Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Alice Through the Looking Glass. Warcraft. X-Men: Apocalypse. The Angry Birds Movie. Now You See Me 2. What do all of these titles have in common? Well, two things: 1) they’re among the worst-reviewed movies of 2016, and 2) all of them were screened for critics in advance of their opening. So when word began to circulate around the critical campfire that Fox was choosing not to screen the highly anticipated Independence Day sequel for the bulk of print and online scribes – that, for example, the film’s New York all-media screening was at 11am this morning, 15 hours after its first screenings for the general public – the red flag was raised. Cold openings are for throwaway January horror movies and “faith-based” turkeys like God’s Not Dead 2; giant tentpole blockbusters never skip at least a perfunctory week-of round of critics’ screenings, thanks to the presumption that such movies are critic-proof. So, we had to wonder, was Independence Day: Resurgence so woefully bad that they actually thought we could do some sort of damage to its certain-to-be-robust opening weekend?
After dishing out $15 to see it opening night in a half-full theater, with an audience whose overall response is best summarized as “casual indifference,” I can tell you that the film is pretty goddamn terrible, in all the ways the first one was: paper-thin characterizations, laughably cliché-ridden dialogue, no sense of pace, and plenty of ham-fisted jingoism. But at least the 1996 film had a clear story, a sense of narrative movement, and well-executed set pieces; this one doesn’t even give us that. Its story is all over the goddamn place, mostly treating the returning alums of the inaugural outing (Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, Bret Spiner) like special guest stars and devoting the bulk of its running time to a new cast of characters whose conflicts, struggles, and relationships seemed designed expressly to put audiences to sleep.
There is Patricia Whitmore, daughter of Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore – played in the first film by the great Mae Whitman (Parenthood, Arrested Development) and here replaced, for no good reason, by It Follows’ Maika Monroe (who spends most of the picture acting circles around her subpar material). A would-be fighter pilot who gave up flying to take care of her increasingly erratic father – a bit of exposition gingerly handled by his line, “You gave up flying to take care of me” – she went to flight school with Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher), stepson of the late Steven Hiller (played by Will Smith in the first movie, who wisely passed on this one). And he’s in some sort of Top Gun-style hot-dogger feud with fellow flyer Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), Patricia’s fiancé. (The new characters are such a convoluted web of offspring that when, near the end of the picture, Jake bellows “YOU KILLED MY PARENTS” at the aliens, I scrambled through my notes, certain I missed the scene where we found out he was the daughter of Crazy Lady on The Roof in ID4 or something.) Oh, and he’s got a wacky sidekick, Charlie (Travis Trope) who’ll make you long for the gentle wit and charisma of Harry Connick, Jr.
Director Roland Emmerich (working from a script written with four collaborators) weirdly assumes we have some kind of interest or investment in these who-cares newbies; instead, even fans of the original (and I’m assured there are many) will likely spend much of the movie asking who these people are, and wondering why Emmerich and co. can’t even deliver the basic class reunion element of a tentpole sequel. And it’s not just them: there’s Sela Ward’s hawkish president, William Fichtner’s stern general, Charlotte Gainsbourg (poor Charlotte Gainsbourg) as a globe-trotting psychiatrist, Deobia Oparei as a brave warlord (don’t ask), and Nicolas Wright as a government dweeb who becomes a gun-lusting badass (the new picture’s riff on ID4’s favorite theme: that nerdnicks must find their spine, usually by wielding heavy weaponry). Oh, and there’s also the carful of orphaned kids that give Judd Hirsch a ride, and a boatload of treasure hunters or pirates or something that Emmerich keeps cutting to for unclear purposes, your guess is frankly as good as mine.
It would take a deft directorial hand to juggle so many characters and so many subplots, and, unsurprisingly, the director of Anonymous and Stonewall fails that test miserably. He can’t even situate more than three people in the same room together competently (watch out for inexplicable exits and meaningless reaction cutaways in the scene where Pullman walks into the Area 51 chamber), and his action beats have no sense of geography, within their own settings or in relation to any others.
To his credit, he figures out an ingenious way to rework ID4’s centerpiece sequence of rampant urban destruction, by moving in a mothership so big it disrupts our planet’s gravity – meaning the buildings and cars and sidewalks go up rather than blow up. But even that clever scene is disrupted by the peculiar cheapness of the effects; the landscapes, firefights, and explosions of the big SFX sequences, on earth and in space, have a peculiar, Zack Snyder-ian weightlessness, a video game aesthetic that even the 20-year-old original transcends. And those aren’t the only cut corners – for example, in a movie with a budget reportedly tipping up on $200 million, why does the African village sequence look like it was shot on the set of a Hope & Crosby Road movie?
Rumor has it that something like a half hour was shed from the film’s running time at the eleventh hour, which would go a long way towards explaining not only the numerous instances of clumsy dubbing, but also the odd sense that we’re watching a filmed outline – every scene is as sliced as short as humanly possible, particularly those that involve people talking to each other. So we end up with some pretty peculiar “character” moments; the President barely considers an alien ship’s appearance on the moon before growling “Take ‘em out,” a returning character’s partner’s death is mourned with strings and tears for maybe 15 seconds, and when little Hiller’s mother (who has gone from an exotic dancer in the first film to a doctor in the second – guess she was paying her way through school!) perishes in the attack, all he needs is a ten-word pep talk from JV Hemsworth before he steps up, grabs his helmet, and beams, “See you up there!”
Because he’s the heir to the Smith role (though sadly lacking in Big Willie’s charm and charisma – on reflection, Smith really was about the only tolerable element of the original), Steven gets the big callback lines, like “It’s the Fourth of July, so let’s show ‘em some fireworks!” and “Get ready for a close encounter, bitch!” But such moments – and the half-assed Xerox of Pullman’s rally-the-troops speech, for which the movie can barely muster up the strings – mostly come off like desperation, a stench of grim obligation that comes to overpower the picture.
So was Independence Day: Resurgence’s critical embargo necessary? Honestly, not really. It’s not a world-class, laugh-a-minute misfire, like Batman v. Superman or Pan – because frankly, it doesn’t have the personality and passion required for such howlers. ID:R is more a lifeless cash grab, and its too-careful media blackout (more likely an overreaction to Fox’s miscalculated way-early media screenings of X-Men: Apocalypse, which resulted in mediocre reviews and a considerable dip in box office) is just one of many peculiar decisions surrounding this too-long-in-coming sequel, like the attempt to “go viral” via dumb Goldblum memes and opening an Independence Day sequel a week before Independence Day weekend. But the movie itself isn’t some sort of cataclysmic fiasco. More than anything, it’s just kind of sad.
Independence Day: Resurgence is out now.