I can recall actively counting down the days until Independence Day was released in 1996, gobbling up every newspaper clipping and magazine article I could. I was a big fan of director Roland Emmerich’s Stargate, which is still a terrific movie, and I was eager to watch the end of the world, as we know it, in the privacy of my local theater. It was a blast, no pun intended, and one of the biggest box-office successes at the time. Surely there would be a sequel, especially after it helped launch Will Smith into another level of stardom. Flash forward twenty years, and here comes Independence Day: Resurgence, a sequel that misses what marked the original as escapist entertainment.
Twenty years later, human beings have been planning for the eventual return of their intergalactic invaders. Former president Whitmore (Bill Pullman) and CIA director David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) have been trying to get the world prepared and studying our alien enemy. A psychic link is still formed from Whitmore’s brief bond in the first movie, and he keeps drawing mysterious symbols. Whitmore’s daughter, Patricia (Maika Munroe), is a former fighter pilot who works for the current president (Sela Ward). Patricia’s boyfriend and fellow fighter pilot, Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), is stationed on the moon building a defense system. Then the aliens come back and pick up where they left off, annihilating Earth’s landmarks and population centers. It seems that their spaceship is going to suck out the Earth’s molten core, and by all accounts, that’s bad. Our ragtag group of characters must come together and overcome substantial odds once more to save the Earth from certain doom.
So where exactly did things go wrong? I’m not one to simply state that the filmmakers missed their window of making a quality sequel. While twenty years is a long time in between outings, it doesn’t mean that you will fail to come up with a compelling movie. Mad Max was 30 years between movies and this didn’t stop Fury Road from being a masterpiece. By most accounts, yes, there is certainly less of an appetite for an Independence Day sequel in 2016 than there would have been in 1998, but the first film is still fondly remembered and a worthy sequel would be welcomed regardless.
I think one of the bigger causes to Resurgence not working is the fact that the rest of the moviegoing world has caught up when it comes to big screen spectacle, therefore spectacle by itself is not enough without a zeitgeist edge. In 1996, cutting-edge special effects-laden destruction on a global scale was reason enough to buy a ticket and the largest tub of popcorn. In the ensuring two decades, large-scale cataclysm has become commonplace on the big screen; just about every climax of a Marvel movie involves some world-devastating threat. What once quickened pulses has now become ho-hum. Emmerich himself has become a modern-day Irwin Allen since the first Independence Day, almost specifically focused on global disaster movies. I honestly don’t think there’s a better director working in Hollywood for that gig (his next movie is about the moon crashing into the Earth, so “familiar” territory). I think Emmerich’s skill and vision for big screen spectacle goes unheralded too often and he gets lumped in with empty visual stylists like Zack Snyder and Michael Bay. He’s better than that. However, the tide has turned, and audiences have become sated from empty spectacle. They need something more, or at least something compelling, and Resurgence struggles to achieve this. It feels like the aliens are back and they’re bigger, and that’s about it, folks.
Disaster movies are generally judged by their set pieces, and what is most surprising about Resurgence is that it really doesn’t have action set pieces as it does skirmishes. The movie is only two hours long, which seems like a rarity nowadays, but this is one of the few movies I think could have benefited from some extra breathing room. It feels too rushed, its internal logic often forcibly contrived, and this is evident most in its action sequences. A better term would be “skirmishes” because the sequences themselves are so curiously brief save for the climactic fight during the third act. We’ll get bursts of intensity or dread that comes to a head with violence, but then that’s it and the movie moves along. It’s usually mere moments of brief alien destruction. The action lacks proper development. One of the keys to great action sequences is naturally complicating and developing the events. Resurgence doesn’t even change gears. It provides exactly what you expect, and then it’s over, the surprise being how unsatisfying and short the unimaginative experience was for all parties. It’s a long wait until the third act where the alien queen comes outside to play. The movie shifts into a giant monster melee and it’s the one time where Resurgence feels most lively. It still follows a contrived logic (the Queen has a shield… now she doesn’t…) but I’ll credit the movie with at least saving the best for last and finally letting the action expand. I had enough fun with the final act of Resurgence that I was able to forgive some of its early transgressions.
The first Independence Day wasn’t by any means a cinematic milestone but it was fun and had a clean enough throughline. We spent the first hour in typical Emmerich fashion being introduced to the different characters and then watching the dispirit elements come together. The mystery of what was out there was intriguing and it became a step-by-step process of deducing how mankind should respond. When their hostile intent was revealed, it then became a learning experience as to how to fight back. Aerial dogfights won’t work. Nuclear weapons won’t work. It was a simplistic examination of the threat. While the solution of giving an alien operating system a virus is still a head-scratcher, at that point the movie had earned its ham-fisted solution because it had followed a logically satisfying path of discovery and response from the moment of first contact. Resurgence lacks any real internal logic. Things just sort of happen when the plot requires them and then don’t. If you’re establishing a science-fiction landscape, establishing the rules of what is possible and allowable is essential to the audience’s understanding and enjoyment. Otherwise it feels arbitrary, much like Judd Hirsch driving a school bus of children across the salt flats into danger. This literally happens in Resurgence.
Also fighting for time is a slew of new characters that are charisma-free and contribute little to nothing to the larger story. The biggest offender may be Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher), the son of Will Smith’s character. What does Dylan offer as a character? His entire characterization is, and I kid you not, that he’s upset with Jake over a training accident. He punches Jake in the first act and then… he just sort of pilots ships and shoots things in the sky. That’s it. He doesn’t feel the burden of living up to his father’s reputation, or trying to make his own name for himself. He just has a quarrel to settle and does and then he still just sort of exists in the movie and the screenwriters were like, “Oh right, he’s still here. Well, have him fly something.” Jake and the rest of the young pilots don’t fare that much better as characters. Besides superficial distinguishing characteristics, they’re all variations on the same person. They’re a multi-ethnic collection of vacuous character placeholders; it’s like you took Randy Quaid’s kids from the first movie and made them on par with Smith and Goldblum. These bland characters inspire little love and are often boring with little investment. If the next movie started with them in a car and a giant pillar crushing it, I would not mourn their cinematic loss.
There are some familiar faces returning but none of them are able to compensate for the deficit of charisma and screen presence that is Will Smith. Goldblum is on autopilot and doing his stare off into the distance and talk deadly serious thing. Pullman shows up again as a warning of what was coming, though a superfluous one at that. The biggest screen presence from the first movie belongs to Brent Spiner (TV’s Star Trek) as the Area 51 scientist who conveniently has also been in a coma for twenty years. Some of his comic relief is rather labored and cheesy, but it’s at least something. Charlotte Gainsbourg (Nymphomaniac) collects a check as a psychiatrist who has little bearing other than to be Goldblum’s ex. The most interesting new character feels like he stepped out of a Street Fighter arcade game; he’s an African warlord (Deobia Oparei) who likes to use a pair of machetes to kill the aliens. “You have to get them from behind,” he keeps insisting, and I keep snickering. There’s also that Emmerich staple of an officious government weakling who comically grows a spine. It just so happens this part is played by one of the screenwriters of Resurgence, Nicolas Wright. He studied, apparently.
The best thing Resurgence has going for it is the expansive world building, one of the few aspects of the movie that shows actual thought and care. This is one of the few movies I can recall where people actually try and use the technology of their defeated invaders. Rather than just throwing all those dead spaceships on a junk pile, mankind has decided to backwards engineer technological advancements. As a result, the contemporary feels like a sci-fi hybrid of humanity and the alien technology. It’s interesting to see what advancements have been made and how these have been integrated into regular society. I do question why we only have one defensive weapon/colony on the moon when there’s also one as far as Saturn. I wanted a bit more of a sociological examination on what life post-War of 1996 means. Life would be so fundamentally altered by the realization we are not alone in the universe, and not only that but that we need to play catch up fast to survive. The assumption would be that they will be back. The threat of annihilation unifies the world but what are those consequences? What are the consequences of living in a permanent military state of readiness and anxiety, wondering is it all going to be enough?
If you have fond feelings for the original Independence Day, there may be enough good will with the sequel to appease your demands, though probably only barely. Resurgence suffers from CGI-heavy spectacle that has long lost its appeal without supplying helpful additions like characters to care about, exciting action sequences that develop and impact the plot, meaningful plot turns, and a story that follows some form of logic. It’s not a disaster in all senses of the word. In a summer that’s already building a reputation for its mediocrity, I think there may be enough that Independence Day: Resurgence has to offer that select moviegoers will walk away feeling momentary entertainment. It’s not that the first film was intellectually rigorous sci-fi, but it went about its destructive business with a satisfying precision. This movie all too often just feels like things happening, then not happening, and with characters that are there but without any compelling reason beyond survival. The end of the movie sets up an intended sequel and possible extended franchise of sequels with a larger galactic war against the alien invaders. It’s both hopeful and naïve, dangling the promise of another tantalizing humans vs. aliens throwdown. It’s also a bit aggravating because the premise of the hypothetical sequel (I’m going on record saying it won’t come to fruition for another 20 years) is much better than the “they came back again” sequel we get with Resurgence. Don’t make me pay my money and then tease me with a better movie down the road. Nothing should be taken for granted. Independence Day: Resurgence takes too much for granted, and that’s likely why this resurgence will stop with one entry.
Nate’s Grade: C
Director Roland Emmerich, the maestro of the dumb fun blockbuster, is never going to get the credit he deserves but the man is something of a mad genius when it comes to putting together spectacle-rich, low-calorie but still satisfying summer entertainment. Take White House Down, the second of 2013’s Die-Hard-in-the-White-House movies. It’s really more of a buddy film contained to that famous structure. It’s not a smart blockbuster by any means but it makes up for any and all flaws with its sheer overpowering sense of fun. Stuff gets blown up real good, the action is brisk, and there are satisfying payoffs for story elements that felt like they were, at first glance, merely thrown together. You may walk away surprised at how much you’re enjoying the comedic interplay between Secret Service agent Channing Tatum and president Jamie Foxx. Plus it’s fun to see the president in on the action instead of merely as a hostage, like the earlier Olympus Has Fallen. In direct comparison, I’d have to say White House Down is the better of the two movies, both in payoff and action. It’s nice to have a movie that’s just fun to watch, that goes about its blockbuster business with precision, supplying a few decent twists, and giving us heroes worth rooting for and action sequences that are well developed and that matter no matter how ridiculous. Emmerich movies are blissfully free of self-serious malarkey, though his weakest hit, 2004’s Day After Tomorrow, got a bit preachy. His movies know what they are and know the demands of an audience. What I needed this summer was a movie designed to make me cheer the impossible. White House Down is a romp.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Roland Emmerich is a director used to making big budget, effects laden mainstream blockbusters that baffle film critics. I enjoy some of the man’s output but hold little pretension that Emmerich is not a filmmaker who knows the terms “nuance” and “subtlety.” 10,000 B.C. is another Emmerich flick in the would-be blockbuster mode. It has magazine cover leads, large-scale action set pieces, and a familiar rescue plot route. It also happens to be as dumb as rocks.
Way back in 10,000 B.C., life is more along the lines of nomadic hunting and gathering. The featured tribe has the old staple of the spiritual guide who lays out prophecies. This prophet foresees great calamitous change for the tribe. “Four-legged devils” will bring about destruction. But there is hope. D’leh (Steven Strait, Sky High) will save his tribe from annihilation. He is also destined to love Evolett (Camilla Belle, When A Stranger Calls), who is coveted because she has blue eyes. This, we are told, is a fortuitous sign. One day after a successful mammoth hunt, the tribe falls prey to raiders on horses. These raiders raze the huts and slaughter the people. They cart the rest, including Evolett, off to work as slaves building what appear to be pyramids or ziggurats in Egypt. D’leh must regroup and travel with Tic’tic (Cliff Curtis) all across Africa to save his loin-clothed love.
This is a colossally stupid movie. Emmerich spins a host of clichés and prays it’s enough to stage some pre-history visual wonders. The movie’s visuals are certainly pleasing to the eye, but the plot and characters are totally vacant. The characters are one-dimensional morons. It’s not even worth mentioning what the numerous historical inaccuracies are (Egypt wasn’t even settled until 7,000 B.C.) because it would be less time consuming to simply state the historical accuracy the film presents. 10,000 B.C. makes Quest for Fire look like a documentary. The plot framework is your usual hero’s journey pastiche, where our lead must accept the responsibility that goes with being a leader. There’s also familiar plot turns like rescuing the damsel in distress, learning important back-story about an absent father, and finally, a slave uprising. 10,000 B.C. is a rip-off of Apocalypto and generally every historical uprising movie where the people band together under the leadership of an individual to tackle an antagonistic authority. This movie feels like it is barely held together by its plot threads, and those threads merely link to tired, groan-inducing clichés that act as placeholders for an actual plot.
What is even worse, 10,000 B.C. is a total bore. The only way something this silly and gleefully historically inaccurate could work is if it offered some adventure thrills. 10,000 B.C. seems to sputter for long stretches, having characters assemble and depart and walk and speak their ridiculous caveman speak. The pacing is rather slack and the action sequences, when they do occur, aren’t very well developed, hoping to leave their mark with plenty of long shots. Several action sequences are doomed from their very conception, like the laughable giant ostriches eating people. The action is just not good at all. Emmerich can generally pull out an exciting, functional action sequence even if it requires you to officially turn your brain off to enjoy. The first half of 10,000 B.C. has a few limited action sequences but they are brief and poorly staged. The second half has one climactic action sequence but it’s hard to tell what the hell is going on. Emmerich does not setup his climax and allow the audience to understand the attack process. When the climactic attack does occur it feels overly chaotic and senseless. How can the audience enjoy the progress of action if it cannot even verify what is happening? If I can’t follow what’s happening then I can’t enjoy it. The equation is that simple. The end of 10,000 B.C. is a big, mammoth-filled mess of a sequence that fails to serve as any payoff.
The movie is so serious that the silly adventure heroics come across as downright insufferable. I cannot possibly sit through a 1 hour 45-minute film that deals with pet saber tooth tigers, traveling across the entire continent of Africa by foot at record speed, and giant freaking killer ostriches and have the movie try to uphold a serious reality. No movie in the history of mankind will ever be serious as long as it has a killer ostrich. 10,000 B.C. would classify as camp if it weren’t so resoundingly boring. I think Emmerich really stuck to his initial concept and decided somehow the movie would form by itself. He shows a definite interest in recreating sprawling vistas of a time long ago, but he shows barely a whiff of interest in depositing a story to go along with those oh so pretty pictures and ancient landscapes.
The film also feels eerily semi-racist. The good guys are slightly tanned but mostly Anglo-Saxon in their appearance. They even speak English, though really terrible monosyllabic English. Note to all filmmakers: if you are going to make a movie that predominantly features cavemen then do not give them any speeches. They sound absolutely hilarious trying to deliver a rousing speech in their stilted, monotone voices. The villains are outsiders who look very Arabic and Middle Eastern. They speak a different language. They come to terrorize the God-fearing hunters and gatherers, enslave their people, and drag them to a giant temple to be killed in the name of a competing God. I don’t know if the movie is necessarily anti-Arabic but I was given the opportunity to contemplate this subject with all the downtime 10,000 B.C. afforded me.
The special effects are bad. The acting is bad. The story is dreadful. The action is poorly planned and sporadic. And every aspect of this movie radiates stupidity. I suppose some moviegoers can discover some derisive pleasure from watching a really terrible movie about a dreadlocked boy trying to reclaim the only girl in 10,000 B.C. that vigorously tweezes her eyebrows. For me, the movie was far too stagnant and boring to enjoy derisively. 10,000 B.C. takes itself far too seriously for something far too silly. Emmerich has created a movie that manages to be dopey even by caveman movies standards, and this includes a 1981 movie actually called Caveman featuring Ringo Starr. My biggest question after the movie concluded was, “How in the hell did they get Omar Sharif to narrate this stone-age turkey?”
Nate’s Grade: D