I liked the original Independence Day movie, bought a copy, watched it every year or two, and did all that without forming any great opinion of it as a cinematic work. But last night I saw Independence Day: Resurgence, and rediscovered what I liked in the original through the process of subtraction, because those things are missing in the sequel.
*** SPOILER WARNING ***
I discounted the relationships dramatized in the original as being commonplace Hollywood fare — romantic couple separated by danger, broken connections between sons and fathers, the contrasts between a committed husband and wife and two divorced characters, the stresses between parents and children. I was wrong to think Independence Day was only a movie about blowing things up, knit together by a few satisfying emotional cliches.
Because Independence Day: Resurgence really is a movie about blowing things up, lots and lots of different things, jeopardizing a literal army of characters, some reprised from the original film, who I am apparently supposed to care about because of half a minute’s interaction between them here and there.
There’s a woman President of the U.S. who boldly gives orders as needed, though otherwise isn’t connected to the story by a family or romantic relationship. Sela Ward was a great casting choice, and underutilized.
It’s the former President, played by Bill Pullman, back from the first movie, who has a pilot daughter, and spends far too much time grabbing his head to let us know how extra sensitive he is to approaching alien stuff.
Jeff Goldblum is also back, adroitly filling that role necessary to all sf movies, the genius who free-associates scientific solutions aloud. Brent Spiner used to do that as Data in ST:TNG (“Yes, Captain, it’s possible that….”) but he’s got a much better part here playing the over-the-top Dr. Okun, a comatose survivor of his experience with the aliens in the first movie, til awakened in his hospital bed — likewise because of his sensitivity to approaching alien stuff. He is one of the few characters whose relationship gets developed, with his life partner Dr. Isaacs, another scientist at Area 51.
I thought there was a chance I might like this movie early on when Judd Hirsch, playing once more the father of Goldblum’s character, has a humorous scene trying to hawk his autobiography. That was funny, and well-done. But the rest of the time he’s largely wasted, one of the pawns in huge special effects scenes.
The scenes written for Hirsch’s character are among those intended to parallel dramatic moments in the first movie — for example, he’s rescued by a passing car (driven by parentless kids) in a similar way to the rescue of the First Lady in Independence Day. Many such parallel scenes are part of the formula, leading up to a colossal battle above and around Area 51 as the gigantic Alien Queen tries to capture a technological maguffin. While swarms of fighters try to overcome the Queen, Hirsch and a school bus full of kids are in constant jeopardy of getting stepped on or blown up, a manipulative and farcical sequence.
The movie attempts quite a few character matchups, and rarely invests time in them to get the payoff which might have been possible. That’s a problem, not because a special-effects-dominated movie should be expected to make that the top priority, but because we should have a reason to care whether the protagonists make it.