back as Goldblum’s anxious dad for…some reason? His befriending of a group of children who have lost their parents in the attack(s) is a detour in the smaller and more satisfying movies Resurgence could’ve been. The newbies are all wallpaper that barely find ways to distinguish themselves from one another. Liam Hemsworth in particular seems determined to give Jai Courtney a run for his money for most wooden working performer. Maika Monroe isn’t half bad as Whitmore’s daughter/White House speechwriter/third act fighter pilot[9] but her role feels like a misplaced injection of pathos that nearly lulls the audience to sleep in its derivativeness. Finally, Vivica A. Fox, the stripper with the heart of gold from the original, comes back briefly in the first act as a hospital administrator wishing her ace pilot son good luck. We can expect her to play a crucial role in helping the victims of the new alien invasion, right? Wrong. She is senselessly killed so quickly that I nearly forgotten it’d happened. Her son grieves a bit before pushing it aside to “show em’ some fireworks.” Even in its thoughtless progression of plot, I can moderately appreciate this sequel’s frank grappling with loss in the face of battle, as the first film held to this principle pretty closely as well.

One thing, however, Resurgence failed to carry over from its predecessor was its star in chief: Will Smith. The first film helped establish the action and comedy star as an undeniable force to be reckoned with, a black Harrison Ford in a time desperately lacking in such bravado. The intervening years have seen the star have a series of ups and downs not wholly unique to him. It’s pretty easy to contribute his downs to the sheer number of projects he’s lent his presence to, making both he and us forgetful of what it was about him that is so special.[10] Just this summer, Smith will be donning the very tights this summer that Emmerich is so wary of in Suicide Squad, a comic book movie that promises to be a “darker and edgier” take than we’re used to seeing, even though it seems like all we see is “dark and edgy” takes on things anymore. Regardless, Smith will once again be playing within an ensemble not too different from his cinematic roots in Independence Day. The more things change, the more they stay the same, right?

But at the end of Independence Day: Resurgence, I couldn’t help but raise an imaginary toast to Smith for passing on a film as toxic and ignorant as this one. The movie desperately lacked a young, invigorating presence akin to Will Smith that gave the proceeding a sense of fun instead of the manufactured sensation that fools many into thinking it’s entertainment. I like imagining that Smith sat with his family in a private Los Angeles screening room mocking the film moment to moment. At least then someone had a good time. The rest of us are just forced to sit pitifully in the dark silently as we wait for the carnage to conclude. This close encounter was of the turd kind.

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[1] Full interview here: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jun/18/roland-emmerich-on-independence-day-resurgence.

[2] Very jarring to see the arthouse actress in a four quadrant blockbuster instead of the punishing confines of a Lars von Trier film but more power to her. I don’t expect she’s making a killing off of royalties to Antichrist.

[3] Turns out, there is one. Have at it! https://www.amazon.com/Art-Independence-Day-Resurgence/dp/1785651374.

[4] Penned by Emmerich and four others. I remember seeing their names projected on-screen at the film’s conclusion and exhibiting a dark, heavy sigh of understanding that gave the preceding two hours a glimmer of clarity.

[5] The film couldn’t even rise to he occasion when it came to replicating Pullman’s fiery sermon from the original. Here, the honor falls into the usually steady hands of William Fichtner but is so hollow that Hemsworth should’ve had the privilege to see it, just so he could add it to his reel of insufferable dialogue.

[6] Plus, the bank he’s likely to make from this, another Jurassic Park movie, and Thor: Ragnarok will afford him at least another decade of making Wes Anderson films, so at least this movie filled that role.

[7] Except for the unexpected presence of an African warlord (armed with two machetes) who provides crucial information to our other heroes about the alien species. I promise you I’m not making this stuff up.

[8] Those looking to see Spiner’s bare bottom though will leave satisfied.

[9] I guess it runs in the family.

[10] Meanwhile, Tom Cruise (loosely his contemporary) risked running the same route before course correcting with as satisfying a run of genre films in recent years that we’re ever likely to see. But I digress…

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