I wanted Roland Emmerich to bring his unique brand of big, dumb action back to the big screen in 2016. By golly does he deliver it with INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE. He also brings painful scripting (courtesy of four writers, no less), leaden exposition and crippling miscalculations of tone. Let’s take a closer look at what might end up being one of the year’s biggest, funnest flops.
Twenty years after aliens made their presence known and humanity (just) managed to drive back an invasion, the would-be-conquerers from beyond the stars have returned. Only scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), former President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) and a group of talented pilots who were all profoundly and tragically affected by the War of 96 can save their planet again.
The film’s considerable budget is certainly up on screen. Emmerich still loves his painterly action compositions, and there is memorable imagery throughout. The Moon’s surface being sucked into a wormhole; a tidal wave carrying buildings, boats and landmarks past the camera; more landmarks raining down on London’s own landmarks (“They like to get the landmarks”); the shadow of a flying saucer eclipsing a tiny yellow school bus fleeing across salt flats. It’s bold, colourful and creative stuff in extreme contrast with the grey-brown films of Michael Bay and Zack Snyder.
Jeff Goldblum returns as David Levinson, still balancing the awkward confidence of being the smartest guy in the room with borderline despair at mankind’s inevitable doom. He also makes a great noise when he’s scared. Bill Pullman plays a broken, mentally scarred former President Whitmore and Brent Spiner steals the show as the surprisingly-not-dead and still completely batty Dr Okun (the screentime split between these three oldies may surprise you). Liam Hemsworth does his best to bring the snarky charm in the replacement Will Smith role, but sadly Jesse T Usher, who actually plays Hiller’s son, does not seem to possess a teaspoonful of charisma. Maika Monroe makes no impact as the grown up president’s daughter (not entirely her fault, there’s nothing to the character) and Judd Hirsch, though entertaining once again as David’s dad Julius, is asked to be funny at entirely inappropriate moments.
We spend an irritating amount of time being regaled with what has happened in the preceding 20 years. There are frequent reminders of what each character’s primary (alright, let’s not kid ourselves – singular) motivation or special skill is – just in case this happens to come up later. The writers, chiefly Dean Devlin, have the gall to tease us with a far more interesting plot prospect of a ten-year land war between a crashed alien battalion and African mercenaries, but we never get to see it. A late-stage plot turn (following the grin-inducing dunderheaded sight of Dr Okun trying to crack open a mysterious alien object with a powerful laser) promises to turn the film into something else entirely, liberally borrowing visuals and ideas from other sources. Sadly shortly after this we revert to pretty much the same final act as the first film but with a special effects upgrade.
Potential for some interesting ideas is pretty much squandered, with humanity’s adoption of alien tech seemingly resulting in little more than hover trams, bigger guns and fighter jets that can fly in space. The world seems more harmonious since their first tussle with ET, but we get no sense of how large lives of civilians might have changed over two decades. There’s a nice moment with a kid telling Julius his family doesn’t think David ever went to space, that it was all a conspiracy. It goes to show that even after witnessing spaceships the size of countries in their skies, humanity remains a cynical beast.
Relationships get a short shrift as well – David has a new beau in fellow brainbox Catherine (Charlotte Gainsbourg) but no real indication of their history, Jake (Hemsworth) and Patricia (Monroe) share hardly any scenes together. Elsewhere, the much-publicised censoring of Dr Okun’s gay relationship – perhaps to help the film’s release in China – is nothing short of tragic, especially for such a proud champion of LGBT rights as Emmerich. It’s this lack of empathy, of humanity that ultimately makes Independence Day: Resurgence crash. No-one is denying Roland Emmerich remains an artisan of the apocalypse, a craftsman of chaos. Fatally, without the beating heart that was present and correct in the original INDEPENDENCE DAY, the sequel’s many thrills will remain empty ones. SSP