Movie Review - Independence Day: Resurgence
By Ben Gruchow
June 27, 2016

Oh, great. More monument porn.

The least interesting part of this film is the big alien attack. Independence Day: Resurgence provides us with some effective character moments in isolation, a hint of a thematic core, a nice and slow buildup that hits some unexpectedly rich veins of tension, and a wholly involving new character that points us in the direction of a more intriguing sequel concept. These elements are sandwiched around a big, dull, and tentative reprise of the first film; it's fan-service nostalgia at its most blandly competent. Then the final reel kicks in and the movie becomes wildly, goofily fun for about ten minutes or so. It's all a gigantic mess.

If you'll remember, the 1996 original navigated a cross-section of '90s-era market-tested Humanity in the midst of an invasion by frill-headed, exoskeleton-clad aliens in massive ships. These aliens positioned themselves over the world's major landmarks (and by extension, most of its major cities), and blasted most of them to smithereens. It was the second film by Roland Emmerich, who has made a career out of splicing cinema's most dubious scientific principles with urban destruction at jaw-dropping scale. Why he and co-creator Dean Devlin devoted such tenacity to revisiting this corner of their filmography, even unto a sequel at least 15 years past its sell-by date, isn't that hard to guess: Emmerich likes making movies with a big U.S. nationalist spirit; other nations are allowed to sit at the table, but only at the sides. Combine this with the numerous instances in the last couple of years that have (or have purported to) test/define our national identity, and you have a playing field that welcomes the concept of an Independence Day sequel with open arms.

The sequel that came into being reflects that heavily glossed, Emmerich-ized style of political references - which is to say that it basically takes a look at headlines and public figures now and applies those headlines and figures to the characters and story, with some basic good or bad character traits thrown in based on whatever the cultural narrative is. This one gives us a female President (Sela Ward), plus rudimentary references to preemptive strikes, refugees, tactical versus guerrilla warfare, and Western culture merging with Eastern culture, particularly China. The movie also features a well-known Chinese actress (Angelababy), and contains lines of dialogue so obviously intended to aid the film in the Chinese market that I'd think it was an act of meta-commentary, if the script wasn't dumb as a post in every other respect.

We're also given a new trio of leads, all of them the grown children of parents killed or otherwise inconvenienced by the original attack. There is Dylan (Jessie Usher), son of Will Smith's Captain Hiller from the first film, and Patricia Whitmore (Maika Monroe) as the former President's daughter and a totally needless replacement of the original's Mae Whitman. We also have Liam Hemsworth and Travis Tope as Jake and Charlie of the Earth-Space Defense, deployed on the moon as the movie starts.

Jake and Patricia are part of a long-distance relationship, I guess, although this strikes one of several shaky notes the movie has in regard to human relationships; on the basis of on-screen chemistry alone, he clearly belongs with Charlie. This would deprive the filmmakers of their opportunity to court the Chinese market with a budding relationship between Charlie and Angelababy's Rain Yao, though. Dylan keeps up contact with his mother, played by a returning Vivica A. Fox; since Will Smith could not be persuaded to return, his character has been killed off. Meanwhile, President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) and David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) are getting uneasy early warning signs that a distress call sent out by the aliens in 1996, at our moment of victory, has been received.

Some of these characters live, and some of them do not, and none of it really matters all that much; since we have bought a ticket to a film called “Independence Day: Resurgence,” we do indeed know before the characters do that the aliens will make their reappearance. Since this is a Roland Emmerich film, we know that it will happen in a way that features lots of monuments and landmarks and entire seaboards being blown up, flooded, and collapsed in grand fashion. What's surprising is how little of that resurgence there actually is, and how indifferently it's portrayed; the movie prepares for takeoff rather well, all things considered (there are little hints in the background of expository scenes, and the way those hints are slowly foregrounded gives us a nice sense of foreboding build-up), but then the first act concludes and the second act begins and everything just…happens, with no sense of a grand tipping point and no catharsis. It's like following a good sentence to the end, and finding that the author has forgotten to add punctuation before starting the next sentence.

This is unforgiving toward the movie, since the second act is prone to the same lethargy that the first film's second act possessed, with its muddled reading of post-disaster aimlessness and catatonia. Much of this film's middle hour centers on a mysterious spherical object that's recovered from the moon to Area 51, and the relationship the object has with the alien queen. The invading species, we find out, has a colony structure not dissimilar from bees and ants, with many smaller male worker agents serving the interest of a much bigger queen. This is literalized in the form of not only the alien queen herself, but her ship, which is so comically large that it more or less eradicates any sense of scale or awe. It replaces the sky in the shots it appears, and settles over most of the face of the Earth when it lands.

Much of Resurgence is augmented by visual effects, and here again we've traded down; most of the actors are clearly acting against CGI backgrounds, not entirely convincingly. This adds a plastic sheen to scenes that are reaching for impact and character drama, and it robs the movie of any opportunity to let weighty moments make an impact. The odd scenes that do work in this regard, like a backstory-revealing conversation between Jake and Charlie or an emotional moment involving Brent Spiner's Dr. Okun (yes, he's back, and it sort of makes sense, and Spiner gives by far the movie's most committed performance), do so in shots that don't require any effects.

These characters move arbitrarily toward competent scenes of little consequence, and then the movie arrives at its final set piece in the last 15 minutes or so and Emmerich seems to find his footing. The effects are better, but it's mostly a willingness to suddenly yank at every goofy plot mechanic he could that finally lets us glimpse what the movie could have been. It's fun, but it comes too late. Another opportunity shows itself in the new character of Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei), a warlord whose forces have spent the last ten years fighting the aliens one-on-one using guerrilla warfare in the Congo. This character, and his methods and motivation, are singlehandedly the most conceptually interesting thing in the film, and I would have liked to see a sequel set during those ten years.

I still sort of liked the movie, in a way, or at least didn't much mind the experience of watching it; no, Independence Day: Resurgence is not very good, but you know what? Independence Day wasn't very good. Neither was The Day After Tomorrow, or 2012, or Godzilla. Roland Emmerich doesn't make very good movies; he makes ones that are occasionally, enjoyable in a dumb and inoffensive way. It's like the cinematic equivalent of a groaner pun that you chuckle at even as you recognize how bad it is, and it feels churlish to indict this movie on the grounds that it occupies roughly the same wavelength as just about everything else in the director's canon.