‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ Is ‘Bigger Than the Last One,’ But Falls Short: Review
I was seven years old when my mom and dad took me to see Independence Day in the summer of 1996. I remember my popcorn, Peanut M&Ms and Coca Cola, and the fact that I sat right in-between my parents, and that I didn't quite get what Vivica A. Fox's character did for a living. I also remember not being able to sleep that night as I listened to the cars pass outside my bedroom window, certain that a frightening alien invasion was imminent.
Like Twister, Armageddon and Jurassic Park, I remember my '96 theater excursion so vividly because, well, I was probably way too young to see it at the time and it scared the hell out of me. And just like the aforementioned films, plus others like The Day After Tomorrow, Men in Black and Volcano, it compounded my adoration for big, goofy, delightfully absurd popcorn disaster movies. But nothing ever came close to the Roland Emmerich flick starring Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum, a dumb film favorite I still watch every time it's on TV — and twenty years later, nothing ever will.
The stakes were high when the first trailers arrived for Independence Day: Resurgence, the long-awaited sequel to Emmerich's campy, semi-iconoclastic original. It's been twenty years, the promos would emphasize, a fact that both excited and concerned me as a fan. After all, the '90s were a very specific beast, an era where cinematic cheese could peacefully exist and entertain us in a way in which box office returns wouldn't be interrupted by critical scoffing, unbelievable premises, silly effects or — worse — social media. How would Part 2 really work in 2016, I wondered?
The first sign of trouble was the announcement of Smith's absence. One of Hollywood's bona fide lingering "movie stars," Smith arguably propelled Independence Day into the stratosphere upon its release. Not because he was yet a star — this would be his first major film role following his work on TV's The Fresh Prince — but because he had the It Factor, a mysterious and inimitable quality that few and far between possess.
He provided levity to the story, as well as an emotional anchor. He was the action hero the film required and the heartthrob it deserved. Alas, after Fox refused to meet his $50 million salary demand for the sequel, he opted out — or so the reports claim — and his character Steven Hiller was written off as dead, unceremoniously killed during a test flight off-screen.
And so Resurgence attempts, with all its might, to recapture that magic; to manufacture that irresistible rising star power with two wild cards: Liam Hemsworth's charming, reckless space flyboy, Jake Morrison, and Jessie Usher's hunky, responsible caption of the Earth Space Defense program, Dylan Dubrow-Hiller, who is also the stepson of Smith's character from the original.
Unfortunately, neither of the two actors come close to filling Smith's space boots, both lacking the veteran actor's personal appeal and ability. And sharing a tired plot-line that doesn't seem to have much purpose or pay-off — Dylan is angry that Jake almost got him killed during a test flight, but wouldn't it have been more impactful to make Jake's recklessness the reason Captain Steven Hiller was killed? — only adds to their uselessness in the story. If anything, their inclusion feel more like a bid to provide a little eye candy, some strained comedy and a reason for teenage girls to buy tickets.
Even plot narratives which are set up for redemption are lost in space. An African warlord (Deobia Oparei) who lost his brother in the previous alien battle cries vengeance, but we never see him achieve it emotionally. Julius Levinson (Judd Hirsch), the father of David Levinson (Goldblum) and now the author of How I Saved the World, has become a washed-up old man whose book tour circuit includes stops at retirement homes, but we never see him reclaim his well-earned glory, save for impressing a handful of kids. Even fighter pilot Jake, whose impulsive, daredevil antics have reeked havoc for the ESD and almost got Dylan killed, never faces any true consequences or learns any true lessons about responsibility. There is no growth, no redemption for anyone.
Another big problem with Resurgence is that while the original film focused on its characters and their development and relationships with one another, this one doesn't allow any such luxuries. There's no slow build-up, no time to spend getting to know the new characters or to re-familiarize ourselves with the original gang, like Bill Pullman's tormented President Whitmore or Goldblum's underutilized genius. Instead, the two-hour movie feels like it passes at warp-speed, leaving no opportunity to really grasp the gravity of what's occurring on-screen or between the many, many characters, so it's almost impossible to become invested in anyone or anything.
The first film paced itself: There was a sense of foreboding and enough time to spend with each core character so that you got to understand their personal plights, their motivations (other than, you know, survival), and their interpersonal relationships — the tension between David and President Whitmore; the strain between David and his father, Julius; the fear of losing one another that drove Steven and his girlfriend, Fox's Jasmine (an exotic dancer in the first film and now a hospital administrator), through impossible odds.
Now, there are some areas in the film in which progress is made, like the reveal that Dr. Brakish Okun (Brent Spiner), the quirky Area 51 scientist from the first film who awakens after a twenty-year coma in the sequel, is gay and has a loving partner, Dr. Isaacs, who has been visiting him daily for two decades. Their relationship is sweet and interesting, and their "gayness" is not treated like tokenism, nor a bid for comedy (though they are amusing characters), but simply a welcome effort to inject diversity into the film.
Unfortunately, viewers are let down tremendously when one of them dies towards the end of the movie — by an interstellar gunshot wound, no less, a cringe-inducing parallel to recent events that may have been better left on the cutting room floor. The tragedy is fleeting and unnecessary, immediately undoing all the good that their inclusion had achieved over the course of 120 minutes.
Women are also given the short end of the stick in Resurgence. The representation of female characters in the film is promising at first, with women playing more empowered roles: There is a powerful and committed woman president (played by Sela Ward), a young Chinese ESD lieutenant and pilot who is touted as being the best in her class (played by Angelababy), and a psychiatrist who is researching alien linguistics (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg).
However, these promises fall short in epic letdowns, with the president being killed off, the Chinese lieutenant being treated like the punchline in a bad pick-up, and the psychiatrist serving more as a needless love interest to Goldblum's David than a key player in the plot, despite her expertise. Thanks, but no thanks.
Similarly, many of the original characters' appearances, while refreshing and welcome, are sadly treated more like winking cameos than fully fleshed-out roles, with much of the movie devoted to trying to convince the audience that they'll totally want to see Hemsworth kick alien butt again in ID3. Unfortunately, the film forgets to give us anything to invest in with these newcomers, leaving us with the empty exoskeletons of characters which could have been interesting but simply aren't.
But all is not completely lost with Resurgence, which features some breathtaking effects, cool alien designs and a threat which is much bigger, much nastier, and much more hopelessly formidable than the previous. In this one, the mothership is nearly the side of a continent as it spreads across the Atlantic, but not before picking up Asia and dropping it onto Europe in a scene that is jaw-dropping despite going by too fast and being brushed over in the story. (Billions of people just died and countless cultures were just lost, so maybe take a minute to like, you know, acknowledge that?)
Sure, there are a number of cute nods to the first film — a throwback quote here and there, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the iconic destruction of the White House and scenes that play out almost identically to the original. But the sequel lacks any of the heart and energy that made the 1996 movie so damn fun, and it tries so hard to cram so much in that it ends up with a watered-down mess of laser explosions, blink-and-you'll-miss-them plot expositions and disposable characters whose names I can't even remember, nor care to. So why bother?
They say that the bigger they are, the harder they fall, and this is no more apparent than in Independence Day: Resurgence, a big, hulking film which is so focused on cashing in on nostalgia that it forgets honor any of the things that made viewers sentimental for the first one. While Independence Day, which is by no means a good film, remains my guilty pleasure, its disappointing sequel only left me with guilt for convincing myself that maybe, just maybe, it could live up to the magic of its predecessor.
As Randy Quaid's heroic, paranoid pilot Russell Casse from the first film would say, "In the words of my generation... up yours!"