Friday, July 1, 2016

Movie Review: Independence Day Resurgence (2016)

The other night I gathered with the Myopia: Defend YourChildhood crew to go see Independence Day: Resurgence, sequel to the 1996 science fiction blockbuster Independence Day. I went in with high hopes, since I really liked how they made “The War of 1996” full-blown alternate history and depicted a world where humanity has used captured technology to give us a science-fiction future with easy space travel and other goodies.

Did it meet my expectations? Let’s see…

The Plot

Twenty years have passed since “The War of 1996” in which a genocidal alien invasion was barely thwarted at the cost of billions of lives. The world has been rebuilt with captured alien technology—human fighters are equipped with alien plasma weapons, alien anti-gravity technology has replaced propellers and jet engines in all aircraft, and fusion-drives have given us the solar system. The surviving aliens have been defeated and imprisoned and humanity stands united against the possibility the aliens might return.

On the 20th anniversary of the defeat of the first invasion, July 4 no less, the aliens return in an even bigger ship. It’s up to a new generation of heroes like fighter-pilot former President Thomas Whitmore's (Bill Pullman's) daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe), Will Smith's character's stepson Dylon Dubrow-Hiller (Jessie Usher), Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), and Rain Lao (Angelababy) to fight alongside old heroes like David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and President Whitmore himself to save the Earth from annihilation.

The Good

*As I said before, I really enjoyed the sci-fi future the combination of human and captured alien technology created. Fusion drives for deep-space travel, anti-gravity allowing for easy flight from place to place on Earth and into orbit, etc. It’s visually really nice and shows how, despite the horrors of the first film, a better world is possible.

*Although one could cynically write off the prominence of China in the movie as a Hollywood attempt to appeal to the world’s largest box-office market, it makes a lot of sense from a world-building perspective. China’s growth over the last few decades has been meteoric; even though they would have suffered massive damage from the first invasion, the integration of captured alien technology would likely not only compensate for the human and material losses but exceed them. Furthermore, the lack of intra-human conflict on Earth means that military spending would be freed up for planetary defense or civilian projects. China would be a major, major power in this world.

*The human military commanders, notably General Joshua Adams (William Fichtner) display some tactical sense in the movie, like preceding an attack on aliens by manned fighters with expendable drones.

*The movie is never boring. The various flaws I list below detracted from its entertainment factor, but I don’t remember ever looking at my watch.

*Some very good visuals. The special effects don't disappoint.

*The trap laid for the aliens’ hive queen is pretty clever.

*I enjoyed the sequence where a group of human pilots who’ve been shot down inside the mothership have to evade alien patrols was fun and even amusing at one point.

*The fighters from the new mothership look rather different from the fighters of the first film, which given what we learn about the aliens in this film makes a great deal of sense.

The Bad

Oh boy, where to start…

*During the first attack sequence, the purpose of the drone attack is to bring down the aliens’ shields before the manned fighters go in. We never see those drones go in or how they managed to do it, although the fact the new mothership’s shields don’t seem particularly active indicates the attack succeeded. The movie Skyline has a really cool scene where wave of drones (including a couple armed with nukes) temporarily bring down one of the aliens’ warships and if a low-budget entrée like Skyline could do that, why couldn’t this movie?

*The aliens' plan to rip out the Earth's core and mine it, killing the Earth in the process, is stupid. The aliens in the first movie wanted to colonize Earth and live there until they consumed the entire planet, and then they'd move on. If the aliens wanted minerals, there're plenty of dead planets, asteroids, etc. in space they could exploit without fighting.

*None of the characters were particularly memorable beyond the returning Dr. Brackish Okun (Brent Spiner), whose story is kind of silly. There's no charismatic Captain Hiller (Will Smith) here and Whitmore being a shadow of his former self is kind of the point of his character. Giving Hiller a much more blatant drive to prove himself the equal of his deceased stepfather would be more interesting. Perhaps a romantic rivalry between him and Morrison over Patricia would have been interesting? It could even be a bit of political-cultural commentary—in a world with aliens, where billions were killed or dislocated by the first invasion, an interracial relationship would be nothing noteworthy.

(Yes, I know love triangles are clichéd and evocative of all those young-adult dystopias, but it would provide opportunities for character development—Hiller and Morrison would have to have distinctive traits for her to like and dislike, and what traits appeal to her would develop her character too.)

*The love story, such as it was, between Hemsworth’s buddy Charlie Miller (Travis Tope) and Rain was really lame. At one point he's practicing Chinese to impress her, but it never comes in handy. It's like a Chekhov's Gun that's never fired.

*President Whitmore making another rousing speech at Area 51 doesn't hold a candle to his "today we celebrate our independence day!" speech from the first film. Lightning doesn't usually strike twice.

*Where are the missiles? The humans in the first film could engage the aliens from farther distances than the aliens could engage them (not that it really mattered much, given the aliens’ shields), but missiles carrying with tactical nukes or some kind of shield-shattering Project Excalibur-type weapon where a missile carries a warhead that turns into an energy burst upon detonation. Also, the mothership should have been a cruise and even ballistic missile magnet from the moment it entered the atmosphere.

(Which is why a space-faring species would be stupid to engage a low-tech opponent in a gravity well in the first place. The first attackers might’ve been overconfident, but one would think this batch would have learned from the earlier invasion’s failure.)

*Speaking of Dr. Okun, he’s in a coma for 20 years as a result of the forced alien mind-meld from the first film. President Whitmore gets the same treatment and he’s only out for a few hours. Plot hole!

*The United Space Defense’s military discipline needs work. Although Morrison seems to have been assigned to low-status space-tug duty due to risking another trainee’s life during a mission, he’s rude to his commanding officer and references engaging in behavior that should have gotten him drummed out completely or at the very least kept away from duty as important as manning the lunar bastion that’s the last line of defense before an attacker would get to Earth itself. Later on Hiller plays fast and loose with orders to retreat to Area 51 to check on the welfare of another character, which could have gotten him killed if the aliens had bothered pursuing the survivors of the lunar base.

*Earth’s orbital and lunar defenses fall way too quickly, with the new mothership destroying the satellites using reverse-engineered City Destroyer cannon before any of them can fire. The fact the City Destroyers’ weapons had an extended “spin-up” time was a weakness evident in the first movie (it allowed Russell Casse to kamikaze the Area 51 ship before it could destroy the base), but one would think the designers of Earth’s orbital defenses would remember that.

*Per my last point, the mothership only destroys the defenses above Asia and the Pacific, but then sails across Asia and implants itself on the Earth’s surface covering the entire Atlantic basin. It would have been a lot more intelligent if, rather than depicting buildings from Singapore getting picked up by the ship’s gravity and dumped on London, the human commanders redirect the remaining satellites to bombard the mothership, the mothership launches fighters to attack the satellites, the human nations scrambling their own assets (non-ESD hybrid or conventional aircraft, cruise missiles, etc) to mount at least mount some defense, etc, with our heroes returning from the Moon caught in the middle. 

That whole sequence could have been so much better. It could also explain the lack of missile support for the first manned attack on the mothership—all the missiles have been used up or their launch platforms destroyed by alien defenders.

*Owing to losses in the chain of command, a character who as far as I know isn’t part of the presidential line of succession at all is sworn in as president. Just how the line of succession gets that thin doesn’t make a lot of sense—after 9/11 the “designated survivor” is always somewhere else so the whole government can’t get wiped out at once. If some people were referenced as being out of contact rather than confirmed dead and the character was only temporarily in charge, that would make a lot more sense.

*Julius Levinson (Judd Hirsch) finding the kids who survived the alien landing on the East Coast (I'm thinking Florida) and then somehow making it to Area 51 in Nevada in what seems to be a single day is ridiculous. It would have been better if they just killed him off during the alien landing, to cull more of the previous generation’s heroes and give his son some angst.

*The post-nuke superweapon is a “cold fusion bomb.” Given what “cold fusion” actually is, I’m not sure if this is supposed to be a clean pure-fusion bomb or something that’s not really much different from a standard thermonuclear device. It would make more sense if it was an antimatter bomb, since a breach of the antimatter fuel supply for the City Destroyers’ cannon would explain why Russell Casse’s suicide attack on the about-to-fire cannon blew up the whole ship. A total annihilation reaction involving the amount of antimatter needed to fuel that powerful a weapon would not be a pretty sight. J

*Some of the implied back-story like African warlords fighting for a decade against a group of alien survivors would have been a lot more interesting than this movie. I actually really want to read the book Independence Day: Crucible that bridges the gap between the first film and this one. That one depicts the one City Destroyer that survived the end of the first movie and how the war goes on after July 4, 1996.

The Verdict

Good world-building and fun visuals, but weak characterization and derivative. Definitely not worth the $20 I paid to see it in 3D. Wait for the dollar theater. 6.0 out of 10.

Watch out for a “how I would have done this” blog post, as all the potential this movie wasted just begs for one.

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