REVIEW: Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

You ever reunite with an old friend you haven’t seen in years? You pull up to your chosen rendezvous – the nearest Denny’s (home of the Independence Day: Resurgence Red, White & Bacon Menu – Denny’s: Resurge Your Digestive System) – and squint in the dark of the back parking lot, where the local youths smoke bad weed, to see which of the two cars is occupied. The Chevy with a broken taillight and a sun-scorched smiley face antenna topper is empty, meaning your friend must belong to the sleek Toyota with the Coexist bumper sticker. They step out. Same as you remember, just with a few more lines in their sketch. You hug, you smile, you walk in before Hal, the dishwasher on a break, joins the conversation. As expected at this ungodly hour, Denny’s is a ghost town. You’re seated quickly by Charlotte, who wears the weary service industry grin like it’s part of her uniform. The both of you order coffee. Simple, warm, familiar. The obvious opening question – “So how are you?” – comes on schedule. You respond fast and vague – no need for gory detail before the creamer’s even hit the table. You ask in return – “How about you?” They tantalize you with what must be the most exciting thing to happen in the years since you last saw each other, if not also including the years together. But that story involves faces, dive bars and controlled substances far beyond your feeble imagination and feebler social circle. This story requires explanation. It requires a prologue, a series of prologues. So your friend starts on the first, racing through it to the next with the promise that the actual story, what comes later, is absolutely worth it. Names mix together, become irrelevant.   No encounter is retold with any of the inherent drama the situations seem to require. They forget to bring the secret agent back into the story at the proper point. You try to ask questions, but they say to hold on – it gets better. Minutes turn to hours. Charlotte leaves the empty mugs at the table; there’s no reason to rush them into the dish washer. The table is a ceramic graveyard, at least on your half – your friend hasn’t even finished their first.  The restaurant is in no threat of closing – that’s the tragic beauty of a Denny’s – but you’re tired. You have work in the morning. You yawn, you rub your eyes, you crack the bones in your neck and wince at the sound. But your friend keeps talking. Until they pause. No – they stop. They look at their coffee, take a hesitant sip and smile with stale satisfaction. “That should be all you need to know,” they say. Your ears perk, but the rest of you is on the verge of collapse. They notice. “But we’ll have to save the rest for next time.”  They check themselves for a wallet – no dice. They’ve forgotten it. You pay for the both of you and the both of you leave.  By the next morning, you’ve forgotten more of their story than you remember and you doubt you’ll see them soon enough to make use of it, if you ever see them again at all.

That story, the rushed-yet-bloated mess of only half-connected preludes to something grand and worth the wait, is Independence Day: Resurgence.  How much you’ll get out of it depends entirely on how badly you want to see that friend again.

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And if your body can take it.

In the 20 years since Earth’s Independence Day (and America’s second, for those counting), all nations have banded together in unprecedented unity and employed the alien technology to make the world downright utopian.  If you can buy that, that an alien invasion dissolved all international tensions forever and ever amen, then you should be able to handle the rest of the movie. We put a laser base on the moon. The president’s a woman. Everything flies.  Resurgence cuts all the futuristic corners immediately. That’s not to say a woman in the White House is lazy science fiction – it’s just a lazy way to show the audience how progressive the future is.  What is insulting is how little they let the female president do and the fact that within the year, it (God willing) won’t be fiction at all.

You’ve probably figured out by now that the movie’s about the aliens coming back. Resurging, if you will. Well unlike the original, where it takes a while for the aliens to really show up and make an impression/crater, everything in this movie not only happens fast, it’s usually already just happened.

A crashed ship from the first movie flickers back to life mysteriously. I would imagine mysteriously. We don’t actually see that. We see Jeff Goldblum be informed of it having happened a few days before. At one point something like a blackhole sucks a vortex of dust off the moon. We don’t get to watch the first grains sift and tumble. We don’t get to wonder what is invisibly clawing at the surface, unnoticed by the astronauts in their base. We only see it once Will Smith’s character’s son notices people hurrying past his room and follows them. There’s already a full-fledged lunar tornado by the time he catches up.  Independence Day: Resurgence is in such a dead heat to get to the trailer shots, it forgets to make us care who’s stuck in them.

 

Resurgence is the most impatient summer blockbuster I’ve ever seen. In the first twenty minutes, we’ve caught up to Jeff Goldblum in Africa, learned of his tax problems (so bad, they send an annoying agent to follow him to Africa, then on to space and back again; by the end of the flick, he’s supposed to be something of a hero), run into an old flame of his, met a local warlord, followed that unlikely team into a downed (but recently rebooted) alien ship, learned that the aliens sent a distress signal in 1996 (that was found out about shortly after the first movie), somehow deciphered parts of their language, watched as a different alien threat arrives on the moon, watched again as Madam President (the movie’s choice of title) elected to blast the threat out of the sky, wondered how Not-Thor Hemsworth knew Goldblum would want him to steal a spacetug (and pick him (and company) up from Africa to explore the crash site on the moon, gasped as a possible new alien race has been discovered and finally nod as the old aliens show up again because the movie almost breathed for a second and we were almost worried.  That’s just Goldblum’s story. You also have to keep tabs on Madam President, former-president Pullman, former-president Pullman’s daughter, Will Smith’s son, Hemsworth the Lesser, Hemsworth’s wide-eyed best friend, the Chinese hot-shot pilot and her stern commander father and Brent Spiner’s miraculous revival from a twenty-year coma.  A character dies late in the film and their parting line is clearly supposed to be a moment of triumphant sacrifice, an emotional high. But the line is almost truncated by an explosion, which flows into more dog-fighting and smart people scrambling to make dumb decisions. I thought they were still alive because of how it was edited. The set-up was rushed and no time left for it to land.  It had to be a fake-out. I suppose this is a spoiler, but nope – actually dead.

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This happens before the halfway point.

The movie’s breathlessly paced. But not drag racing breathless, drowning breathless. The only actors not lost at sea are the returning vets. Jeff Goldblum doesn’t play David Levinson so much as the modern pop cultural image of Jeff Goldblum. Even though he’s quite literally seen most of this before, he’s bug-eyed and stammering in just about every scene.  He’s charming as a fox streaked with Touch of Gray (For Men) and twice as lithe whenever he doesn’t have to be shocked, which amounts to two scenes or so. Jeff Goldblum headlining a summer blockbuster is rarer than it once was, and Resurgence scratches that itch, but you’ll wish the movie let him do something other than gawk more often. Bill Pullman manages to give the movie most of the little heart it has. And yes – he gives another speech, though this time it’s almost comically shoved in. Brent Spiner is the designated comedic relief in a movie that treats everyone like comedic relief. He even has a boyfriend, who is in the original, but given no lines (in the theatrical cut). The problem is we almost have no indication they’re anything but old colleagues with a begrudging respect for one another. By no means should this movie (or any) make anyone a stereotype to highlight a homosexual relationship – it’s a relationship like any other – but because it was so completely downplayed, most of the emotional beats come as a surprise or a complete whiff. Spiner’s character has been in a coma since the first movie and we find him in Area 51’s sickbay, in a sterile room lined with plants. His boyfriend always brings him new plants and waters them. He even knits a little scarf for him. That’s a lovely introduction for both characters. But it’s written like the boyfriend is just the doctor assigned to this coma patient and he’s taken pity on the poor bastard.  We find out at the end that they’re together, but that doesn’t retroactively make us feel for this scene. It’s that old friend forgetting to add in a glaringly large detail until long-after it matters.  Judd Hirsch is a delight. The movie really doesn’t need him or his subplot and he damn well knows it.  Even Robert Loggia, in what would sadly be his final role, gets a cameo and a satisfying glare at Pullman.

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And if your body can take it.

Everyone else is lost at sea.  The women flounder the fastest. None of them are given the slightest to do and reek of last minute changes by the five credited writers to even the teams.  Madam President, played by Golden Globe-winner Sela Ward, makes a wrong decision, a quick speech and is swiftly brushed aside. Amusingly, Susan Sarandon was offered the part but she turned it down on the grounds she had no idea what was going on in the script. Maika Monroe, who’s turned in stellar work in the one-two horror punch of The Guest and It Follows, plays Pullman’s daughter and primarily gets to show concern. Like her dad, she is also a part-time pilot, but she gets precious little time to fly (literally and figuratively). Charlotte Gainsbourg, who won Best Actress at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, gets one scene to flirt with Jeff Goldblum, another to kiss him and a scant few in between to study alien linguistics. But this is a movie already overstuffed with experts on aliens, so her character never manages to rise above the sinking feeling that she was created from a surplus of Goldblum and Spiner lines.  Vivica Fox, the only returning woman, is almost treated like a punchline. Hemsworth and Will Smith, Jr. have more heavy lifting in the plot, but do so with the grace and charm of a pair of car jacks.  William Fichtner and DeObia Oparei are about the only newcomers to earn your attention when they show up.

I didn’t mention Angelababy, a Chinese singer who plays the aforementioned hot-shot pilot, because I have to give the movie credit for managing to play its hand smoothly. Right now, according to Box Office Mojo, Independence Day: Resurgence has grossed about $250 million dollars. Only 30% of that came from the United States. Such is the economy of a blockbuster in 2016.  One of the biggest if not the biggest foreign markets is China. It’s powerful enough to turn a domestic disaster (Terminator: Genisys) into a worldwide hit (only 20% of its $440 million gross came from the United States).  This has led to a trend/necessary evil of filmmakers teaming up with Chinese companies and reworking scripts to take partial place in China as a means to pack their cinemas. That’s how a movie like Independence Day: Resurgence ends up with a Chinese pop star as a main character. But it makes sense within the movie. That’s more than can be said for most of the recent Chinese-funded blockbusters.  Considering the world is in perfect harmony after the War of ’96, the Earth Space Defense is a multi-cultural, multi-national organization. It may be faint praise considering all the fumbles this movie makes, but I was pleasantly surprised at how organically it worked.

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One of his two appearances, both of which feel like apologies.

A lot of reviews note the obvious absence of Will Smith and mourn the lack of Big-Willie-Style on display. The original made him a star. It would’ve been great to see him return, but this movie isn’t broken because he’s not in it – it’s broken because nobody gets to do as much as he got to do. There is no star-making part in this movie, or even one to match what the returning actors were allowed to do last time. At least The Lost World: Jurassic Park let Jeff Goldblum take the wheel entirely. This movie isn’t so confident in his running-jumping-falling down credentials and it suffers on account.

Like the original Independence DayResurgence is an exaggerated reflection of its time. Gone are the superlative animatronics and elaborate miniatures (which allegedly gave the original the record for most miniature work in a single movie). Gone is the cast of big league character actors let loose to make their mark and the up-and-coming stars allowed to run away with any scene they can get their hands on. Gone is the judicious use of confident CGI and the colorful world it expands. Gone is the reckless sense of fun.  In Resurgence, in 2016, we get an eye-glazing barrage of weightless destruction. We get scenes supposedly set outside in very much material locations that still manage to look like YouTube How-To videos on simple green screen compositing. We get a desaturated cast of young square pegs with pretty faces Hollywood is dead-set on hammering through round holes.  We get a movie that wants its mass (off-screen) casualties to be taken seriously but also makes two separate pee jokes. And we get an abrupt ending that doesn’t bother dealing with the fallout of what came before because it promises a sequel that’ll be even bigger.

I didn’t hate it, mind you.  Any Jeff Goldblum is good Jeff Goldblum. Same goes for Pullman. It’s not as indulgently self-serious as some recent blockbusters. It very much wants to be fun and it manages to be, almost in spite of itself. Despite having five credited writers, it feels first-drafty in the same way Jurassic World did. Characters make jokey callbacks to lines that other characters said in earlier scenes they weren’t even around for.  Even though (spoilers if you’re an idiot) we stop the aliens, anyone who’s ever passed a high school science class should realize what they did to the Earth is probably still catastrophic. If you stop to think about anything for more than few second, it’ll break like wet tissue paper. But the movie barrels ahead like a runaway spacetug to make sure you don’t have time to question it.

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By the end it just looks like Star Fox.

Popcorn entertainment at its most mindless with the modern arrogance of being homework to a better sequel that might never be made.

At this point I’d like to hear my old friend’s story, but only because I’ve put in the time hearing the set-up.

Whether or not you want to meet your old friend at Denny’s in the first place is the real question, and I’d suggest really considering just how good the good ol’ days were before answering.

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