Friday, June 24, 2016

World's End (Again): INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE


Independence Day: Resurgence is a big, dumb, simplistic summer spectacle. And on that level – and that level alone – it’s mostly satisfying. Like its predecessor, the biggest hit of 1996, it is modernized 50’s pulp flying saucers sci-fi done up in storms of cutting-edge effects and an unfailingly direct corny affect. They’re the sort of movies that bring gigantic UFOs to hover menacingly over the Earth before spewing forth malevolent destruction. They don’t come in peace, so humans must fight back. There’s no great metaphor at work, innovative speculative alien designs on display, nuanced character development, or provocative subtext. It’s just straight to the point: loud, outsized ray gun shoot-‘em-ups as revenge for large-scale landmark destruction. It is what it is, and I suspect anyone going to see this would know what they’re in for, especially with Roland Emmerich (he of the original, as well as The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, and White House Down) at the helm.

With a twenty-year gap between the original and this sequel, Resurgence takes the opportunity to imagine an alternate universe. It removes some of the modern day what-if?-scenario frisson from the build-up, but serves to turbo-charge the action with faster ships and zippier weapons. The movie opens surmising that the aftermath of its precursor caused an era of international harmony. There was no time to fight each other while people were too busy mopping up remaining aliens, studying massive crashed spacecraft, building a planetary defense force, and appropriating extraterrestrial tech into our own. That’s why travel is faster, weapons are more powerful, and Skype signals are so strong. (An earthling video chats with a man on the moon with no lag. No wonder there’s world peace.) Alas, as humanity regrouped, so did the aliens. Guess what? They’re back, and this time they’re meaner, bigger, and more prepared. Surprise, surprise.

Emmerich stages the proceedings as a reiteration of the original’s plot in a larger, newer package. Alien beasties swarm out to attack. Cities are leveled. Humanity appears on the brink of destruction until – eureka! – we have a plan to strike back. That’s familiar. What’s new this time around is the size of the spectacle. Now filled up with CG filigree where the first was one of the last big hurrahs for model work, there’s room to blow up more of the Earth, leading to one of the great hilarious B-movie exchanges in the picture when the alien craft is landing. “It’s touching down over the Atlantic!” “Which part?” “All of it.” Yes, just like that all cities bordering the Atlantic are smashed and flooded. It’s such an overwhelmingly, incomprehensibly large swath of destruction, no time for teasing down one famous place at a time, it’s hard to feel. At least it shows the intergalactic attackers have improved on their plan and just smashed us all to pieces right away.

Of course the fate of the world rests in the hands of small group of stereotypes. It’s one of those disaster movies packed to the gills with no character arcs, just threadbare subplots and a cast that’s half comic relief and half stock types. All surviving cast members return (minus Will Smith), notably Bill Pullman as the former president and Jeff Goldblum as a prominent scientist. It’s nice to see them headlining a major motion picture again, especially one that leans into the nuttiness of its premise. There’s a moment where an alien-fighting expert African warlord (Deobia Oparei) wants to board an emergency trip to the moon. Goldblum calmly looks at him and says, in a dry eccentric line reading only he can conjure, “This is off limits to…uh…ah, ah…warlords.” (He’ll later be happy the intimidating guy packs his machetes and hitches a ride despite the objection.) Elsewhere there’s a president (Sela Ward), a general (William Fichtner), a psychologist (Charlotte Gainsbourg – what a cast!), and a passel of attractive twenty-something fighter pilots (Liam Hemsworth, Maika Monroe, Jessie T. Usher, Angelababy) representing a new generation with somehow less personality than the old.

There’s something familiar and hollow, but routinely diverting, about all this space invaders hullabaloo. Watching cities get decimated, people trapped in bunkers planning their responses, fighter jets scrambling, and laser guns zapping is just a regurgitation of a regurgitation. But at least the movie is shamelessly itself, simple and a little loopy. There’s a tonal mismatch between the devastation and the general lightness. London and D.C. are exploded. Families are torn apart. Untold millions die off screen. And also a man (Brent Spiner) wakes up from a two-decade coma and runs around Area 51 with goofball zeal, a frustrated human flips off a monster while urinating on an alien flight deck, and two lovebirds discuss their real estate options. (They’re going to buy their dream house, “if it’s still there.”) It’s a movie that includes a huge desert melee against massive tentacled critters lurking out of Green Slime, squishy cannon fodder, and a giant queen Kaiju rampaging while the humans finagle a magic cure-all MacGuffin orb into helping them save the planet. Then it gives a school bus full of kids (and Judd Hirsch) ringside seats for the finale

Somehow this added up to light dopey fun in my mind, a passable sound-and-light show. It’s apocalyptic and harmless, high stakes and totally inconsequential. And Emmerich is enough of an old pro to know it. He and his co-writers (like his old collaborator Dean Devlin) are specialists in crafting gleaming half-serious silliness. They throw in a handful of self-aware lines winking at the goofiness of the whole endeavor, including having two different characters say, “That’s definitely bigger than last time.” And they have the right components to build their frivolous popcorn craft. When the battles begin, the swirling effects have a fun adventure spirit, and throughout Markus Förderer’s cinematography feels properly industrial-strength clear, making the film’s abundance of murky and confined sets appropriately glassy steel and dim mood. The plot’s convolutions pass by with the excitement of a 12-year-old recounting the events in a bargain bin sci-fi paperback. The thing is just as formulaic as you’d suspect, and a crassly commercial attempt to cash-in on a 90’s nostalgia property. It's not entirely successful, and yet it does what Jurassic World and Fuller House couldn’t (an admittedly low bar). It finds just enough reason to exist and pulls off a return with some skill. I didn’t even mind the final shot where characters practically turn to the camera and say with a grin, “How about we make this a trilogy? Whaddya say?”

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