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Monday, June 19, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

Director: Roland Emmerich
Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Liam Hemsworth, Bill Pullman
Domestic Box Office: $103,144,286

In the four summers that I've looked at films that failed to set the summer box office on fire, most of the films I've looked at have fallen far below the threshold of what one could conceivably consider a hit, earning $50 million or less. But sometimes a film crosses the $100 million mark, which used to be a clear benchmark of success but is less so now that some films make $100 million in their first weekend alone, and is still regarded as a financial failure. Independence Day: Resurgence is the fourth film I've looked at in this series that has made $100 million or more, but its domestic box office take falls far short of its $165 million production budget. If you believe the saying that a movie has to earn three times its production budget before it shows a profit, then even taking into account the worldwide gross doesn't bail this one out, coming to a total of $389,681,935 (for comparison's sake, Independence Day made $306 million domestically, and that's in 1996 dollars). If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that sometimes things are better left alone. Especially if you can't convince the star of the original to come back for the sequel.

Resurgence takes place 20 years after the original, with the Earth united as never before and governed essentially as one (with the US in charge, naturally; every nation seems to govern itself, but the President sits on the proverbial Iron Throne) and having benefited from the technological advances made possible by that first devastating alien encounter. As the celebration for the twentieth anniversary of the invasion approaches, an alien craft in deep space finally hears the distress signal sent out decades earlier. When it shows up in sight of Earth, the world's leaders decide to err on the side of caution and simply blow it up immediately and without further investigation. That's too bad since the craft that shows up actually belongs to a friendly species that wants to assist humanity against the aliens, who are on their way back to make another invasion attempt. With humanity brought to the brink yet again, it's up to some of the heroes from the first war - scientists David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and Brakish Okum (Brent Spiner) and former President Thomas Whitmore (Jeff Pullman) - and a new generation of heroes - pilots Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) and Dylan Hiller (Jesse Usher), the son of Will Smith's character from the first film, and Patricia Whitmore (Maika Monroe), daughter of the former President - to save the day.

First things first, I'm not sure that the world was actually clamoring for a follow-up to Independence Day. That film was a rarity for big summer hits in that it didn't immediately launch a franchise, making it the kind of film that came, did what it needed to do, and left gracefully without trying to stretch its premise over multiple movies. The Earth was threatened, the Earth was saved, the end. To be honest, while there are things about the original that remain memorable - "Welcome to Earth," and the White House being destroyed chief among them - I found myself hard pressed to remember much beyond the "greatest hits" of the first film, which I probably haven't seen in about 15 years. Judging by the tepid reaction to Resurgence by moviegoers, I'm guessing that I'm not alone in that and that the original maybe isn't so beloved that people would be drawn back by the promise of continuing that story.

Of course, that might have been different if Will Smith could have been tempted to return for the sequel. In 1996 Independence Day, coming one summer after Bad Boys and one summer before Men in Black, helped solidify Smith's status as the "King of Summer" and his star power is something that Resurgence simply can't replace. Smith's character has died between films and his replacement is apparently supposed to be Hemsworth's character, but Hemsworth is no Will Smith. While Smith has charisma to spare, Hemsworth's character is just another cardboard cutout of a hero, and the actor can't make him any more than that, and you can build a film (let alone a franchise, which Resurgence aims to be) around that. Nor could you build it around Dylan or Patricia, each played by pleasant enough actors, neither of whom can make their character seem like someone worth following into another movie.

But the problems with Resurgence go beyond being a sequel that's come too late and without one of its main attractions. For one thing, if Independence Day's success is meaningful for the way that it helped prove that a black actor can carry a big budget film (even if this is a point that has to be repeatedly "proved" to studios), then Resurgence is massively disappointing. Though Usher's character is literally the successor of Smith in the film, in that he's playing the son of Smith's character, his character is largely sidelined in favor of Hemsworth, even though he's one of the few characters to actually experience the grief of losing someone in the second invasion (Patricia will also experience such a loss, but her father will at least be memorialized as a hero, whereas Dylan's mother is quickly dispatched and then forgotten). Moreover, the film's depiction of black people is stereotypical in a way that is weirdly old fashioned even by the standards of stereotypes. The film's other significant black character is Dikembe Umbutu (DeObia Oparei), a "warlord" (even though the film makes a point that Earth has experienced an unprecedented period of peace and cooperation between films so... who is he warlording against?) introduced when the film comes to his headquarters, a location set designed with prominently displayed skulls, and constantly noted to arm himself with machetes while everyone else prefers the high-powered alien guns. Although he's one of the film's heroes, he's depicted in a way that suggests that he's more primitive than the rest and that, coupled with what I suppose is meant to pass as a joke when one of the white characters balks at the idea of being left behind with Umbutu's retinue of soldiers (the joke being that black people are scary), paints an ugly picture of the film's racial politics.

Add to that that the film, which again cost $165 million to make, has some effects work that looks... just bad (most of the effects look fine, albeit in that generic CGI overload way that most science fiction-action movies do, but there are a couple of scenes where the effects just look terrible) and that it feels like it has only two modes - rehash, in which it reworks the most famous moments of the original ("They like to get the landmarks," Goldblum remarks as Tower Bridge gets destroyed) and catches up with the characters from the first film who survived, and set up, in which it puts pieces in place for an anticipated follow-up - and you have a film that doesn't do much to convince you that it exists on its own merit. For a film about the potential end of the world, in which characters lose loved ones, repair fractured relationships, and pursue romance, it is bizarrely lacking in tension or much in the way of emotion (though Pullman gets a nice speech before going out in a blaze of glory).

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the film's idea of comic relief: Judd Hirsch returns as Julius Levinson, father of David, leaning heavily into the "Jewish mother" stereotype, despite being a Jewish father. The film gives him a group of children to play off of - first a couple of kids in a car who are introduced worrying about what's become of their parents, and then a literal bus full of children, none of whom seem particularly curious about what's become of their families. It doesn't go anywhere and doesn't result in a laugh.

Should It Have Been a Blockbuster?: Its makers were certainly expecting it to be successful enough to kick off a new franchise

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