Friday, June 24, 2016

Movie Review: Independence Day: Resurgence

Independence Day: Resurgence
Directed by: Roland Emmerich.
Written by: Nicolas Wright & James A. Woods and Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich and James Vanderbilt based on characters created by Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich.
Starring: Liam Hemsworth (Jake Morrison), Jeff Goldblum (David Levinson), Jessie T. Usher (Dylan Hiller), Bill Pullman (President Whitmore), Maika Monroe (Patricia Whitmore), Sela Ward (President Lanford), William Fichtner (General Adams), Judd Hirsch (Julius Levinson), Brent Spiner (Dr. Brakish Okun), Patrick St. Esprit (Secretary of Defense Tanner), Vivica A. Fox  (Jasmine Hiller), Angelababy (Rain Lao), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Catherine Marceaux), Deobia Oparei (Dikembe Umbutu), Nicolas Wright (Floyd Rosenberg), Travis Tope (Charlie Miller), Chin Han (Commander Jiang), Joey King (Sam), Jenna Purdy (Voice of Sphere). 
In some circles, the original Independence Day is seen in much the same light as Spielberg’s Jaws and Lucas’ Star Wars are – not a timeless masterpiece (although, there are some people who look at the original through nostalgia covered glasses from when they first saw it when they were 10 who claim it is) – but as a film that signaled a shift in Hollywood Blockbuster culture. As much crap as something like Jaws gets, it has been noted – over and over – that were that film, which kickstarted Blockbuster culture in Hollywood, were to be released today, it would be an art house genre flick – much more It Follows than The Avengers. When Roger Ebert reviewed Jurassic Park in 1993, he noted how much faster Spielberg introduced the special effects in that film compared to Jaws – and it’s true, he did – but when you compare Jurassic Park to Jurassic World, you realize that it’s gone even faster today than it did all those years ago. The turning point may well be Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day which was big, loud and dumb in 1996 – but also a hell of a lot of fun (especially if you didn’t think about its plot too much), had great special effects, which were used to create iconic images of the time, and was sold to an eager audience on the basis of spectacle alone. I remember seeing this film in the theater with my mother during a time when she didn’t go to the movies very often – but she had to see Independence Day. In the 20 years since, Hollywood has tried – with more success than I ever would have dreamed of – of making more and more films into those events – ones you had to see.
The original film wasn’t a great movie – hell, it’s not even a very good movie – but it delivered what it promised – spectacle and entertainment value. You may feel guilty for enjoying Independence Day after it’s over – but admit it, you had fun while it was playing. The 20 years in the making sequel doesn’t do that. In an odd way, the film feels somewhat smaller than the original film – it is shorter (thankfully), but it doesn’t feel like it has the same scale as the original. The original film felt HUGE –perhaps because of the way it destroyed landmarks – especially the White House – which is was the most iconic image of the first film, and even with all the advances in special effects in the past 20 years, more impressive than anything in this film. Perhaps it is because in 1996, some of what Independence Day was doing felt new (at least to me). The sequel feels warmed over and played out – it’s another giant, CGI laden spectacle, whose big special effects sequence once again, involve a lot of crap crashing into a lot of other crap. As Brian De Palma said in the excellent documentary about his career out now, many CGI sequences come pre-visualized by the effects houses, not the directors, which is why they all feel the same. When a bunch of crap floats around and crashes into other crap this time, it feels exactly as it did in X-Men: Apocalypse or countless other films. When London is destroyed, it happens so quickly, it barely registers. The aliens look, of course, like the aliens in the last film – which were just a not too original clone of the aliens in Alien and that franchise – but with more tentacles. The other thing about those scenes of mass destruction that is missing from this sequel, that wasn’t in the original, is the sense of real death. The convention of destroying whole cities, which would undeniably kill thousands, millions, billions of people may have started with the original – but that film was unafraid to deal with that death – and show it, not just brush by it. Like most movies today that contain those sequences though, in the sequel that is precisely what they do.
The movie also lacks the human element that made the first film more enjoyable. I’m not going to argue that the original film was well written, nor that any of its stars deserved Oscars for it, but the performances were likable and engaging. The original, after all, made Will Smith into a movie star – as it gave him his first chance to show off that effortless movie star charm and swagger he has perfected over the years. Smith wisely decided against coming back, and the sequel tries to fill that hole with not one, but two characters – Liam Hemsworth as Jake, a rebellious pilot with the same attitude as Smith, and Jessie T. Usher playing Dylan, the grown up version of Smith’s son from the original. Between them, they still don’t have half the charm of Smith – and when Liam Hemsworth, who is no Chris Hemsworth, is the far more charming of the two, you know you’re in trouble. Bill Pullman is back as the now former President Whitmore, but he spends most of the movie in pain, as he has a connection to the aliens, which make him seem crazy – the film does try, briefly, for a similar type speech as the first film gave him – with far lesser results. Maika Monroe stars as Whitmore’s daughter, and Jake’s fianc√©, taking over the role originated by Mae Whitman, presumably because in Hollywood, the beautiful, talented charming and funny Whitman is considered too normal looking to land a hunk like Hemsworth. This isn’t a shot at Monroe – who I loved in The Guest and It Follows in recent years, but the film really doesn’t give her anything to do – she spends most of the movie on the verge of tears, either for her fianc√© or father, who are both in danger – although at least it doesn’t keep her on the sidelines for the entire movie. Sela Ward is now the President, but again, there isn’t much for her to do – and really, given the decisions she makes, she seems rather incompetent. The two performances that work best are by Jeff Goldblum as David Levinson and Judd Hirsh as his father Julius, both obviously returning for the original. Even if they have to shoehorn Julius’ subplot into the rest of the film, Hirsh’s performance still works – and Goldblum’s is even better, I think, because neither of them are taking any of this seriously, know how inherently silly the film is, and embrace it (Goldblum gets the film’s best line – an aside “You’re going back for the dog? I guess so”).
Director Roland Emmerich catches a lot of crap from critics – and to be fair, much of it is earned. His films are all big and dumb – but quite often, they are also a lot of fun. In addition to the original film, he also made the weather panic film The Day After Tomorrow, which I found ridiculously entertaining – even if my entire country of Canada is left north of the death line, and White House Down, which was even better (seriously people, how can anyone prefer the dour and violent Olympus Has Fallen to the ludicrously entertaining White House Down, which has Channing Tatum at his movie star best, and features Jamie Foxx doing a Barack Obama impression and firing a bazooka? What’s wrong with you people)? Emmerich doesn’t do small, even when he should, but he has also never embraced the kind of rapid fire editing and shaky camera work that mars far too many action movies today.
As is standard for a film like this now, the end of the film isn’t really an ending, but rather a cliffhanger for the next movie in the series – which judging on the attendance of the 10pm Thursday before opening screening I attended, won’t happen (seriously, I go to these Thursday shows quite often, and I have never been in such an empty theater before – not even the time I stupidly went to see Selma on a Thursday night in the middle of a snowstorm). The setup for the next movie really should have been the plot for this movie – which essentially repeats the plot of the first movie, with the aliens coming back – but this time with more firepower, with the exception that this movie features a giant talking sphere.
Independence Day: Resurgence isn’t a good movie on any level. Did it hold my attention, and give me a few isolated moments of pleasure? Sure. But oddly for a film that took 20 years to make, and has five credited screenwriters, the film doesn’t feel very thought out or planned. In all honestly, it plays more like those direct-to-video sequels of big hits that studios churn out to make a quick buck (seriously, how many Starship Troopers sequels are there?). I find the wave of nostalgia for the 1990s – the era in which I grew up – to rather tedious and boring – and the film is a good example as why that is. The bar for a sequel to Independence Day shouldn’t be a very difficult one to clear – you just got to remember three things – big, dumb and fun. In this case two out of three is very bad.

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