Independence Day has never made the list of my all-time favorite movies, though perhaps it should have. That list is usually reserved for films that have had a profound impact on me, or which speak to a very specific and often under-served aspect of who I am. I can’t say that Independence Day fits either of those categories but, in addition to being one of the movies I’ve watched the most, I feel a connection to it in other ways. In my mind, it is the pinnacle of a particular style and era of filmmaking, which rose and fell in the 1990s and was epitomized by a sense of fun, visual effects designed to entertain as much as impress, a “go all in” type of commitment to the movie, and a penchant for the film wearing its heart on its sleeve. And while nostalgia certainly plays a role in reflecting on 12-year-old me seeing Independence Day for the first time 20 years ago, the truth is that my appreciation and devotion the film has only grown through the years through constant exposure. I can honestly say that while Independence Day will probably never make my list of all-time favorites, my emotional bond with it is as strong as any other film I might put at the top of any list. But this article isn’t a love song to Independence Day, but rather a review of Independence Day: Resurgence. I just wanted to make sure you know where I’m coming from when I say that while Resurgence may have its moments and it isn’t as bad as I feared it might be, on the whole it’s a disappointing and occasionally infuriating mess.
Humanity has rebuilt in the 20 years following the “War of 1996”, uniting together as a planet and using recovered alien technology to enhance their defenses in case of another attack. The heroes who fought off the aliens decades ago have become legends, but while David Levinson has become the head of Earth Space Defense, former President Whitmore spends his days as a recluse, tormented by nightmares thanks to the psychic link he shared with the hive mind. Meanwhile a new generation has risen up to take the reins, including children of the old heroes Patricia Whitmore, who is an aide to the new President while helping to care for her father, and Dylan Dubrow-Hiller, a pilot and the adopted son of legendary flying ace Steve Hiller, who lost his life in the time since the war while testing new alien-inspired aircraft. As the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the war approaches, David discovers new evidence that the original invasion force was attempting to drill into the Earth’s core before they were ultimately defeated, while a planned fly-by on the moon brings Dylan back into contact with Jake Morrison, a disgraced pilot now flying a maintenance tug who has a bad history with Dylan and who happens to be Patricia’s fiancé.
As the festivities are set to begin, it becomes clear that major events are imminent. The recurrence of a strange symbol, a series of visions by those who connected with the aliens, old alien tech powering up, an old familiar face emerging from a 20 year coma, restless alien prisoners, and finally the appearance of a new, mysterious spaceship from a wormhole all point to an forthcoming attack by humanity’s old foes. But once the aliens do return, this time in one massive ship the size of a continent, it becomes clear that despite all of their planning humanity is still woefully unprepared. As destruction once again starts raining down around them, heroes from around the world must find a way out if they can have any hope of striking back. And once they do it’ll be a race against the clock as the old veterans team up with the new young guns to find a way to once again defy impossible odds and win the day.
Independence Day: Resurgence does quite a few things right, making it all the more frustrating how poorly it turned out. Director Roland Emmerich and his writing partner Dean Devlin have reunited much of the original cast of Independence Day, including Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsch, Brent Spiner, Vivica A. Fox, and even Robert Loggia in his final onscreen appearance following his death in December. The new characters are filled with a variety of familiar faces such as William Fichtner, Sela Ward, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Liam Hemsworth, along with lesser-known actors like Jessie Usher, Deobia Oparei, and Maika Monroe. The cast are generally game, though with so many characters few of them get a chance to shine. Goldblum almost single-handedly carries the film, picking up the slack left in Will Smith’s absence (the potential payday was not high enough for Smith, supposedly), while Pullman has his moments as the tortured former leader who still has some fight left in him. Brent Spiner has a much bigger role this time around, and provides a lot of the film’s laughs. Even the young guns, clearly intended to eventually take over for older actors in the event of future sequels, do just fine, even if they’re given very little to work with.
It’s clear that Emmerich and company have put a lot of thought into what the world would look like 20 years after successfully fending off a devastating alien invasion. From the broad strokes about how technology and government would have advanced, to small details like a rebuilt Washington Monument covered in the names of the dead, the first half-hour of the film gives us an interesting look at a setting we don’t generally see onscreen in science fiction movies: the reconstruction period. I would have loved for Resurgence to explore this new Earth more fully and give us a look at how different parts of the planet have evolved differently following their own unique experiences fighting off the aliens. Instead, it’s all abandoned in the name of bigger, louder cinematic destruction. People may have criticized Independence Day 20 years ago for sacrificing storytelling for spectacle, but Resurgence makes its predecessor look like the model of restraint. Resurgence incorrectly assumes that what people liked most about the original film was the effects, and so it quickly throws plot, character, and the universe it designed out the window in order to throw as much CG at us as possible.
There’s an inherent flaw in modern blockbuster filmmaking when it comes to visual effects: everything has become so effortless that spectacle ceases to amaze. We’ve come to accept that anything a writer or director can dream up is possible onscreen, so the wow-factor is lacking. 20 years ago, Independence Day was filmed with a variety of models, practical effects, and detailed sets all spiced up with computer effects for things that were otherwise impossible to do, and it won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects as a result (unfairly beating Twister, but that’s another story). But while the effects in Resurgence may look more detailed, realistic, and believable, they no longer impress. I don’t mean to downplay the tireless work of the visual effects artists on this or any film, but with a film like Independence Day you can really feel the effort it took to get those shots onscreen, while in Resurgence the visuals feel so much like everything else we see every weekend on the big screen that it all becomes kind of pointless.
Where Resurgence really falls apart, however, is its storytelling. As a filmmaking endeavor it’s so obsessed with being bigger than the first film that it loses all suspense, excitement, or even context. A 3,000-mile-wide spaceship may sound impressive, but when it’s large enough that it covers seemingly 1/3 of the planet it ceases to have any grounding in reality and thus does not make for a compelling threat. It may sound cool on paper to see the Burj Khalifa (from Dubai) dropped in the middle of London, but the mental gymnastics required to buy into that are beyond what even the most forgiving of moviegoers (and I’m one among that group) can accept. To turn this threat into something humanity can fight requires unexpected plot twists, more than one deus ex machina (dei ex machina?), and fortuitous timing so unbelievable that it becomes comedic, not to mention the exposition required to explain all of this. But the worst part of the story is that there’s just no drama in it. We know the formula by now, so we know most of the characters will survive the initial onslaught, but even later story beats are so obvious that there’s no surprise in them. It never feels like the characters are in danger, and the literal ticking clock our characters are racing adds no tension to the proceedings, because it’s only there to be stopped at the last possible moment.
But what’s even worse about Resurgence are some of the downright insulting decisions that were made in its production. There were five main surviving characters at the end of Independence Day. Will Smith declined to return and thus Steve Hiller was written out, and that’s fine. But of the remaining four, the two men have big parts in Resurgence while the women were mostly ignored. Margaret Colin’s Constance, the ex-wife of Jeff Goldblum’s David, isn’t mentioned at all and doesn’t exist in the new film, so instead David is given a new, younger romantic interest. And Vivica A. Fox may be back, but she is in literally two scenes, adding up to less than five minutes. And even worse is what they did to Patricia Whitmore. While I can understand Dylan, Will Smith’s adopted son in the first film, being recast this time around as the actor who played him as a child is not currently working in the business, that excuse can’t be used for the President’s daughter, Patricia. Mae Whitman, who played Patrica 20 years ago, is not only still working but is a well-known and successful actress in both movies and on TV, but she’s been replaced by Maika Monroe. The reason for this is obvious, as Monroe is both younger and more conventionally “hotter” than Whitman, tall and blonde vs short and dark-haired. Mae Whitman is beautiful and talented, but because she doesn’t fit some ridiculous and arbitrary standard she is replaced without even being offered a chance at the role. It’s absolutely infuriating. Additionally Emmerich, who is gay, included a gay couple in the film, which is a great step for blockbusters of this sort, except that at no point do they ever make an overt reference to their relationship, say “I love you,” kiss, or do anything that would confirm they are a gay couple. Presumably this makes the film easier to edit into something which will play better in more conservative territories. Add in the role played by Angelababy, a Chinese model/actress/singer, which is so one-dimensional her defining attributes are her beauty and the fact that she’s Chinese (complete with a Chinese flag in the background to hammer this home), who was seemingly only included to help the film sell well in China, and you’ve got a recipe for one of the most disappointing productions in recent memory. There’s been a trend in sexist blockbusters lately, but Resurgence goes above and beyond what’s come before in the way those behind the scenes chose to put it together.
There’s a lot more I could complain about with Resurgence, like the annoying cowardly accountant character who gets a heroic arc for no apparent reason, but I think you get the point. Independence Day: Resurgence is just a mess. It super-sized the wrong parts of the original film, wasting a strong cast and interesting universe in the name of “bigger and louder”. It makes basic storytelling mistakes at every turn to the point where at times it barely functions, and it is downright insulting and infuriating in some of its production decisions. And yet, when the old, familiar melody of its theme music plays, or when a favorite character does something that feels just right, or when there’s a rousing speech, Resurgence can still get this fan’s heart going. It’s a mark of my undying love for Independence Day that I still managed to get some enjoyment out of Resurgence, despite its many faults. I doubt the average movie-goer would find it compelling, interesting, or memorable, but from time to time it has just the slightest morsel of goodness for the hardcore fan to enjoy. And even objectively speaking, it is far from the worst film I’ve seen this year. Resurgence ends on a horribly transparent set-up for a sequel, but based on its opening weekend at the box office that appears unlikely. A part of me is sad to see the potential franchise die like this, going out on such a sour note despite such untapped potential, but the rest of me is happy they won’t be able to run the series even further into the ground. And on this July 4th, I know that I’ll be watching the original Independence Day as I do every year, this time while happily ignoring what came after.