WASHINGTON, July 24, 2016 – “Independence Day: Resurgence” (20th Century Fox) is a film that was so close to being something different. Its opening sequence takes place almost exactly 20 years after the first “Independence Day” – exactly like its cinematic counterpart – with an evolved Earth and with both interesting and frustrating characteristics.
The world in this sequence is celebrating the anniversary of that horrendous day two decades earlier when aliens almost extinguished the human race extinct. But ominously, during the festivities, former President Whitmore’s (Bill Pullman’s) rallying speech— the one that spurred humanity into defending their planet—is now being received light years distant by various out-of-this-world parties, including the eventual invasion force.
Aside from seeing the opening scrawl of Whitmore’s speech as it travels through the cosmos, this opening set-up is a fascinating launch point for the current film. As fans of the original will remember, after the first war against an alien populace that’s never actually named, the Earth was left utterly ravaged. In fact, a major plot point of the first “Independence Day” focused on just how much of the planet’s major population centers were destroyed.
Balancing this at least to some extent, Earth’s survivors had gained possession of some advanced alien technologies and still had enough of a right-thinking and loyal leadership establishment to spearhead the long journey back. [For every turn though, the movie takes something an unnecessary shortcut that not only undercuts the potential depth of the film’s narrative but also almost insulting from a visual standpoint.]
The most iconic visual in the original “Independence Day” was the panorama of alien spaceships flying over the world’s major cities and then promptly destroying the treasured landmark in each, along with pretty much everything else within a 20-mile radius. With this scene, “Independence Day” (The Original) defined the concept of “disaster porn” better than just about any movie since.
It’s easy to assume that this concept is woven into the DNA of the original film as well as any franchise film that might follow. But the “Independence Day” saga isn’t actually a franchise. As much as people liked the first movie, for whatever reason, its successor isn’t really the kind of movie where audience expectations are set in stone.
The main reason for this: there’s really not a fan base for this would-be franchise, unlike the very real and vociferous fan bases that exist for other Sci-Fi films. There’s not an undercurrent of mythology or even a cinematic tradition, save, perhaps, for the sense that in seeing an “Independence Day” film, we’re somehow viewing an updated cinematic version of Orson Welles’ notorious radio drama, “War of the Worlds.” Given that Welles’ masterpiece was unique in and of itself, and because the original “Independence Day” recalled it so effectively, however, no one was really clamoring for a sequel to the 1996 movie.
So, why did the current “Resurgence” film crew even go back to the original well for this sequel? Despite the introduction of advanced technology over the two decades that followed Earth’s near-destruction, including a base on the moon and hints of something manmade and sophisticated now circling Saturn, the actual Earth of 2016 looks exactly the same as the 1996 version. Though nearly everything recognizable had been razed 20 years previously, all that contemporary humanity has accomplished in this film’s universe since then is a rebuilt edition of the planet that looks exactly same way it did before the aliens leveled it.
This simple fact demonstrates just how devoid of actual creativity this movie is, in spite of its intriguing opening sequence. Yes, the new film shows us that the human race has colonized the moon, suggesting an urge by humanity to expand beyond its earthly borders. Yet early in the film, when the moon base is approached by what seems to be an intergalactic Artificial Intelligence, the story arc makes no attempt to expand its own universe. That’s made abundantly clear when various Earth governments decide to shoot the approaching entity first and ask questions later. We still seem to be in the 1950s world of “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
The closest “Resurgence” comes to approaching new and original ground is when it repurposes events that transpired in the first movie endowing them with new and relatively uncreative spins. What is given more attention in this film is what the aliens are actually doing to the Earth – destroying its core to drain the Earth of its resources or something along those lines – and how they’re actually controlled – they’re a hive mind with a queen. But these are just surface details thrown out in expository dialogue, which lead to nothing really interesting.
The one intriguing new aspect of the film is introduced when we meet Congolese warlord Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei). Umbutu’s people were essentially left alone in the original attack to wage a ground war against the aliens after their ship landed. Considering the film makes such a huge point about the Earth being united and the aliens actually being controlled by a hive mind, it would have been fun if the story had spent a little more time in the Congo rather than making fun of these reasonably astute Congolese warriors.
Oparei is afforded a little more character development than any other character in Independence Day, including the stock characters portrayed by Jeff Goldblum (as dedicated scientist David Levinson) or Bill Pullman who returns to the sequel as now former President Thomas J. Whitmore. Most of that is mainly because Oparei’s character so off the wall compared to just about everyone else in the film that it’s hard not to pay attention to him in the same way as we can’t fail to notice the inclusion of Judd Hirsch as Julius Levinson, David Levinson’s bonkers dad. Both Oparei and Hirsch are so out of place that the audience risks whiplash every time they’re on screen.
But then, the characters in any Roland Emmerich disaster flick are at best tertiary to the primary and secondary focus of his films. Part of the reason why there wasn’t a huge clamoring for a sequel to “Independence Day” (outside of Emmerich himself) is because audiences have been seeing the same Emmerich film again and again to the point where it’s hard to call “Independence Day: Resurgence” an original science fiction thriller at all.
In the typical Roland Emmerich disaster film, everything on camera is destroyed and human life is sacrificed in mass quantities with continuous disaster substituting for narrative weight. When we first saw this in “Independence Day” 1996, film technology had advanced enough that seeing this explosion of mayhem was novel and even extraordinary. Unfortunately, since that time Emmerich has relied on instant replays time and again in “Godzilla,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012,” re-creating essentially the same visuals in each.
There are only so many times an audience can see the identical destructive mayhem in each successive film without falling asleep. You’d think someone would have mentioned this to Emmerich, but apparently no one has done so. So there was no one to stop Emmerich from doing his destruction shtick once again in “Resurgence.”
It doesn’t help that Emmerich even apes the vehicle of destruction from previous films in this one, namely the giant alien mother’s suit (re: Godzilla) and the vague environmental destruction (mostly 2012). This just reinforces how repetitious and desolate this and Emmerich’s other disaster films really are.
By the time “Resurgence” mercifully concludes, Emmerich has telegraphed what was probably his real intention for this film: to make more sequels. Indeed, this film feels utterly cynical particularly when we sense we’ve endured the entire two hours of its duration just to hear Brent Spiner outline how Earth’s scientists and leaders plan to take it to the enemy and rain destruction on other planets.
It’s all frustrating and depressing, because this is probably where the film should have started out the first place. Plus, it soon becomes annoyingly obvious that Emmerich and company feel as if they missed the franchise train when it was hot, back in 1996. They seem in this film to be looking ahead to even more sequels despite the fact that there’s nothing to actually build a franchise on except the utter emptiness of Emmerich’s creative vision.