Twenty years. That’s the amount of time it takes for the language of cinema to evolve into a new method of expression. That’s the amount of time for a film to become choked with nostalgia that obscures any real merit it may or may not inherently have. That’s also the amount of time between Independence Day and Independence Day: Resurgence, a sequel almost nobody asked for made by people who seem to have ignored the last twenty years of cinema altogether.
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS!
Much like the first film, ID:R involves an alien invasion of Earth, this time set off when an alien ship in deep space hears the distress call of a ship involved in the initial attempted invasion. In the time since the first attack, humanity has come together as a whole, united against a common enemy. This and the reverse engineering of the alien tech salvaged from the wreckage of the final battle in 1996 has enabled humans to build a space defense force and bases for that force on the Moon, Mars, and one of Saturn’s moons. None of that helps when the new alien ship shows up, a 3,000-mile-wide behemoth whose only weaknesses are plot holes and tepid, “inspirational” speeches by actors grabbing a quick paycheck.
The first ID film was, despite (or possibly because of) all its faults a milestone in sci-fi film history and a definite deal-changer when it was released. It was one of the the last major-budget sci-fi films that relied almost entirely on practical special effects, and its record-breaking box office kicked off a short-but-loudly-lived resurgence in disaster-film blockbusters. As the story goes, Dean Devlin — who wrote the first ID — was immediately offered a huge advance to write a sequel after ID’s surprise success. Devlin returned the money when he couldn’t find the inspiration to write a suitable sequel, and it wasn’t until 15 years later that Devlin and four other credited writers pounded out something resembling a working script.
And yet this is the result. A lazy, shallow exercise in summer sequel escapism that doubles down on all the mistakes of its predecessor while ignoring or mangling the equation that made that earlier film work in spite of itself.
We're definitely going to need a bigger boat.
ID:R stumbles nearly right out of the gate despite a very promising introduction. Before the studio logos are even finished, an ominous and even terrifying din of bass-dwelling strings and electronic effects underscores a first-person view of that previously-mentioned alien distress call through the deepest parts of outer space, accompanied by a truly exquisite, almost masterful use of Dolby surround sound. That early potential evaporates nearly immediately, however, as the film races through character establishment and conflict set-up like a college student hammering out an essay at 3 am the day before it’s due. ID:R is almost half-an-hour shorter than the previous film, and nearly all of that time seems to have been cut from the first act.
What little character development the film has is about as graceful and subtle as a rusty anvil. A huge amount of the dialogue belongs to the “As you know…” school of screenwriting, the kind where characters’ histories are randomly and inorganically forced into what should be everyday conversation. Not that most of it matters in the end, since nearly every character is defined by one or two traits that are endlessly repeated over the course of a film where almost nobody grows, changes, or evolves. The climax comes as a result not so much because of the ingenuity of the characters as it does a very, very literal deus ex machina that only really seems there to give some hint at a deeper mythology and to lay some very clunky, lazy groundwork for a sequel.
To be honest, however, sometimes that lack of characterization works in the film’s favor, but it’s strictly on a case-by-case basis. The most winning member of the cast is easily Jeff Goldblum, reprising his role as computer expert David Levinson. Levinson is the kind of nerdy, deceptively plucky and valiant character that’s defined the latter half of Goldblum's career, but he’s so natural in the role that it’s easy to overlook that fact. He adds a dimension to his part by simply being Jeff Goldblum. On the other side of the spectrum, you have Liam Hemsworth as fighter-pilot Jake Morrison, whose performance seems to continually ask the question “Why is Liam Hemsworth a thing?” He’s pretty as hell, to be sure, but he has a range limited even when compared to his brother Chris (who can play Thor and that’s about it) and is basically playing Gale Hawthorne if he were auditioning for a mockbuster version of Top Gun set in space. It doesn’t help that he still doesn’t have his accent nailed down, meaning that the American Jake inexplicably turns very Australian at random points in the film.
Jeff Goldblum is Jeff Goldblum in Goldblum!: A One-Man Show.
The rest of the cast is definitely a mixed bag, with most of the cast either coasting through or trying way, way too hard to make something out of nothing. The most aggressive of the latter bunch is undoubtedly veteran French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, inexplicably choosing this to be her first Hollywood film with a nine-digit budget, playing a psychologist specializing in alien-human connection. She performs admirably, and she has a tense but organic chemistry with Goldblum, but she’s definitely giving the role far more energy that it deserves. On the other hand, every scene containing William Fichtner’s military commander makes it seem like he’s on set against his will, obscuring the characteristic offbeat charisma he usually imbues in every one of his roles. Of the returning cast, only Bill Pullman as ex-President Whitmore and Brent Spiner as Dr. Okun seem like they’re having a good time, mostly because both get to play different varieties of alien-touched crazy thanks to their encounters in the first film (tortured and broken for the former, goofy and comedic for the latter).
Quick aside: this film does give us, as promised/threatened in several interviews, the first happy and well-adjusted gay couple director Roland Emmerich has ever put on film throughout his entire career. Emmerich, of course, is gay himself, and while in any other circumstance this couple's presence might be something to cheer, here it’s borderline-offensive because of how spectacularly Emmerich botches the execution. Despite the fact that the couple is composed of two supporting characters who contribute to the…ahem…“plot”, the fact that they’re a couple seems tacked on and forced, and there’s an unpleasant air of self-aggrandizement on Emmerich’s part during their scenes, as if he’s only putting them there to silence all the critics who were (quite rightfully) offended at his disastrously tone-deaf Stonewall.
Spoiler: Liam Hemsworth is not part of that couple. But he sure is pretty, anyway.
But let’s be real for a minute: who the hell comes to these things for character development, anyway? A deep and complex plot? No. We’re here for the carnage, for that primal thrill of vicariously watching everything we know and love being obliterated. If Emmerich does anything well, it’s large-scale destruction, from the now-iconic scene of the White House being blown to smithereens from ID, to his hammer-toed-yet-captivating global extinction events in 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, to his wholesale massacre of history in Anonymous and Stonewall. He’s a literal deconstructionist who’s stock in trade is tearing things down as dramatically as possible.
If only he understood what that truly meant or how to harness that destruction in any meaningful way. It’s hard to be gripped by any of the mega-violence in ID:R because it’s hard to care about anyone involved in it. The first film made stunning and exhilarating use of models and trick photography to obliterate its cities and landmarks. Like the insane, heart-stopping death races of Mad Max: Fury Road, those scenes lived and breathed in a way that CGI simply can’t replicate. It’s not just the fact that there’s so little emotional investment in any of the characters who end up perishing. It’s also the fact that Emmerich isn’t doing anything new or exciting with any of his scenes. One city’s destruction is merely the first-act set piece of 2012 in 3-D, while a tense dog fight between a few dozen Earth fighters and an alien armada seems like a cut scene from an anonymous PS4 game interspersed with random cockpit shots of characters we barely know. Even the smaller conflicts seem derivative and second-hand, like a good part of the ridiculously prolonged climax that seems like it was ripped from Aliens and given kaiju-blood steroids.
Don't hate me because I'm beautiful.
ID:R on its own, devoid of the weight of its predecessor or indeed the entirety of modern sci-fi cinema, is a perfectly serviceable way to spend two hours of time that are just burning a hole in your schedule, but it’s almost nothing more than that. It’s a victim of the first flm’s success, in a way. In the time since the first ID film, sci-fi films have grown and changed in fascinating ways, but Emmerich is more content to just take what made the first film connect and make it bigger. Bigger ships, bigger explosions, bigger stakes…just none of it better. It’s as if the past two decades of progress never happened, and had this film come out a couple years after the first one, that might have been acceptable and even welcome on some level. Now, however, it just makes the film feel instantly dated and imminently forgettable. It’s hard to care about end of the world when it’s this dull and restless.
FBOTU Score: 4 out of 10 / C-