film independence day Jeff Goldblum Monday, June 27, 2016 Rob Samuelson
Independence Day: Resurgence
Director: Roland Emmerich
Writers: Nicolas Wright, James A. Woods, Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich, James Vanderbilt
Starring: Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Jessie T. Usher, Bill Pullman, Maika Monroe, Sela Ward
Rating: One-and-a-half stars out of five
In its own way, Independence Day: Resurgence may be profound. It could be the first narrative feature film in cinematic history to not have any discernable theme. The previous sentence is a slight exaggeration because the latest Roland Emmerich disaster film hints at ideas about families having the backs of their vulnerable members. But that attitude about families protecting each other is assumed because (uncharismatic) human beings are on the screen. The movie does not put in the work of establishing itself, and instead chooses to coast on our understanding that, yeah, of course people will care about those closest to them in times of extreme crisis like, say, the second alien invasion of Earth in 20 years.
A lot has changed on the planet since we last saw them defeat the aliens in 1996’s Independence Day. Every country in the world now works together and leftover alien technology has revolutionized humanity. Will Smith’s character, Captain Steven Hiller, has shuffled off the mortal coil, the victim of an offscreen accident that reads like the movie’s creative team giving the finger to the superstar actor who did not want to return for a sequel 20 years after the first one. Hiller is replaced by his son, Dylan (Jessie T. Usher), now an ace pilot of his own -- he seemingly did not inherit his father’s personality or ability to smile. President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is long out of office and living in what appears to be a hotel for rich, crazy people -- for some reason he went insane and grew a mountain man beard after defeating the aliens in the first movie -- and his daughter, Patricia (Maika Monroe), has followed a bizarre career path from fighter pilot to some sort of aide to the current president, played by Sela Ward. Patricia’s fiance, Jake (Liam Hemsworth, The Hunger Games), is also a pilot, but he’s stationed on the moon, possibly as a form of punishment for his inability to be a team player. David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) is still doing scientific things related to the aliens, this time with Charlotte Gainsbourg there as a love interest.
The preceding paragraph is long because the movie cannot decide whether it wants to dive into full-on “Only ‘90s Kids Will Remember These Characters” meme fetishization or if it wants to tell a new story. So it tries to do both and serves neither well.
Jake is kind of, sort of the protagonist of Independence Day: Resurgence, which is silly. This character is the vestigial tail of the Independence Day series. He gets the heroic moments and possibly the most screen time, and it’s all for nothing. His presence, particularly with Liam Hemsworth’s shaky American accent and generally blank expression, only serves to diminish the movie’s best option for a hero. Maika Monroe, who was so good in 2014’s The Guest and 2015’s It Follows, provides fleeting glimpses of a better movie when she is on the screen. Unfortunately, the movie keeps her grounded for most of its runtime, leaving her only able to offer looks of concern as the aliens reign hell upon humanity. If she were given the exact same role as Hemsworth, the film would be able to have its cake and eat it, too. It would connect Patricia to the past of the franchise because she is the daughter of the inspirational speechifying former president. Putting her in a fighter jet earlier would also signal that this movie -- and its obviously planned sequels -- would have an anchor in both the past and present, and it would strengthen the possible theme of families looking out for each other. Heck, they could have doubled down on the legacy characters by partnering her up with Dylan -- it would have given him something more to do than look handsome and heroic.
But director Roland Emmerich and his team of screenwriters did not do anything remotely efficient or logical in crafting Independence Day: Resurgence. There is a subplot involving Judd Hirsch’s character, Julius Levinson, the father of Goldblum’s David, meeting up with some scared children who were victims of the aliens’ attack on the East Coast. They get in a car to drive to Area 51, where David and the rest of the principle characters are staging the final battle. The relationships that grow on that road trip are rote and overly simplistic, but that’s par for the course for the movie. It’s the other side of the the situation that makes one’s brain hurt. Now, a Roland Emmerich disaster fest should not be expected to be the height of human logic, but it should at least try to get out of its own way. Julius is in his boat in the Atlantic Ocean outside of New York City when the aliens attack, washing him ashore in what may or may not be Washington DC, where he meets the kids driving their parents’ car. As is pointed out by another subplot, the aliens are trying to drill to the planet’s core, a process that we are told will take seven hours. That means Julius and the kids make it across the country amid panicked traffic jams in less than seven hours, even though it is pointed out how slowly Julius is driving. Again, this probably should not be a deal breaker, but it begins to feel like the movie is piling on its irritations deliberately.
Doubly frustrating for anyone watching the movie, Emmerich and company did not seem to care much about creating memorable action set pieces to carry the audience to the finish line. For as hokey as it was to have the aliens target the world’s most iconic landmarks in the first movie, at least that provided a sense of geography. In this sequel, Emmerich’s action scenes are nothing more than blobs and blocks flying across the screen in nondescript locations. The moon looks like a gray desert, the interior of the alien mothership is too dark to look like anything other than wet blackness, and the climax takes place in a flat, actual desert. These sequences look like mockups of action moments to be fleshed out at a later date.
To their credit, though, Emmerich and editor Adam Wolfe resist the urge to present the action in terms of pure chaos. Shots hold for longer than one may expect in a modern action film, and Emmerich often pulls the camera back to show the entirety of an object or person/alien to give a sense of scale. The film’s action failings are based in concept and design rather than technical execution. This does not make up for the lackluster action sequences, but it also shows that Independence Day: Resurgence is not an irredeemable disaster for action filmmaking.
It’s just really bad.