Friday, June 24, 2016

Zaki's Review: Independence Day: Resurgence

I was sixteen years old when Independence Day was released in summer of 1996. I was there on opening day. And I loved it. Man, did I love it. I was absolutely exuberant in my reaction and effusive in my praise. And at the risk of revealing a little too much about myself, you can see all of that on display to an embarrassing degree in my vintage review. Now, while I've revised my estimation of that film slightly (read: a lot) downward in the intervening decades, I've always been able to appreciate it for being a well-crafted bit of summer nonsense.

All this preamble is merely to set the stage for the fact that when it came time to watch Independence Day: Resurgence, the belated sequel to one of Hollywood's primordial mega-blockbusters, that sixteen-year-old was at the forefront of my thoughts. And while this might be retroactively giving myself too much credit, I'd like to believe I'd have been pretty unmoved by director Roland Emmerich's long-in-coming follow-up, which ups the spectacle and CGI whiz-bang, but leaves you longing for the (seriously) subtlety and (I'm not kidding) restraint he practiced with the first one.

Resurgence begins with an intriguing premise: In the two decades since President Bill Pullman declared that July 4th would be a global holiday just before putting the beatdown on an alien invasion, human beings have formed a global alliance and put alien technology to work for us, including building advanced weaponry and outposts in space. But just when you thought it was safe to start up that barbecue, here comes a bigger, badder version of the huge mothership from last time, ready to unleash a fresh round of disaster porn in the great Emmerich tradition.

Making return visits for this sequel are Jeff Goldblum as the very Jeff Goldblum-y scientist Ian Malc--er, I mean, David Levinson, and Pullman as former prez Thomas Whitmore, dealing with the extra-terrestrial equivalent of PTSD following his very close encounter last time. It's good to see both of them back, but while Goldblum gets a decent amount of stuff to do, it feels like the filmmakers didn't quite know what to do with Pullman's character, who awkwardly flits in and out of the story. Also returning are Brent Spiner, Vivica A. Fox and Judd Hirsch, but there's a massive hole in both the cast and the narrative thanks to the absence of original star Will Smith.

While the first picture was very much an ensemble piece, Smith's character, Air Force Captain Steven Hiller, was the nominal head of that ensemble, and you can retrospectively see how much Smith (then on the cusp of big screen megastardom) added when you see just how much his absence takes away. Without the former Fresh Prince, the burden is shifted to a new generation of actors to carry the load, including Jessie T. Usher as the grown-up son of Smith's character, Maika Monroe as President Whitmore's grown-up daughter, and Liam Hemsworth as her hotshot fighter pilot fiancé. All three actors do their best, but none really make much of a mark.

As I said, things start out pretty interesting, and I was mostly engaged by the "alternate history" approach. But by the time the invasion stuff kicks in ("They like to get the landmarks!" says Goldblum in one of the many wink-nudge moments), you can feel the story itself start to get pulled apart as it tries to go in too many different directions. This comes as less of a surprise when you realize the screenplay is credited to five different writers (Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin, as well as Nicholas Wright & James Woods, and James Vanderbilt). As a result, the pacing and story construction just feels "off," with a far too much time spent on some moments and too little on others.

In hindsight, this age of unfettered computer animation we're currently in the midst of was probably the worst thing that could have happened to Emmerich. The effects work here is impressive, no doubt, but it's utterly engulfed his already threadbare sense of character development. (And I say this as someone who largely enjoyed The Day After Tomorrow and 2012.) The original Independence Day, which definitely isn't high art, retains a modicum of effectiveness today because there's time taken for the character beats, whether Smith's sardonic attitude in the aftermath of a dogfight with a space alien, or Pullman's palpable grief for not acting sooner before the aliens attacked.

In marked contrast to any of that, Resurgence largely skips over such beats in its mad race toward an excessive, indulgent finale that feels like they tossed James Cameron's Aliens and Emmerich's own abortive Godzilla reboot from 1998 into a blender. As a result, the emotional moments aren't nearly impactful enough, which in turn makes it feel like the action beats are just being lined up end-to-end and piled one on top of the other. It all becomes a little bit much after awhile. And while the original neatly wrapped things up at the end, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Resurgence is already planting the seeds for another sequel. I have a feeling even sixteen-year-old me would be okay with them taking their time. C-

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