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Non-Review Review: Independence Day – Resurgence

Independence Day: Resurgence is the very limit case of nineties nostalgia.

This is true in a very real sense. The film is released two decades after the massive success of the original film, which came to theatres in 1996 offering unprecedented and awe-inspiring destruction on a previously unimaginable scale. Independence Day changed the public’s expectations for blockbusters, reworking the scale of apocalyptic destruction that could populate big summer releases. However, as much fun (and as well loved) as the film was, nobody was really clamouring for a sequel.

Jazzy Jeff, without the Fresh Prince.

Jazzy Jeff, without the Fresh Prince.

However, there is another truth about nineties nostalgia buried within this belated and bloated sequel. The nineties were a different time. They were a time at which Franci Fukuyami could make a semi-credible case that the United States stood at the end of history. The Cold War was over. The War on Terror had yet to begin. The Twin Towers still stood, and most Americans were oblivious to the existence of Osama Bin Laden or al-Qaeda. The economy was reasonably prosperous. Politics were relatively stable.

It is, of course, too easy to let nostalgia paint the nineties as some sort of “golden age.” There were horrific conflicts unfolding in Africa and Eastern Europe. There were clear shifts in American political rhetoric that paved the way for the current political climate. Paranoia and conspiracy theory were working their way into mainstream political discourse. However, the nineties were a time of much lower anxiety for most Americans, and time of peace rather than perpetual existential warfare.

Maps to the stars.

Maps to the stars.

As a result, Independence Day had a radically different context in the summer of 1996 than it would in the summer of 2016. In 1996, the destruction of the White House and the Empire State Building could be treated as ridiculous escapism rather than traumatic repetition. The narrative of American individualism and exceptionalism was oddly endearing in the midst of a period of sustained global stability rather than an era of resurgent (and violent) political nationalism.

Even in terms of entertainment, the original Independence Day arrived at a point where it was enough for a blockbuster to be a blockbuster, where thematic resonance and political commentary were optional extras that were tolerated so long as they didn’t get in the way of the explosions. Independence Day was released at a point where it was enough for a movie to be “dumb fun” without carrying a deeper message. Without the internet to pick films apart and pour over their subtext, it was a lot easier to just release an unassuming spectacle.

Over the moon about it.

Over the moon about it.

More than that, the sheer practical limitations of filming a blockbuster helped to rein in a lot of potential excesses of a film on this scale. While there was always computer-generated special effects, a heavy reliance on practical models and practical effects tended to dictate both the scripting and the direction of the film. Although Independence Day was an ode to heightened spectacle, there were limits to that spectacle. There was only so much of the aliens that could be shown, there were moments where things couldn’t be exploding.

In short, Independence Day was very much the perfect movie for 1996. In its own way, Independence Day: Resurgence is an ode to that. It is also a reminder that this is no longer 1996.

Not quite the Gold(blum) standard.

Not quite the Gold(blum) standard.

In many ways, Independence Day: Resurgence feels like a product of 1996. It is chocked full of an abundance of comic relief sidekicks, to the point that even its quirky supporting characters have quirky supporting characters. The mad scientist Brakish Okun finds a companion in the orchid tending Isaacs. The machete-wielding African warlord Dikembe Umbutu is paired with bureaucratic klutz Floyd Rosenberg. Bumbling father Julius Levinson even finds himself tasked with protecting a bus full of children.

There is something old-school in the aesthetic of Independence Day: Resurgence. Its heroes are all individuals, but they operate within rigidly defined organisations. Jake Morrison and Dylan Hiller are hot-shot pilots. General Adams is a military man who finds himself coopted into the civilian chain of command. Even absent-minded scientist David Levinson is repeatedly identified as “Director Levinson.” There is a rah-rah patriotism that surges through Independence Day: Resurgence, one with little time for superheroes or existential uncertainty.

Oh, that's gonna leave a mark.

Oh, that’s gonna leave a mark.

This patriotism was endearing in the context of the nineties, when the United States struggled with its role as the world’s only superpower. The Clinton administration did not commit the United States to any extended international ground wars and worked hard to anchor the United States in a global community of nations. The Clinton administration made no shortage of controversial foreign policy decisions during the nineties, but there was never a real sense that the global order might collapse or that chaos might reign. As such, patriotism could be indulged.

In contrast, the patriotism of Resurgence feels awkward. Although it is very much continuing in the spirit of the original film, it arrives in a very different context. The patriotism of Resurgence arrives at a time of intense global uncertainty, amid resurgent nationalist movements in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. The celebration of American authority and military might is more unsettling in the midst of the War on Terror and in the era of “Make America Great Again.” The ambient context serves to sour this patriotic cocktail.

All at sea.

All at sea.

That said, Resugence‘s patriotism is complicated. As with Transformers: Age of Extinction, there is a blatant nod towards China in the structure of the film. The character of Rain Lao is included among the primary characters, despite having few defining traits beyond representing one of the world’s fastest-growing film economies. A charitable reading would suggest that this is the reason that Resurgence marginalises its two gay characters, only obliquely hinting at their sexual orientation in their final moments together. Then again, this is very 1996.

However, it’s not quite that simple. Resurgence knows it is not 1996. On some instinctive level, the film is aware that things have changed. Resurgence relishes advances in computer-generated imagery when it comes to depicting an alien invasion. The production realities of the mid-nineties forced Roland Emmerich to be somewhat restrained in his use of the aliens in Independence Day. The armoured suits were material props, the tentacles were practical effects. There were some things that couldn’t be done with them. CGI has fewer limitations.

CG... oh, I see.

CG… oh, I see.

This is not a good thing. Resurgence runs wild with its CGI, taking every opportunity to showcase its alien menaces and to flood the screen with alien space ships. The original Independence Day was frequently cluttered and over-crowded when it came to spectacle; that was a large part of the charm. However, Resergence moves past charm. It suffocates in a mess of pixels. Emmerich struggles with the temptation of computer-generated action in much the same way that Michael Bay does.

The plot makes absolutely no sense. The scripting is terrible. Resurgence is credited to five writers, none of whom could impose a structure on the film. In terms of structure, if not in content, Resurgence feels like a clumsy attempt to make a modern film. Resurgence is full of transparent calls forward and sequel hooks. Resurgence is more dedicated to building a franchise than its characters are to building a survival plan. These attempts are so clumsy awkward that they make Marvel’s early efforts at establishing a shared universe look like ballet.

He really could have just asked Liam's brother for some pointers.

He really could have just asked Liam’s brother for some pointers.

In some ways, this is a modern approach to film-making filtered through the lens of 1996. Resurgence seems like somebody told Roland Emmerich about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but he couldn’t find a VHS copy of Iron Man to actually watch. The characters in Resurgence speak the alien language more gracefully than Resurgence adapts to the contemporary franchise-driven paradigm of big-budget entertainment. There are points at which this lumbering clumsiness is endearing, but those moments are few and far between.

There are other examples of Resurgence trying to bridge the world of 1996 with the world of the present. In many ways, Resurgence plays as a nostalgic fantasy of a world in which 9/11 and the War on Terror never happened. Sure, there was a massive alien invasion that destroyed a number of landmarks, but those landmarks were rebuilt and everything continued as before. The White House stands once again, as does the Washington Monument. Indeed, Resurgence recognises how times have changed by declining to blow up the White House again.

Using iconic landmarks to destroy other iconic landmarks. We may be at peak Emmerich.

Using iconic landmarks to destroy other iconic landmarks. We may be at peak Emmerich.

Quite pointedly, Resurgence deliberately avoids any climax that could be read as a metaphor for 9/11. Despite the fact that Independence Day was built around the spectacle of famous monuments exploding, most of the large-scale urban destruction is consigned to a single sequence early in Resurgence. Tellingly, that sequence unfolds in a major European capital rather than a recognisable American city. Resurgence consciously steers clear of the urban 9/11 imagery of Avengers Assemble or Batman vs. Superman, taking its third act to the Nevada desert.

Again, there is something very nineties about the climax of Resurgence. There are a number of references to the looming end of the world, but the climax of Resurgence largely hinges upon one very large monster chasing a bus full of innocent school children. For all the bombaster and computer-generated spectacle, the climax of Resurgence is ridiculously old school. There is something delightfully telling in this approach. Resurgence is based around the idea that more is better. So putting one child in peril is good; putting a whole bus full of children in peril must be genius.

"We're going to need a bigger MAC."

“We’re going to need a bigger Mac.”

Resurgence treats the original film like a fetish object. At only point, the camera pans to a portrait of Captain Steven Hiller hanging in the White House, a reminder of Will Smith’s absence from the film. However, this portrait looks more like a still from the original film than a still life painting. It is somewhat incongruous. There are countless references and callbacks, in terms of structure and dialogue. None of these sequences match the effectiveness of the original, instead feeling like the faint echoes of a gloriously cheesy stadium rock anthem.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the character of Brakish Okun. Okun was a breakout supporting character in the original Independence Day, memorably portrayed by Brent Spiner. However, Okun appeared to die in the original Independence Day after being used as a communications (or exposition) conduit by the alien menace. Resurgence reveals that the character was only sleeping; he wakes up early in the film, stirring from a twenty-year coma to help prepare mankind for their rematch.

Back in the Brent(wood)...

Back in the Brent(wood)…

Despite all this, there is no lingering trauma from the original alien invasion. No true angst. Several characters in the film lost parents to the alien invasion, but this does not define them. Jake Morrison last saw his parents when they dropped him off to camp, while Dylan Hiller lost his father to an experiment with an alien ship. However, their central issue in the film is related to a single incident that took place during training. America still leads the world, building peaceful coalitions with other nations and behaving as something akin to a global guardian.

This is a world in which the long nineties seem to have frozen in place, a fantasy in which America’s global dominance of the nineties was never challenged by forces like terrorism or Russia or China. This is a unipolar world, concessions to the Chinese notwithstanding. The Security Council might vote on how best to deal with a new arrival, but the United States President is the casting vote. It still falls to the United States to unilaterally vanquish the alien menace. The aliens might overshadow the Eiffel Tower and the Atlantic Ocean, but the world waits for America.

Pilot error.

Pilot error.

There are other nods towards the political climate of the nineties. The Clinton White House seems to haunt Resurgence. President Whitmore is still a character of major import. Patricia Whitmore is a primary character this time around, the daughter of a former president engaged in political life like Chelsea Clinton. Casting Sela Ward as President Lanford evokes Hillary Clinton, the first female presidential nominee from either of the major parties who is also tethered to that halcyon nineties era.

More than that, the minor details root the film in the context of the nineties. Much is made of the fact that destroying the mothership at the end of Independence Day effectively halted the alien invasion. Certainly, North America seems prosperous. It seems highly likely that Western Europe also survived relatively unscathed. However, an early section of the film takes Director Levinson to a war-torn region of Africa, adorned with alien skulls and patrolled by militias. Levinson suggests that the region was locked in a brutal ground war with the aliens for ten years.

Time and space.

Time and space.

Again, this reflects on the nineties fixation on conflict in war-torn Africa, in Somalia or Rwanda or Eritrea. Dikembe Umbutu even wears a beret and a military uniform while attacking aliens with a pair of machetes. It is a decidedly tasteless attempt to add an international flavour to proceedings, at once horribly racist and curiously outdated. Resurgence never turns its eyes to the Middle East; those conflicts are perhaps too fresh or too contemporary. There is a sense that Resurgence really does wish that the nineties never ended.

There is an innate wrongness to Resurgence that bubbles beneath the surface. The film is horribly put together, affording its characters no room to develop beyond one-dimensional archetypes amid a flurry of computer-generated chaos. However, there is a sense that this is a weary daydream of a world where the perceived peace and property of the nineties never came to an end. This is a fantasy, a crazy “what if” where an omnicidal alien invasion is to be welcomed if only because it teaches the world to treat the United States with the proper respect.

Alien ideas.

Alien ideas.

Resurgence is a mess of a film, all the more frustrating because it exists primarily to set up another even messier film that somehow aspires to be even bigger than this bombastic sequel. Resurgence is perhaps a compelling argument for letting go of the nineties, a reminder that the past can never be entirely reclaimed. Instead, it becomes a toxic and incoherent fantasia; a nightmare more than a dream. “I had twenty years to prepare us for this,” Levinson confesses towards the climax. However, the film seems to have spent those twenty years in the same coma as Brakish Okun.

11 Responses

  1. I’m not sure I’d identify President Lanford as a Hillary stand in. The movie doesn’t exactly make her a comedic figure but she seems to be portrayed as a bit of a mental lightweight who ignores her civilian expert in favour of looking strong in front of her officers/the other world leaders and whose stubborness ends up helping no one. Even Senator Clinton’s opponents (which certainly don’t include Emmerich) wouldn’t accuse her of being slightly dim.

    Actually Lanford reminds more of a gender flipped George W. Bush, including his more likeable characteristics (Lanford is depicted as friendly and familiar to her staff). Emmerich already gave us a quasi-sympathetic but ultimately ineffectual Bush-type in ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ and Lanford seems closer to that.

    • That’s a fair point, but I do think that Lanford’s more aggressive tendencies (as you said, it’s the military advisors she listens to) are very much a “Hillary” trait in the public consciousness. Although that’s a fair point about the Bush-ness, particularly in relation to The Day After Tomorrow.

  2. I read today that this film underperformed at the box office, so I wonder if we will ever get the sequel promised here. I am so tired of this franchise baiting that is so pervasive right now.
    Filmmakers should just focus on telling a good story, wait to see what happens in terms of critical and financial reception, and then worry about sequels.

    • I would agree entirely with that. I feel like a lot of the big issues with this year’s disappointing blockbuster slate have to do with putting the perceived demands of the franchise ahead of the individual film.

  3. I was gonna say that you shouldn’t invest more thought and care in your review of this movie than the production team did in writing the script and bringing it to life… but you managed to find nuance and grace points in the original that even the original didn’t know existed. You make me nostalgic for the first movie in a way that I never was even having seen it several times!

    • I think the original is great. I love the original. It has become fashionable to riff on it a bit, and I understand that. But it really is the quintessential nineties blockbuster for me, even more than Jurassic Park, which I think has more of a timeless quality to it.

      And thanks for the kind words!

  4. I’m not sure why anyone likes the original and who was asking for a sequel? The only thing I guess that’s interesting about this film is that its Brent Spiners first major movie role since Star Trek Nemesis? Man, the guy can’t get a break…

    I very much dislike Roland Emmerich and ignore his films, but now he’s rebooting Stargate, throwing away the only part of the franchise anyone ever cared about (the tv franchise) so I guess I’ll be irate against him for years to come.

    • I quite liked the original. It’s goofy. It’s not necessarily good cinema, but it’s a great pop corn film. (And, seeing it when it first came out, the spectacle was mindblowing.)

      I am not a big fan of Emmerich’s work after 2000, around the point he discovered that CGI was affordable and limitless. The Day After Tomorrow and… the one where John Cusack drives a limo and the other ones are just noise.

      But I do like Stargate, although it’s not as good as the show. And I do like Independence Day, while acknowledging its flaws. And it is a product of its time.

      • There’s far better goofy sci-fi films. I’d even take the original Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers over Independence Day.

        The original Stargate film is okay I guess, but I far prefer the tv iterations (SG-1 and Atlantis) and unlike Trek, I doubt we’ll ever see that universe again. Oh well

  5. I very much dislike Roland Emmerich and ignore his films, but now he’s rebooting Stargate!

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