Well, let’s not waste any time: Independence Day: Resurgence would have been far better with Will Smith in it. He’s been replaced by a gaggle of charisma-free B-listers and a host of returning faces who gamely try to fill the void, but they can’t save the film from its asinine script and its lack of interesting action. It’s a ridiculously, overtly, willfully stupid film, and it knows it; this is both bad (because we should not forgive a work its sins simply for making confession – I’m looking at you, Jurassic World) and good (because self-awareness helps the comedic aspects, intentional or otherwise, land on their feet, and is really the only reason the film works at all). Thank our malevolent alien overlords for Jeff Goldblum.
Resurgence is the latest in a list of sequels that nobody asked for, swooping in fifteen years too late with an inflated budget and a desperation for audience approval so palpable you can smell it coming off the screen like halitosis. Twenty years have passed since Independence Day’s 1996 alien invasion, and with the extraterrestrial technology recovered from that attack, we’ve learned to unite as a species, build a space station on the moon, elect a female President, and design spaceships that look like Neill Blomkamp’s discarded first sketches. We’ve gotten fat and lazy, and then the aliens come back with an even bigger ship to blow us even more the hell up. It’s the kind of awful, unimaginative, pandering, lowest-common-denominator dreck that can only be penned by a team of no fewer than five people. It’s typical Roland Emmerich – which, going back to the mid-nineties, should really tell you all you need to know.
Apart from the core cast of returning actors – Goldblum, Pullman, Hirsch, Spiner – it seems as though 20th Century Fox was only able to get their second or third choices for the rest of their ensemble. Everyone, to a person, is like the crappy low-rent version of someone else: Liam Hemsworth is a dead-eyed, personality-free cardboard cutout of his Asgardian brother; Maika Monroe has nowhere near the chops of a Saoirse Ronan; Michael B. Jordan must have said no, so they got Jessie T. Usher instead; and Sela Ward is like a poor man’s Julianna Margulies. Even Nicolas Wright can’t deliver a line without seeming like an even more ineffectual (and far less funny) John Oliver. I can’t remember a single character’s name, except for Goldblum’s “David” (mostly because it was among the most commonly-used words in the script; it would undoubtedly be the largest font in the word cloud of this screenplay), and Judd Hirsch’s “Julius” (because he introduces himself to someone in the film’s final scene). Something mildly hilarious that occurred to me was that both Hemsworth and Munroe’s characters are entirely superfluous: we already have a likeable (?) male pilot in Charlie (Travis Tope), whose romantic relationship with the Chinese pilot, Rain (Angelababy, yes, that’s her name, look it up) is more interesting and well-established, and neither Hemsworth nor Monroe does anything that Charlie or the other benchwarmers couldn’t. They just needed a stubbly, square-jawed white male lead to kiss a blonde hottie at the end and hint at wholesome American values like “wanting to buy a house” and “girls can be fighter pilots and Presidential speechwriters if they put their minds to it.”
It’s patently obvious that the film was precision-engineered to appeal to an Asian audience, with the bare minimum of character and plot engagement tossed in so Western moviegoers don’t feel utterly cheated. Everything here screams “global box office,” from the Chinese cast members (who speak to one another in subtitled Mandarin and are clearly well-known faces across the pond), to the flashy, colourful visual effects, to the strangely Chinese product placement (a character drinks “moon milk” on the moon base from a carton splashed with Chinese characters; I haven’t done the research but I’d put big money on it being an established Chinese drink brand). They might as well have called it Independence Day: This Film Will Make Its Budget Back Overseas. At least our other blockbusters have the good taste to pretend they’re made for us.
And for all that, Resurgence is still playful. It still gives Goldblum a chance to do what he does best – i.e., be Jeff Goldblum – and he brings such a delightful charm and energy to this idiotic movie that he almost single-handedly saves it from itself (he makes passing lines like “Jesus Christ” and “Um, yeah,” into laugh-out-loud moments, which do wonders to buoy up the otherwise plodding exposition). He has that distinctive, almost ineffable Bill Murray-esque quality of lighting up every scene he’s in. When he’s sharing scenes with Brent Spiner, who’s no stranger to savouring his role as the resident weirdo on set, sparks fly. Bill Pullman, too, seems delighted to play a fractured version of his character from ’96, seemingly creeping out his fellow cast members as much as the audience. As uneven as the quality of the performances are overall, the entire cast – whether it’s thanks to the size of their paycheque, the silliness of their role, or their sheer gratitude to be working again – is clearly having an absolute blast. This is evident in their enthusiastic, sometimes gleeful readings of the script’s gag-inducing dialogue, and the way the younger actors throw themselves into their scenes as though this is the last movie they’ll ever make (which, for some of them, it very well might be). Everyone here knows full well what film they’re making – even Robert Loggia, who makes his final onscreen appearance as a taciturn army General, and to whom the movie is dedicated. There's even, shockingly, evidence of subtle subversion leaking out of Resurgence's writer's room: a homosexual romance "subplot," tossed in between two characters and executed in such an understated way you might not even notice it. It's so far in the background in the midst of such a noisy film that I kept forgetting it had even happened. But I promise you, it's there, and the fact that someone at the studio was able to slip it in without fanfare or self-satisfaction cheers me to no end.
It’s difficult, as a critic, not to approach this film from a populist perspective – it’s loud and proud about being a brainless triple-A summer blockbuster, in the way that only a sequel to one of the genre’s progenitors can be. How much can I say that hasn’t been said? There’s nothing under the hood to analyze. In the end, it boils down to whether or not anyone should pay money to see Resurgence. If you’ve read this far seeking an answer to that question, I won’t let you down: no. There isn’t enough variety, ingenuity, or visual splendour on display to recommend it over any C-grade schlock (there is one, count ‘em, one new and interesting thing this movie does that Independence Day didn’t), and even Jeff Goldblum can’t save your brain from the script’s aggressive stupidity. It’s fun, but often at its own expense, and you come away feeling hollow and cheapened. Emmerich has proven himself the Herbert West of cinema, lulling your higher functions to sleep with flashing bright lights, and when you wake up and walk out of the theatre you find you can’t do math anymore.
– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.