Independence Day: Resurgence is a Weapons-Grade Dumpster Fire of a Movie

Nostalgia is a strong motivator. It compels us to look at old photographs of college parties, or to read a comic book from childhood, or it brings us to a theater to see sequels to movies that we enjoyed growing up. In the case of this evening, nostalgia motivated my father to purchase three tickets to Independence Day: Resurgence, inviting me and my mother to come along. And nostalgically, I accepted.

Here’s how it went:

My mom squirmed in her seat and sighed a lot. My dad watched with a puzzled look on his face, akin to someone trying to figure out a particularly baffling work of cubist art. I found observing his futile efforts more enjoyable than watching the movie, which was a film so devoid of any merit that in my spare time between horridly paced scenes, I was drafting this review in my head, eager to reach a keyboard.

Now, I will defend movies that are obvious cash grabs, but only if they have merit. It’s why I’ll eagerly see the next Planet of the Apes movie, because the last two rode the popularity of the classic films yet still achieved something unique and beautiful. It’s even why I’m willing to accept The Hobbit trilogy, because despite those films’ obvious flaws, you can still tell many of the people who made them gave a damn. And it’s certainly why I’ll defend Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a film dripping with nostalgia, yet one so fun and memorable it’s abundantly easy to forgive its flaws.

But not this horror. Resurgence is by far one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, dwarfed only by last year’s calamitous Terminator: Genyshit. In 1996, audiences enjoyed Independence Day as something fresh and satisfying: A fun alien invasion movie that found room for some actually compelling emotion, driven by a relatively tight script and adorned with some of the coolest visual effects of its time. It was crewed by memorable characters depicted by actors who put forth plenty of effort, and who drove a simplistic yet reliable plot that had a clear set-up, climax, and conclusion.

This movie doesn’t even come close to its predecessor’s success. From the opening lines of dialogue, I could tell this movie was awful by the way it was constantly explaining itself and retconning details of the “War of 1996” lore to justify the existence of certain characters, or, in the case of Will Smith’s character, the absence of them. But possibly most egregious is not that Will Smith wasn’t in this movie (though I feel confident in saying he couldn’t possibly improve it), but that so many returning characters are in the movie. The only benefit I could see as a reason for their return was so that moviegoers could point to the screen and whisper to their companions, “He was the guy who was in the last one …” before returning to their popcorn and/or sadness. One returning character just weirdly dies in an emotionless CGI mess, and we’re evidently supposed to care. Another actor — who played an older character in the first film — appears for one scene, delivers zero lines, and clearly looks kidnapped from his retirement home against his will.

But hey, this is a sequel to a sci-fi action-adventure film that came out 20 years ago, so that means the people who get to drive the plot are none other than the original characters’ children: Plucky youngsters who all look and act like they belong on some hypothetical prequel drama like Grey’s Anatomy: The Med School Years. You’ve got the daughter of Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore, and you’ve got the son of totally-didn’t-wanna-be-in-this-shit Will Smith’s Captain Hiller. (By the way, I say “daughter” and “son” because I simply don’t care to remember their names.) There are some other young guns thrown in there, none of whom make any impact aside from delivering comic relief that’s weaker than a roll of budget brand toilet paper. Every member of the new cast offers very little to like, and act so weakly that there’s no chance of this movie serving as any of these kids’ “big break.”

Not that the old crew fares that much better. Sure, you have Bill Pullman in it, reprising his role this time as a bearded President Whitmore, and I’ll actually give him some credit for offering the only interesting thing in this movie. He’s traumatized by the events of the first film, and provides a cool cerebral vibe to the story … until the final act, when the script absolutely eviscerates his character, his beard, and the hope he so tenuously offered us.

And Jeff Goldblum is in it, playing Jeff Goldblum. There are some accomplished actors out there who, when given a weak script, are actually able to make something out of it. Bill Pullman managed for a while in this one, at least. But not Goldblum. He phones in the entire thing, offering no more effort than those abysmal commercials he does.

Here’s the spoiler-free setup of the plot: Bolstered by their victory over the alien invasion two decades ago, and by the technology they harvested from their destroyed ships, humanity is united in an unprecedented era of peace. We’ve strengthened our planet, boosted our civilization’s reach into the solar system, and harnessed clean energy. But of course, the aliens come back with bigger, badder machines to try and win for real this time. Which, I will admit, is a pretty cool way of setting up a summer blockbuster sequel to Independence Day.

For the record, I wanted this movie to happen for years. But I also wanted it to be good. And there is a huge variety of reasons why it’s not, but chief among them is the writing. The general narrative arc of the movie does make sense in a pulpy science fiction sort of way, but the scenes used to execute it are so baffling incoherent and filled to the brim with overly convenient plot devices that I completely understood when people in the audience laughed when they weren’t technically supposed to.

The spacefaring vehicles shown in the movie allowed writer/director Roland Emmerich and his complicit screenwriters the means to deliver characters to places that serve the flimsy plot. Characters show up magically from long distances away throughout the entire movie. And I mean long; one of them came from the damn Moon, and then went back to the Moon in the next scene. Most of the time, when this happens it’s only so someone can deliver a single line of dialogue like “It’s a trap!” or some other needed exposition. Characters appear alongside other characters — also magically — to provide a moment of forced nostalgia and reference from the first film. I wonder if instead of “fusion drive engines”, Emmerich would’ve simply preferred Star Trek beaming technology to wondrously teleport people to where the script needed them.

The convenient placement of all these characters also serves the purpose of getting them out of harm’s way. And harm this movie delivers, just without any of the emotional impact of it. The alien spacecraft is literally the size of an ocean, and when it touches down on the surface of the Earth, millions, possibly billions of people die. But does any weight accompany this calamity? Are there any somber moments where we as an audience might feel the depth of this destruction, like in — oh I don’t know — a scene from the first movie that showed a silently floating alien craft hovering over a devastated New York City, or a character quietly mourning a lost loved one? No, we don’t. While the first movie did an entertaining job of depicting a plausible human reaction to an alien invasion, this movie makes us feel nothing. Instead of honesty, we are instead treated to additional quips from unmemorable characters, and an up-close shot of Brent Spiner’s ass as he walks down a hallway in a hospital gown.

I find it fitting that this tragedy of a movie came out on the same day as the apparent “independence day” of Britain from the European Union, a decision which by most counts is an uninformed, uninspired mistake. Perhaps there’s some bitter symbolism there.

As I said earlier, there is a place in the Hollywood lexicon for cash grab sequels and reboots. Movie entertainment is a beautiful thing, and I will always be an ardent cheerleader of the people who make a living producing it. But there are ways to do it right — or merely competently — and Resurgence fails spectacularly. Of course, the movie ends on a note that promises — perhaps threatens — a follow-up third film. I can’t be certain, but my guess is that movie will probably be terrible as well.

But here’s one thing that I am sure of: This movie and the inevitable third one will not diminish the value of the first. There seems to be a school of thought that suggests that bad sequels in some way damage their predecessors, and I just don’t think that’s true. The first two Terminator films remain unmarred by their flaccid sequels and Independence Day is the same way. It’s not a perfect film, and by any objective standards we have today about cinema, it’s not even particularly great, though it will always remain a family favorite of mine. But for now, if I’m looking for a cozy nostalgic blanket to drape over myself, I’ll just put that movie on and pretend Independence Day: Resurgence doesn’t exist.

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