I’m not really one for sentimentalized or ritualized viewing. I’ll usually catch a showing of A Christmas Story over the holiday season and I make sure to watch Die Hard during the summer blockbuster months, as God intended. But life’s too short to demand that one sit down and repetitively re-watch something every year.
With one exception: Independence Day.
Every July 4, without fail, I carve out 2.5 hours to sit down, break out my 15-year-old, "five star collection" DVD, and watch the 1996 blockbuster. If I’m feeling luxurious with my time, I’ll watch the extended cut, featuring nine extra minutes of Randy Quaid’s dumb family and Jeff Goldblum mucking about with the alien ship being held at Area 51. I’ve been returning to this flick since it came out July 4th weekend 20 years ago, and with any luck I’ll be watching it yearly until they rip the plug out of the wall of whatever hospice I choose to spend my final days.
It shouldn’t be particularly difficult to understand why Independence Day appealed (and appeals) to your typical warmongering young (and, now, early-middle-aged) Republican sort. It is, after all, a movie about aliens blowing up hippies and busybody liberals learning to love smoking while a GOP president* and the United States military is forced to come up with a plan to save the world, the rest of which happily falls into line behind the rightful rulers of this godforsaken rock. It is a movie that celebrates the most American holiday and makes it one that the rest of the world celebrates alongside us after we save their ass.
So yeah, your average jingo has an understandable attachment to the picture. I sometimes get the sense that confirmed liberal Roland Emmerich has spent the rest of his career making films with the subtext "No, seriously guys, I am a liberal like you!" to make up for it.**
Political affinity aside, Independence Day is a surprisingly compact bit of filmmaking given its length (145 minutes), doing an excellent and efficient job of setting the stakes, establishing characters’ motivations and geography, and watching the conflict unfold. The movie confirmed that Will Smith was the movie star for a new generation, kicking off a decade of box office dominance the likes of which have rarely been seen and are unlikely to be seen again, and featured two stirring turns from Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman.
And the special effects, impressive at the time, still more or less hold up today. It helps that, where possible, Emmerich used models and life-sized vehicles, keeping the computer-generated destruction to a minimum and mostly using it to retouch stuff. There was a weightiness to the devastation wrought by the alien ships hovering over New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., a realism that has slowly disappeared from the multiplex as bits and bytes replaced mortar and models.
There are so many things that are vexatious about Independence Day: Resurgence that I’m not sure where to start. But the effects are probably as good as anywhere else. Because there’s a weightlessness to them that makes one ache for the good old days, when men were men and models got blown the hell up instead of CGI mockups. It doesn’t help that the actual destruction we see is vaguely nonsensical: an alien "harvest ship" has decided to park itself above the Atlantic Ocean, causing gravity fields or something, leading to buildings and airplanes and cars and, strangely, part of China to rise into the sky and then come crashing down.
There was elegance and logic to the original film’s appetite for destruction: a ship hovers over a city, fires a laser into its center, and devastation spreads out in a circle. Relocate, rinse, repeat, until every major population center has been destroyed. In Resurgence, however, the majority of the devastation caused by the alien ship is almost incidental. The aliens’ actual plan is to drill into the Earth’s crust and steal our molten core—which is, obviously, the most efficient way a species that has mastered interstellar travel could devise to power its ships.
Standing in their way are heroes old (Jeff Goldblum reprises his role as David Levinson and Bill Pullman’s back as President Whitmore; Will Smith does not reappear as Captain Hiller) and new (William Fichtner is here, as well as a cadre of young and entirely unmemorable actors whom I shall not even bother to look up on IMDB and whose lack of charisma is a stark reminder that movie stars are a dying breed).
The plot is unduly complicated—not surprising, since five writers share screenplay credits, and four of them have story credits. One can imagine the SNL character Stefon reciting the basics of the plot: "Independence Day: Resurgence has everything: psychic resonances and Congolese warlords and sentient robot balls traveling the cosmos looking for a champion to stand against the locust-like aliens spreading across the universe, consuming everything in their path." There are nuggets of good ideas in all of these subplots. I would happily watch a smaller film tracing the saga of a band of African warriors doing battle with the only alien spaceship to land and set up shop in 1996 or a larger film in which an alien intelligence whisks Jeff Goldblum across the galaxy to teach other species how to fight the alien invaders.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get these films, or any other film that might have been modestly interesting. Instead, we got a bigger, dumber version of the first Independence Day stripped of its best character (I understand why Will Smith wouldn’t touch this hot garbage, but it’s still annoying that they kill his brash Marine aviator off screen years before the film begins) and redesigned in a lab to appeal to audiences in China—Look at the Chinese guy commanding the moon base! See his cute niece on the modern version of the Blue Angels? Wow, can you believe the aliens destroy so much of China as their ship, um, heads to the Atlantic ocean? Those bastards!
I can’t help but think that this, in the end, is why the movie fails. And not just artistically: Independence Day made more than $800 million worldwide on a $75 million budget and a modest-by-today’s-standards ad budget not despite the fact that it’s an all-American, ass-kicking film but because of that fact. Because the rest of the world would say "it’s about bloody time! What do they plan to do" when America finally gets its act together to organize a counteroffensive. Twentieth Century Fox will be lucky to gross half as much on Resurgence despite the fact that it has a production budget double the size.
And they only have themselves to blame for that.
*That President Whitmore is almost certainly a Republican is sometimes treated as a contentious statement by people who clearly did not pay attention to the film’s text. Why? Two reasons. Reason the first: Vivica A. Fox’s character, an African-American female, said she voted for "the other guy," suggesting there’s roughly an 86 percent chance Whitmore’s not a Democrat. Reason the second: On the Mclaughlin Group, we briefly hear Fred Barnes defend Whitmore as "ultra-brave" after the aliens show up and, earlier in the film, hear Eleanor Clift slam him. These two factors make it an absolute metaphysical certitude that Whitmore, whose party ID is never revealed, is a Republican.
**Seriously, he made a global warming movie where Americans become refugees flooding into Mexico and a movie about white supremacists taking over the White House because they were angry a black president was about to broker peace in the Middle East. Emmerich is as subtle with his politics as he is with his special effects.
Update 12:24 p.m.: This post was updated to reflect the fact that Will Smith's character was a Marine aviator, not an Air Force pilot.
Published under: Movie Reviews