I’ve always found it interesting that some movies don’t have to be good to stick with you; Starship Troopers is strangely entertaining despite its poor acting, and Tarzan is the weakest of the Renaissance films, but its hard not to get hyped when Phil Collins starts his ballads. Independence Day was the first time I realized a film could fill this role: it wasn’t great, and it knew it. It didn’t try to be high brow like The Day the Earth Stood Still or thrilling like the X-Files. Instead, Independence Day was among the first of what we would recognize as the modern summer blockbuster. It is loud, has huge effects, and regardless of its end quality, is a lot of fun.
It also ended up being one of my favorite movies of all time. Will Smith, who at the time was a virtually unknown presence, has an immense amount of presence on the screen; his comedic abilities, and the beginnings of his dramatic ones, really shine. Jeff Goldblum is..well himself, but it still feels fresh, raw, not-practiced; he has that same dry wit and flashing smile that made Ian Malcolm the only character we really care about in Jurassic Park. The supporting cast is equally strong. Judd Hirsch as Goldmblum’s father stands up as one of the best parts of the film. Last but certainly not least is Bill Pullman as the seminal president Whitmore, who gives the unforgettable and culturally inescapable “we will not go quietly into the night” speech before the final battle. This is where the movie truly soared, in the play between these actors, the presence of Pullman before his cabinet, the back and forth of Goldblum and Hirsch, and later smith. In short, ID4 is simple, easy, fun.
Which is why it was such a heartbreaking disappointing to discover that whatever magic ID4 has conjured, whatever lay in Emmerich’s brain that created the fun of the first one, was utterly lost in Independence Day resurgence. Let me start by saying I do not entirely blame Emmerich: his script was taken by Fox and rewritten to death. And it shows.
IDR takes the positives from the first film, the big effects, the great cast chemistry, the attention to fun, and turns it all on its head. The effects look and feel uninspired and bland. It’s a result of the same damn aesthetic that Abrams gave us with the Star Trek reboot, and was copied to death by Interestellar, Oblivion, and I’m sure a host of others I’m forgetting: the future is shiny and white, things are round, and feel like natural evolutions of real human technology. This could honestly be a Star Trek film and you would never know, sans the lack of lens flares.
As for the cast, the film is constantly plagued by trying to be new with young actors Liam Hemsworth, Jessie Usher, and Maika Monroe, and nostalgic with members of the original cast; Goldblum, Hirsch, and Pullman in particular. The end result feels convoluted, and left me wondering, who the hell is this film for? The Force Awakens showed the correct way of performing a “handing off a franchise”: the original actors are present, and there are callbacks, but they are largely there in unison with the new cast, sharing the screen, helping to build them up. IDR does the exact opposite thing: The amount of time the original and new cast share has got to be a tiny percentage of the overall screen time. What you are left with is young actors who feel like they are trying their damnedest to carry the blockbuster, but whom you just cannot care about, and the old cast who spends most of the film separated, forced into callback moments and roles, and unable to interact and help transition us into this new cast. By separating their cast, the film commits its greatest crime; lacking the fun that made the original film shine. I dare someone to provide a good quote from this film. Go ahead. I’ll wait. There aren’t any. Pullman is forced into a speech to mirror the first film, that falls completely flat and carries none of the weight. Goldblum is always welcome, but frankly his character feel out of place and misused; he is ignored for the first half of the film, and we aren’t led to understand why. Hirsch has the most interesting part of the film, going on a road trip across the country to get back to his son. Yet even this lacks the interesting character meet ups and natural development that this same role, performed by Vivica A. Fox in the first film, delivered.
As I said before, it is a very safe statement that ID4 was one of the first summer blockbusters. It invented many of the tropes and devices that we know today. So it is almost delightfully ironic that its sequel falls victim to the very thing that ID4 created, simply mutated and grown to its worst over the last two decades. The film is CGI-bloated, charmless, and reeks of forced-franchising. It is a bad sign when one walks out the theater and thinks, “Transformers really knew how to get a cast together, and to get the CGI to be interesting.” This is nothing but saddening, I couldn’t even be upset. It took an amazingly fun film that held up after two decades, opened it up, took out the modern recipe for success in the international film markets, and left the dead (alien) exoskeleton of what was once original summer blockbusters behind.