Monday, June 27, 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence

Saturday night, I went to see the sequel to Independence Day, the Roland Emmerich sci-fi/action blockbuster that came out in 1996, the year I graduated from college. Full of scenes of national landmarks blowing up, Will Smith being cool, Jeff Goldblum being smart, Brent Spiner being weird, Randy Quaid being weirder, Judd Hirsch being Jewish, Bill Pullman being President, and then-present-day people facing annihilation by a Far More Advanced But Terrifyingly Nasty Alien Species (FMABTNAS), the original ID4 has become a mainstay of U.S. popular culture since then. What's really weird is moving forward 20 years in real time to see a sequel, set 20 years later, but in a world completely different from ours. How could it not be, after beating the FMABTNAS and reverse-engineering the dickens out of the wreckage they left behind?

So, a lot of stuff happens, and it's really action packed. There are more scenes of desperate courage, more inspiring sacrifices, more exploding landmarks, and more touching relationships. The annoying bureaucrat proves himself on the field of battle. The hot-dog pilot wins the heart of the ex-president's daughter. The goofy scientist wakes up out of a 20-year coma and saves the non-FMABTNAS side of a galactic war - going on, in the final frames of the film, to hint at a series of sequels in which mankind "takes the fight to the enemy." Except what landmarks will they blow up then?

Jeff Goldblum, who trailed only Will Smith in the original film's credits, trails only Liam Hemsworth in this one's. (Which Hemsworth is that? Of the three heartthrob-actor Hemsworth brothers, he's the youngest; Chris is the one who plays Thor in the Avengers movies, and Luke is the one you've probably never actually seen. Liam is the Hunger Games one.) Sneaking ahead of the also returning Bill Pullman in the billing is Jessie Usher, who currently plays a basketball phenom on cable TV's Survivor's Remorse, and here plays the Will Smith character's grown-up stepson. Pullman has worked steadily since his previous appearance in this series as President Thomas Whitmore, but not in anything you've seen; this may be his best shot at breaking back into visibility. Playing Whitmore's grown-up daughter is horror-film maven Maika Monroe. Robert Loggia makes his final film appearance in this movie, reprising his ID4 role as an old soldier.

Also re-upping are Hirsch (lately of the late and lamented TV series "Forever"), Spiner (still best remembered as Data on "Star Trek: The Next Generation"), Vivica A. Fox (as the ill-fated widow of Smith's character, who has somehow managed to die off-screen). Playing two subsequent Presidents of the U.S. are well-known character-actors Sela Ward (TV's "Sisters" and "Once and Again") and William Fichtner ("Armageddon"). Other principals include Chinese supermodel Angelababy as a (surprise!) Chinese fighter pilot; French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg as a (surprise!) French psychiatrist/love interest for Goldblum; DeObia Oparei (actually a Brit, of Nigerian ancestry) as a Congolese warlord who specializes in slaying FMABTNASes with a pair of katanas; and Travis Tope as Hemsworth's best friend who, surprisingly (spoiler alert!) survives all the action. Tope seems strangely familiar for a guy who has only been in one production I have ever seen, and that an episode of the (also late and lamented) TV series "Battle Creek."

Big cast. Ensemble movie. Lots of irons in the fire. Action cutting from one group of protagonists to another. Characters you want to see more of, disappearing off the screen for far too long at a time. Surprisingly intricate bundle of plot threads braiding to a pretty intense climax. Action, action, action. And of course, special effects. But the characters carry it. And although no one ever tries to sell quite the load of inspirational oratory that Pullman did in the first movie, the overall theme of the planetwide underdog fighting to its last stand is pretty gripping. All in all, a popcorn movie of the first order. It will be one of maybe four or five movies I see all this year (including the couple I've already seen), but I'm glad I waited for it... and didn't miss it.

On the more critical side... I thought the whole gay-life-partner-relationship storyline built around Spiner's character was pointless and slowed the pacing down, especially in the scene where it ended. I found Usher's character to be disappointingly boring, considering who his stepdad was; all the fun, hot-doggy coolness seems to have passed diagonally to Hemsworth, and the relationship between their characters lacks chemistry - perhaps because it is Tope who really seems to be the Hemsworth character's best buddy. The Goldblum/Gainsbourg romance also lacks the chemistry of his "rekindling old flame" dynamic with Margaret Colin in the original. Goldblum and Hirsch, meantime, get very little screen time together, which is a lost opportunity to revive a strong dramatic and comic duo. There's a Tope/Angelababy romance that, I'm sorry, completely fails to sizzle. There doesn't seem to be enough time to make the kids who tag along with Hirsch interesting. Probably the most impressive character touches are Sela Ward's last words onscreen ("There will be no peace!"), the payoff of Pullman's character arc, and the bromance between Oparei and the weaselly bureaucrat with the heart of a warrior, played by Nicholas Wright. There are almost no lines that struck me as imminently quotable, partly due to the lack of James Rebhorn ("Pardon me, Mr. President, but that's not entirely accurate"), Harvey Fierstein ("Screw my lawyer!"), Randy Quaid ("Up yours!"), Will Smith (passim), Harry Connick Jr., etc. The only one that comes to mind at this moment is Hemsworth's "Did you wet your pants a little? Me too," or maybe Wright's "That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me!" And of course, Spiner is always good for a laugh (except when he isn't).

The battles with the aliens are great, though a certain something also seems to be missing from the jeopardy. Instead of the whole planet being surrounded by a swarm of city-destroying ships, this time there's just one super-big ship that parks on top of the Atlantic Ocean, with bits of it standing on three continents, and a slightly less super-big ship that separates off it like the saucer section of the U.S.S. Enterprise (Captain Picard era), plus little two-seater drones that at times are almost difficult to see at the scale set by the mothership. The alien queen is a big mother, and no mistake; but even with her seeming invulnerability, her position always seems basically vulnerable. With the aid of a non-hostile alien intelligence who sort of becomes Spiner's totally platonic girlfriend (totally), the prognosis seems inescapable: We're going to kick alien ass. I almost feel sorry for the slimy critters.

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