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Entries in Independence Day: Resurgence [2016] (1)

Wednesday
Jun292016

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

Lightning in a Bottle of Piss

In the landmark Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Q Who?”, a bored, omnipotent alien named Q hurls the Starship Enterprise into deep space, far beyond any worlds previously explored by the United Federation of Planets. Captain Picard and his crew find themselves outmatched by a cybernetic race called the Borg, who exist only to consume the knowledge and resources of weaker civilizations. The Borg operate with a hive mind that cannot be reasoned with. Their shields adjust immediately to the frequency of enemy laser fire. Scariest of all, they have a seemingly endless supply of bodies to throw at any problem.

In the end (1989 Spoiler Alert!!!), Q whisks Picard and company back to safety before the galaxy’s most tenacious space hornets can overtake them. The Enterprise's relieved but skeptical bartender warns that, because the Borg are now aware of mankind, they will eventually make their way to our doorstep. I remember thinking at the time, “What a brilliant tease for future episodes!” But I also considered the resolution to be a narrative cheat: Was the best way out of an impossible situation to just make the situation magically un-impossible?

This problem stabs at the artificial heart of Independence Day: Resurgence, a sequel (like many modern sequels) predicted by many but demanded by none. Twenty years ago, director Roland Emmerich’s alien-invasion movie transformed the summer blockbuster in the same way films like Star Wars, Ghostbusters, and Jurassic Park had done before: drawing in record crowds with an accessible and exciting popcorn premise, executed with truly mind-blowing state-of-the-art technology. Whatever people thought of the film critically, there is no denying Independence Day’s influence on mass audiences’ appetite for bigger, louder, more sustained, and wholly believable destruction.

With its flames-of-Hell-tinged imagery of cities folding in on themselves, Resurgence’s trailers promise the return of a pissed off alien race looking for a do-over. In the twenty years since we kicked them off our planet, they’ve increased their numbers, improved their killing technology, and made way for one of their queens to personally supervise the new attack. Earth has regrouped, too, incorporating alien tech into personal and planetary defense systems. African warlords carry plasma rifles. Fighter jets zip around the moon.

Despite this progress, Earth is severely out-gunned. The aliens make short work of our global perimeter, demolish half the planet’s major cities, and begin a core-drilling project that will finish us off for good. Fortunately, we’ve got a Q in our back pocket, a shiny good-alien Apple product who gives us the secret sauce for another happy ending (no spoilers beyond this point, since I’ve already forgotten how we win—something about a bomb or a virus or…or something).

I suppose I should be happy, having been spared the rampant destruction porn I often rail against. The Resurgence trailers contain ninety percent of the Earth-set carnage pieces, which, in context, comprise such a monochrome mélange of explosions, rising tides, and twisted metal that it’s almost impossible to tell when we switch locales. I liked having to only think about the millions upon millions of lost lives lost for a few minutes. But the rest of the movie made me question why I had bothered to come out for it in the first place.

It’s certainly not the characters. Returning favorites Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, and Brent Spiner carry a bit of that 1996 spark, but their job is mostly to clear a path for the young stewards of this non-starter franchise. Will Smith’s brash, wisecracking pilot is long gone, having been critically injured in a plane crash.* Jesse T. Usher plays his son; his purpose, like co-star Liam Hemsworth, is to look great on screen and move the action forward, unencumbered by charisma (natural or manufactured). Same goes for Maika Munroe, who plays the assistant to Sela Ward’s boneheaded Commander in Chief.**

The cast's only bright spot is Charlotte Gainsbourg, solely because it's unfathomable to me that Lars von Trier's muse would show up in a movie like this. How does one go from jerking blood out of an unconscious Willem Dafoe's rock-hard penis in Antichrist to batting goofy-French-scientist's eyes at Jeff Goldblum? In a way, I'm glad Gainsbourg's in this movie, because a handful of Independence Day: Resurgence fans (shudder) will be curious enough to look up her previous work, and will subsequently be lured into the harrowing, psychosexual black hole of the Nymphomaniac movies. Serves 'em right.

I haven't watched the first Independence Day in a long time. I won't vouch for its quality as a capital-"F" film, but I vividly remember being wowed by the unprecedented, large-scale effects, and the surprisingly stirring look that comes over Randy Quaid's face as his character decides to sacrifice himself for all mankind. Pullman's iconic speech still stirs; Goldblum and Smith's rapport is still golden. Resurgence recycles these elements, but has no interest in improving on them.

Indeed, the whole production looks cheap, feels cheap, and has been, thankfully, repaid in kind by a tepid opening-weekend box office. Will this non-reception jeopardize the third film that's promised in Resurgence's Prometheus-style ending? Honestly, probably not. There'll be a part three and a part four down the line, each with larger threats, larger wrong-headed decisions by ostensibly smart characters, and larger let-downs as someone pulls the magic switch that sets everything right again--except for the countless dead, and for those of us foolish enough to expect more imagination from our final frontiers.

*And finished off, presumably, by failed contract negotiations.

**Maybe this is just election-year armchair psychoanalysis on my part, but Emmerich and his five screenwriters seem to be awfully terrified of the prospect of a female POTUS. At every turn, Ward's character is a cartoonishly tough reactionary who ignores level-headed advice in favor of poking the proverbial bear. I can't tell whether this portrayal is a half-baked critique of Hillary Clinton or of empowered women in general. Either way, it would be vaguely distasteful, bordering on offensive, if it weren't so laugh-out-loud, Mars Attacks-bad.