The long awaited sequel to Independence Day was one of those “I’ll believe when I see it” movies. It’s been talked about for so long, only to pop up when someone asked director Roland Emmerich about it in the midst of making other movies, that it seemed doubtful that the next wave of space invaders would ever arrive. And now, 20 years later, the moment is here. Independence Day: Resurgence fits beautifully in the trend of “re-quels”, a simultaneous sequel and rebooting to turn a franchise that’s stalled out into a comeback success. Sadly though, Independence Day is too in love with its own mythology to make any bold departures from it.
Watching Resurgence, it becomes apparent how just finely the first film walked the line between good camp and bad camp. The original ID4 had the perfect three-act structure, it allowed it’s characters moments and interactions that allowed us to become familiar with them, and then, at the end of act one, it hit us with the VFX porn, which, looking back, is a time capsule; the moment that model makers and computer artists passed each other on the filmmaking highway. That iconography of an alien ship hovering over the White House and blowing it up is powerful, it’s an image that’s persisted even out of the film’s context, and the question was could Resurgence do one better, or even just match it? It could not.
There are elements though, ingredients revealed in the first 20 minutes that the five screenwriters involved – including originators Emmerich and Dean Devlin – couldn’t take advantage of. Twenty years to the day of the first attack, humans that have had close psychic contact with invaders in what is now called the “War of 1996,” including former-President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) are being plagued by nightmare visions of a spherical symbol. David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), now the head of Earth’s Defenses, journeys to Africa where a warlord (Deobia Oparei), whose spent years fighting the remaining alien resistance on planet Earth, reveals that the alien ship that landed intact in his country has begun to reactivate. Both Whitmore and Levinson separately come to one conclusion: the aliens are come back.
Of course, the world has radically changed since the first invasion. Salvaged alien technology has made a unified humanity a force to be reckoned with, but the aliens have had two decades to bulk up too. A giant “harvester” arrives over planet Earth causing widespread destruction, as the ship starts drilling to access the planetary core. The surviving government officials soon learn that the massive ship is being piloted by the aliens’ queen, who’s come to our world for revenge, and not just necessarily against the human race. What follows is a dire retread of the first Independence Day as the ragtag group of military fighters and civilian scientists try to pull another rabbit out of their collective hat to save the world.
As if the result is ever in doubt, but there’s persistent feeling in the film that stakes are almost too high in this one. Aside from the odious introduction of a queen character, a concept never before hinted at in the previous film, not to mention being an overused sci-fi trope to begin with, the aliens might as well have come here with a Death Star. Or maybe that was the point. Emmerich sacrifices tension for urgency in the way the plot unfolds, every danger is huge and immediate, and the characters are never allowed a moment to take it easy, catch their breath, and deal with their surroundings, or really think through their actions before doing anything. So many of these story beats are so predictable that you might as well be psychic watching the movie unfold.
Now that’s not to say that the Independence Day ’96 was a Mamet play, it wasn’t a finely tuned character piece offered real insight into the human condition, but Emmerich was shrewd (or lucky) enough to rely on the charm of the actors to sell the material. In part two, Pullman recasts Whitmore as a man who knows the truth but lacks the capacity to express it so he comes across as just a crazy old man, like Charlton Heston at the end of Soylent Green. Meanwhile, Goldblum’s got nerd swagger, as if his character has morphed into a combination of Captain Kirk and Bill Gates. The movie feels like it robs us of a chance to really enjoying seeing them, and the other returning characters from the first movie, interacting and instead we’re given a bland next generation of alien fighters.
Liam Hemsworth proves again that he’s not ready for prime time. Yes, he’s a handsome man, but he’s cast as the typical space cowboy hot-dogger that plays by his own rules, gets the girl, and manages to be beloved by everyone for being a bad boy with a heart of gold. Hemsworth though just lacks the tools to inflate Jake to be anything more than what’s written on the page, which is pretty bland. The script, I think, foolishly makes Jake and Dylan (Jesse T. Usher), the now grown-up stepson of Will Smith’s character in Independence Day, separate characters. There just isn’t enough “there” there, and it almost seems like the only reason that Usher is part of the movie is because Smith is not. At least they both get to be heroes though, Maika Monroe as Whitmore’s daughter Patty gets to spend much of the movie worrying about the men folk even though the script paints her as capable fighter in her own right.
So was Independence Day: Resurgence a let down? Yes, there was little to no way of recapturing the magic of that first film, and the only way to really try was to go in a different direction… Like the one that’s implied at the end of the damn movie in order to open the door to a part three!!! When the credits rolled, the disappointment was more about what it could have been than what this movie was, which was just enough like Independence Day for people to get misty with nostalgia. The story doesn’t invest enough in those original characters to let fond memories completely take the wheel, while at the same time it brings the kids onboard to take this thing further if the box office allows. As a result, Resurgence does neither very well.
Having said, there are moments of actual entertainment. The special effects were decent, although they lacked the charm of the mid-90s practical/CG “missing link” feeling of the original; for instance, why do the puppet aliens of ID4 feel more ominously real than the computer-created ones of ID:R? This may sound like a compliment, but Resurgence reminded me of Jurassic World, you have a good time, but the movie is a little too in love with the idea of itself. In Jurassic World’s favor was Chris Pratt and universal dinosaur love, but without those things it just had a lot of stupid people doing stupid things while Bryce Dallas Howard was running around the jungle in high heels. But in the case of Resurgence, where’s Pratt when you need him?
No matter how dumb or derivative you thought the first Independence Day was, you can’t deny it stayed with the culture; perhaps in spite of yourself, you’ve passed it playing on TV and stopped to watch it for a minute, or maybe in its entirety. It’s magnetic, and Resurgence was not. Once the thrill of seeing an actual ID4 sequel is over, the thrill is over, and the rest is an experiment in recycling. Can a hit of the past be a golden goose in the future? In the case of Independence Day, not so much.