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.
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.
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.
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.