Monday, June 27, 2016

Drive-By Review of Independence Day: Resurgence

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY/tl;dr: If you’re going into this movie stoked for a reprise of that exhilaration you felt the first time you watched the 1996 summer smash/cable TV staple, Independence Day, you’re in for a world of disappointment. Independence Day: Resurgence is entertaining enough as an alien invasion movie, but falls flat as a sequel due to sloppy storytelling that fails to remind us why we cared for the original characters, let alone the fate of all life on Earth during the current crisis.

It’s been so long since I’ve been in a theater to watch a movie I couldn’t tell you if it was the last Harry Potter movie, or the first Hunger Games. It’s been so long I’m past bragging about it like it means anything (insert usual sing-along complaint about rude theatergoers, etc.). Life has been so much less complicated since I abandoned caring about the movies, and modern pop culture as a whole, altogether. It’s pointless to complain about the endless remakes/regurgitations, and CGI superhero cartoons. It is what it is, and it won’t change until it does. I’m proud to say this is the first time in years I’ve bothered with the subject at all.

As it turns out, my wife and I are stuck in this hotel room until we can close on our house in Monte Vista. A small hotel room, with all four cats, and the litter box in the bathroom. Yesterday, she had to get out. We’ve had free tickets for Regal theaters that had been gathering dust in a desk cabinet since 2007. The time had come to put them to work.

At least agreeing on the film was easy enough. As the original Independence Day had been a favorite of our family since it first came out in 1996, we were curious about the sequel.

Yes, a family favorite. It’s one of those movies, when it comes on the TV, we end up watching it. Never mind that we have it on Blu-ray. Never mind that we’ve seen it countless times. Independence Day catches our attention, and keeps it. We laugh and cheer along when the good guys get one in, because the bad stuff has been making iconic disaster scenes one after another since the countdown Jeff Goldblum figured out hit T-minus zero. We’ve seen the White House go ka-blooie, we watched Air Force One race the deadly fireball, and we thrill to it just like we did the two dozen times before. 

Here’s the deal with good ol’ ID4, as the marketing boys branded the original Independence Day. A major lesson I took away from reading multi-genre masters of “pulp” literature like Robert E. Howard, Louis L’Amour, and Edgar Rice Burrroughs is that you can have the corniest setup, the most clichéd characters, the most obvious story direction—and you’ll keep reading, and love every cornball minute of it, so long as all the right narrative notes are hit, all the correct emotional triggers engaged. It’s not as easy as it seems, which is why we remember these pulp masters, and why people still read their decidedly non-literary work decades after their deaths. It requires OCD-level attention to detail among all the moving parts in the story, but it can be done.

This is exactly what happened with Roland Emmerich’s original Independence Day. We had different characters from different situations drawn into the crisis, and brought together for the final conflict. We had the U.S. Marine Corps pilot who wants to be an astronaut, but might not be selected because he’s in a relationship with a stripper. We care about the stripper because she’s a single mother and has aspirations to better herself (and proves herself heroic in the evacuation, rescuing even the First Lady of the United States from the wreckage of her helicopter). That’s a couple of examples. I could go on, but the point is, the sequel can’t even do these simple things, all of which can be set up with a few lines of dialogue.

I look at this photo from ID4, and realize I can’t
connect the little boy in the photo to the grown man
representing the same character in Resurgence.
Not even a little bit.
We can’t even decide on who the hotshot pilot who saves the world will be in Resurgence. Is it Will Smith’s grown stepson from the first movie? (Smith’s character is conveniently killed off in a non-alien-related plane crash before the story begins.) He’s haunted somewhat by the sight of his mother falling to her death as the aliens begin their next offensive. Somewhat. It really has nothing to do with anything, except for Vivica A. Fox reprising her role as stripper who miraculously becomes head something-or-other at a hospital, only to plunge to her death with a collapsing building shortly after loading a new mother and her baby into a helicopter. It’s mentioned a couple of times later how badly the guy feels about it. I felt nothing. I don’t even remember Will Smith’s character’s stepson’s name.

There’s another hotshot pilot played by Liam Hemsworth, and he’s got that Loveable Rogue thing going on. Are you our hero? He screwed up his career by nearly getting Will Smith’s character’s stepson killed in some flying maneuver gone wrong. Or something. It’s never quite clear. It just kinda happened, but Will Smith’s character’s stepson is still angry about it, and a Chinese general hates him for the same reason, because, well, you’re not a rogue if you don’t have haters. Or something. It’s something that apparently calls out for redemption, and there is, of sorts, but like everything else in this movie, there is no emotional traction whatsoever. You’re not rooting for anyone like we all were rooting for wisecracking, cigar-smoking Will Smith in 1996.

Oh, and I almost forgot: Will Smith’s character’s stepson supposedly leads an entire elite squad of the Bestest Fighter Pilots in the Solar System. I’d call them The Flying United Colors of Bennington but only people who remember the ads from the mid-1980s to 1990 will get the joke. So the joke fails, and our young, whey-faced pilots aren’t much good for anything, either.
“I’m aghast! All this potential greatness, wasted!”

Not even Jeff Goldblum saves this. He’s supposedly an expert on alien stuff who gets to do whatever he wants, having created the computer virus that saved the world in the first movie. He flits around a bit and flusters bureaucratic types who expect him to be somewhere else, doing something else, but for most of the movie he looks either aghast or baffled. He’s not very Jeff Goldblummy, really, which means Independence Day: Resurgence, is no Independence Day. Along with Will Smith, he was a large part of the heart of that first movie.
A great scene among the many great scenes in the original ID4. You’ll see nothing like this in Resurgence.

Judd Hirsch, who played Jeff Goldblum’s dad, is no more than buffoonish comic relief with a heart of gold in Resurgence. In the first movie, he was Jeff Goldblum’s conscience who inspired him to snap out of his middle-aged divorced guy funk to help save the world. He even led a religious service for those not actively engaged in battle, which was a nice touch in a film in which it seemed Earth might very well lose. Here, he's a hustler who wrote a book called something like How I Saved the Earth, capitalizing on his role in the first crisis, and not doing very well at it.

I could go all day with this, character by wasted character. Bill Pullman’s PTSD-wracked former President Whitmore is especially disappointing. Pullman’s character was hurt, but was by no means emotionally shattered in the first movie, despite losing his wife and most of the country he was president of in ID4. He has no reason to be broken in Resurgence, yet he’s a figure hovering helplessly, impotently between reverence and pity here. He even has a limp that requires the use of a cane. Why? Was there a rock in his boot while he flew the fighter jet in the first movie?

All of this brokenness requires redemption, naturally, which he sorta kinda gets. His Great Sacrifice™ should be more exciting than it is. It isn’t.

Brent Spiner’s character has no reason to be alive at all, given that the room he was in was shot full of holes by the president’s detail in the first movie. But he jumps up from bed looking no worse from wear after TWENTY YEARS IN A COMA once the aliens come back on the scene.

Spiner’s character probably has more to do than anyone when it comes to actually affecting the plot, which, curiously, says it all for this appallingly weak sequel. Even getting past his being alive and unusually spry and fit for someone who has been on their back wasting away for twenty years, Spiner’s Lead Science Guy at Area 51 was a somewhat annoying character out of touch with the horror wreaked around the world by the alien tech he was so enamored of. (Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore memorably checks him on this in the original ID4.) In Resurgence, he’s simply annoying.
It’s not Los Angeles. Also, the bad stuff is on account of what’s coming from the sky, not from unstable and collapsing earth. I had to remind myself of this. Loveable Rogue’s flight through the debris that should have knocked him out of the sky was too reminiscent of John Cusack in the small plane in Emmerich’s 2012.

Which is the best segue I’ve got to the horror that’s supposedly going on around the world now that the aliens are back. That is to say, there isn’t any. The writers and the director don’t bother to build any tension with the aliens return to Earth. The movie opens with what appears to be an alien tactical display, showing President Whitmore’s head shot on a convex display making his big speech before the final battle in the first movie. And it turns out Whitmore is awaking from a nightmare. That’s how we know the aliens are coming back.

This artless beginning starts us off baffled for whatever happened to President Whitmore. We get a few quick lines about how Earth’s nations united—a detail that is unfortunately, albeit amusingly timed, given the real-world UK’s vote to leave the European Union the same week Resurgence was released to theaters—and how Earth adapted the technology to defend against possible future attacks. Hooray for us.

So we’re ready. No conflicts here. Then the aliens come, and knock all our extraterrestrial defenses out, from Saturn to the moon. Just like that. No slow burn, no build, nothing. They show up, they blow stuff up, and whatcha gonna do?

A better narrative might have involved tension between war hawks who insist on vigilance against those who say, look, it’s been twenty years, can we please focus on other issues? This could have been done fairly with both sides (suffering survivors would certainly be an issue), but instead the Earth is overwhelmed, and it’s game on. Much has been made in some corners about how actress Sela Ward presented such a fine example of presidential decisiveness, when her decision stupidly takes out a friendly alien emissary who clearly isn’t one of the bad aliens.

Incidentally, when everything goes sideways and Earth’s heroes go to ground, the presidential party holes up in Cheyenne Mountain, right here in my adoptive home town of Colorado Springs. The aliens arrive, and presumably kill everyone there. I don’t get to see this. Neither do you. Sela Ward is standing there looking all presidential as the big doors open and aliens in mech suits fill the space. That’s it.

In ID4, you see the giant, miles-wide alien troop ships filling the skies over all the major cities. We see these cities destroyed, or at least their aftermath. In Resurgence, it’s one great big 3,000-mile wide mothership that covers the entire Atlantic Ocean. This strains credulity even for the most casual sci-fi action fan. The mass of such a thing would affect Earth’s orbit. Such a thing entering the atmosphere would burn off the atmosphere from friction alone. The blocking of sunlight across such a broad swathe of the planet would be another set of problems.

And if you can build a ship the size of a continent, why do you need anything, let alone Earth’s molten core? There are so many other molten-core planets across the galaxy. Why bother coming all the way to the inner solar system of this out-of-the-way star?

Put all that aside, save for the bit about the molten core, and we’ve still got issues. For one, we feel no suspense whatsoever regarding the aliens reaching the molten core. That’s the crux of everything, and there is no tension.

The alien queen comes out to play for the final conflict, and she’s just ridiculous. By herself, she doesn’t pose the threat of total annihilation that a simple ID4 mothership and its fighter ships did in the first movie. We have ONE schoolbus full of children threatened by this ridiculously huge Queen Monster That Wants to Kill Us All. But that just figures when we see all of one city, London, destroyed. Goldblum’s character makes what should be a funny remark about how the aliens always go for the landmarks, but, technically, those were all destroyed along with every other major city in the first movie.

For a sequel that should have been bigger and better and so obviously twenty years removed from poor, primitive 1996, it half-assed everything. There are no characters we care about. There is no sense of worldwide scope. There is no tension. We were watching this in 3D, and even that wasn’t so impressive.

Well, what did I expect? Resurgence wasn’t a sequel so much as another lame “re-imagining” of something that worked two decades ago. Cue that old sing-along complaint.

Except at least everyone in the theater was courteous. All ten or twelve of them. So that was something.