One of the very first classes I took in high school was a required English comp course, one that every student, including myself, was dreading. To break the ice on that nervous, greasy-eyed day in late 1996, the teacher asked each of us what movie we had most enjoyed seeing over the summer. Most of us answered: Independence Day. Sure, it was loud and simplistic, but we had never before seen entire cities being wiped out, never been able to conceptualize massive and realistic alien craft, never had to consider being confronted with such an inescapable threat until that movie came out.
I answered Independence Day, as well, of course. Not so much because of the spectacle, but because I loved imagining where the story could go after the ending. What would humanity do with all that new technology? Would we be able to live in harmony with the surviving aliens? Would the planetary alliance last beyond the great battle? Independence Day was fun, but I really wanted to know what came next after such a civilization-altering event.
I would have to wait twenty years.
Resurgence answers a lot of the questions left over from the first film and really, the movie is at its most confident during its initial worldbuilding sequences. Turns out we definitely reverse-engineered the aliens’ laser guns and hover cars and clean fusion power and used it to rebuild our cities into big Star Trek-esque futurescapes and enter a new, shiny Space Age. We can Skype with the moon! We have a rapidly functional world government! We opened up new areas of study in psychic research and cosmic anthropology! All of these developments cohere into the futuristic (and heavily militaristic) society that we see in Independence Day: Resurgence. And all of the new characters that we’re introduced to are motivated by the needs of this science fiction society.
Unfortunately, the new characters alternate between being flat and underutilized. The Hemsworth (I don’t remember the character’s name) is supposedly our main character, the cipher that we see the story through, but there’s no substance to him. There’s a glimmer of something interesting in Dylan Hillard, son of the Now-Dead Will Smith: he’s continually trotted out as a simulacrum of his father and he’s expected to be grateful for that, but the movie doesn’t spend any time exploring his obvious discomfort in the artifice of his military celebrity status. I liked following the administrative back-and-forths of Patricia Whitmore, but she gets left behind by the story an awful lot, to the point where she has to remind the audience at the end of the movie that she’s a trained pilot and not just a government aide.
There are other interesting backstories that get left by the wayside, as well. Angelababy’s character Rain Lao zooms through scenes at a blur, never explaining why she’s so angry and so dogged when everyone else around her seems happy with the Earth’s new status quo. Deobia Oparei’s warlord Dikembe has a backstory so interesting it should have been its own movie. (Here’s the elevator pitch: His people had to fight off AN ENTIRE SHIP worth of aliens because no jet planes or other governments came to help his country during the invasion 20 years ago.)
It’s clear that filmmaker Roland Emmerich has thought about this sequel for just as long as I have. The first thirty minutes of the film offer a visually rich buffet of worldbuilding, weaving together to create a science fiction Earth suitably weird enough to transform the franchise into an epic space opera. But even with its extended running time, Resurgence can’t flesh out every detail, and this becomes the most glaring in regards to the underutilization of the more interesting new characters. Yes, the alien attack in 1996 left millions of orphans behind, including The Hemsworth, but there’s no time to think about who raised those kids afterwards…the aliens are back! Yes, the psychic link that Bill Pullman and Brent Spiner were attacked with in the first movie hints at the idea of telepathy being an emergent property of quantum entanglement and thus leading to a truly universal communication network, but there’s no time to think about that…the aliens are back! Yes, the aliens house their planet’s biosphere within their mothership and their corn fields look REALLY WEIRD, but there’s no time to think about that…the aliens are back! (And shooting at us through the space-corn. Stop, you guys, you’re ruining all the space-corn!)
There are SO MANY ideas in this movie and while Independence Day: Resurgence doesn’t do a great job at following up on them, it is nevertheless unashamed–gleeful, really–to present them. I think I would have absolutely loved Resurgence if it had come out shortly after the first film. The ideas alone would have blown my little mind; encouraged me to think larger, and weirder.
In 2016, however, the ideas in Resurgence just remind me of other movies I’ve seen and of other books I’ve read. Resurgence even opens with a cheeky homage to Robert Zemeckis’ film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s Contact, borrows some of the slick space visuals of the new Star Trek films, and uses basic astronomy concepts that the public would have seen Neil deGrasse Tyson explain in 2014’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. I saw the movie’s “twist” coming immediately, mostly because I had just finished reading Cixin Liu’s “Three-Body Problem” book series.
But is this specialized knowledge that I brought into the movie, or a mainstream awareness that I share with the general audience? It’s difficult to say for sure. Sure, Resurgence shows us a giant spaceship containing eldritch horrors, but, you know, the general public also gleefully watched a foul-mouthed raccoon and his best friend (a tree) fly through the hollowed-out head of a giant space god only two years ago. Resurgence is downright quiet compared to that kind of mainstream weirdness.
I didn’t leave Resurgence imagining where the story could go after the ending, even though this time the film clearly tasks us to imagine where the story will go next. I know where these stories go. I’ve read those books. I’ve seen those shows. I’ve taken this journey. In the end, although I’ve waited a long time for it, Independence Day: Resurgence isn’t actually meant for me.
But I don’t think it needs to be. And honestly, that’s why I think the film succeeds. It’s a high concept storm of ideas. A visual library of writing prompts. A tie left frustratingly unstraightened. How do you team up with other alien races to stop a bad one? Does faster-than-light travel mean you’re obligated to be part of a cosmic community? How can a bunch of different alien races exist in the ecosystem of a single planet…?
Resurgence goes beyond mere spectacle and reaches for the stars. It doesn’t quite achieve them, but it has fun trying. It’s a good place for someone to start.
- I didn’t talk at all about the returning cast, but I loved them. All but one of them chewed epic amounts of scenery and it gave the movie some much-needed charisma.
- Vivica A. Fox’s death actually really, really got to me. That slow distant fall into the rubble–after saving that family–was pretty devastating.
- Oh, and how about Dylan Hillard’s character essentially existing as a punching bag for trauma? He has to live in his dad’s shadow, he’s trotted out for ceremonies, he has no friends, and then he has to watch his mom die. AUGH.
- I didn’t realize this until later, but the movie’s attempt to give Dylan a “Welcome to Earf!” line like Will Smith (“Time for a close encounter, bitch!”) is almost exactly like another catchphrase that Will Smith gives in the first movie. (“Now that’s what I call a close encounter!”) Ugh, this poor character.
- BUT oh wow Dr. Okun’s gay relationship which outlasts even a 20 year coma and his laser and Brent Spiner slipping in an expert Star Trek joke…
- There’s an attempt to give Bill Pullman another grand, stirring speech, and it’s a good one, but the movie cuts away from it before you can get a sense of how everyone’s reacting. It’s a puzzling editing choice that’s repeated throughout the film. Resurgence never really lets its moments linger and land. (I felt the same about Force Awakens, too. Maybe it’s just an artifact of modern cinema?)
- Thank you for not killing Judd Hirsch, movie. I don’t think the tone of the film could have survived that.
- I didn’t stick around for a post-credits scene. If there was one, I hope it was about how the sheer mass of the mothership would have messed up the orbit and rotation of the Earth. Like maybe Judd Hirsch is on the salt flats taking a walk in the morning with Jeff Goldblum and suddenly asks, “David…is the sun supposed to rise in the west?”