Wednesday, June 29, 2016

What goes up, must come down


It resurges, all right, and then just slides slowly away...

Directed by Roland Emmerich
Written by Dean Devlin, Nicholas Wright, James A. Woods, James Vanderbilt, and Roland Emmerich
With Jeff Goldblum (David Levinson), Bill Pullman (Thomas J. Whitmore), Brent Spiner (Dr. Brakish Okun), Deobia Oparei (Dikembe Umbutu), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Catherine Marceaux), Maika Monroe (Patricia Whitmore), Liam Hemsworth (Jake Morrison), Jessie T. Usher (Dylan Hiller), Angelababy (Rain Lao), Travis Tope (Charlie Miller), Nicolas Wright (Floyd Rosenberg), Judd Hirsch (Julius Levinson), Vivica Fox (Jasmine Hiller), William Fichtner (Gen. Adams), and Sela Ward (Pres. Lanford)

Spoiler alert: moderate

By now, everyone's already made up their mind about how they feel about Roland Emmerich.  This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, necessarily; if you spend enough time with the works of any artist, you get to know them, and if you like them, then you begin to understand why they make the choices they do.  If you don't like them, however, then it's as they say: familiarity simply breeds contempt.  But I do like Roland Emmerich, and I really love Independence Day, so I wasn't about to be dissuaded from seeing its distant sequel, the fruits of his long-delayed reunion with his writing partner, Dean Devlin, just because people I don't trust anyway told me not to.  For a while, I was even rewarded for my faith: for Independence Day Resurgence does so much right, for so long, that I was half-convinced that, if it could just stick its landing, it might even be better than the first.  My God, maybe even better than Stargate.

It does not stick its landing.

But it is a pretty long time before we find Resurgence hobbling off the stage, trying to pretend that there's not a piece of broken leg jutting out of its thigh.  It begins as strongly as ID4 ended, throwing you right into a world that appears, in most respects, to be a completely logical extension of the civilization-shattering events of the first movie.  What we have is an alternate 2016 that has spent the two difficult decades since July 4th, 1996, rebuilding society with the help of scavenged alien technology, and preparing to fight the next battle in an ongoing cosmic war.  The very first shot of the film, once we're past a nightmare sequence suffered by old ex-President Pullman that goes to setting up the plot, is the Washington Monument, rebuilt as a stack of white bricks bearing the names of the innumerable Americans who died during the war, which stands next to a replica White House that serves both as the seat of American government, as well as the local node of what appears to be a united global government, established years earlier and dedicated entirely to the deployment of a shiny new global military machine.  Thus, new technology sits next to battered old technology, and it's all quite strikingly weird.

Indeed, there could have been a whole movie about this, that really took ahold of the radically altered socioeconomic relationships and theories of government arising from humanity's anticipation of the Second Impact—and yet, beyond obviously, if this is the movie you really wanted, you'd have needed Emmerich and Devlin to have stayed away.  Instead, they do the best job they can, which is by no means perfect, but suits their particular idiom nonetheless: putting you inside a classic but underserved science fiction scenario, and letting you fight your own way out when it comes how their world might actually work.  (Of course, when it comes to relationships and exposition, they display nothing but their infamous lack of subtlety, using long, awkward conversations to reveal facts that each character involved already knows.)

But, hey, such is the movies.

The plot, though, is even simpler than the first.  Eschewing Emmerich and Devlin's usual Irwin Allen-style collision of random human beings within a disaster, we have characters who are connected to one another already by way of the returning members of the cast.  (Their number, of course, does not include Will Smith, since he was apparently far too busy failing to get Oscar buzz for Concussion to return to Steve Hiller; but you will be touched, or at least amused, by Emmerich's generosity to Smith's killed-off character, whose beaming portrait graces the White House walls.)

Anyway, it goes more-or-less like this: the aliens sent a distress signal back to their hivemind, galaxies away, and now they're coming back, bigger and badder than ever before.  Those touched by the telepathic communications of the aliens during the first film—notably, President Whitmore and a not-quite-dead Dr. Brakish Okun—know that danger is once again upon the Earth, and try to make their prophecies of doom clear through their maddened ravings.  Meanwhile, our science hero, David Levinson, is in Africa taking a gander at the one intact alien spaceship on Earth, which became the property of an alien-fighting warlord during the chaotic years right after 1996 when nobody in the developed world bothered helping Africa (again, this film's world-building is tolerably great).  That ship has recently just been turned back on, but not by any human agency.  As for the imprisoned aliens who survived the war, they're all screaming—though, as the trailer helpfully let us know, what they're actually doing is celebrating.

At last, a messenger arrives from outer space, and while its marked aesthetic similarity to Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still leads David to ineffectually advise the new President not to shoot the fucker down, the human race has only left its old hatreds and prejudices behind because it's embraced a new one: all aliens must die.  Too bad this alien was coming with an offer of assistance.  (Too bad, also, that Emmerich and Devlin, having accidentally stubbed their toes upon a worthy theme, can't bring themselves to do anything with it.)  Even worse, the evil alien queen and her planet harvester is right behind our new alien friend, giving the moon a much-needed haircut and smashing the Eurasian continent to bits just by fucking landing on it.  And the highwater mark (so to speak) of the whole film arrives during these globe-punishing proceedings, when, as if in answer to the whole world's critique of ID4, Emmerich and Devlin savagely execute the one returning character who had the least right of anybody to have actually survived the first film.

After that, what we have is the same shit that's in every blockbuster of the last several years, one more time.  Even the big mid-film destruction porn scene feels a little bit more perfunctory than it ought, especially when it's powered by the gorgeous (and novel) mechanic of the alien harvester's independent gravity.  It's still pretty great—the harvester itself is almost Lovecraftian in its frame-busting scope (and Silver Age Justice League in its silliness), so big you rarely see anything more than a fraction of its truly cyclopean expanse.  Unfortunately, though, this scene, which ought to spell the end of our world all by itself, is too short and too confusing to really stick with you, even for just a few days.  ID4, we recall, soaked in the suspense of its apocalypse.  Resurgence is curiously unwilling to let us savor the recognizability of all the landmarks which Emmerich turns into smithereens, to the point where I only know that the needle-like structure was supposed to be the Burj Khalifa because somebody told me it was.

And, well, after that, things really get kind of muddled.

This is not to say it's a complete wash: even at its very worst, it remains passable entertainment, merely of a rather dull kind.  In its way, even this is uncomfortably strange, since Emmerich's typical approach to every project since Stargate has been to fluctuate wildly, between his legitimate talent (that is, his genuinely-awesome action filmmaking) and his widely-loathed avocation (the host of ruinous assumptions he apparently has about what makes his dumbassed intended audience spew Coke from out their noses).

But, while it's not the first thing that Resurgence does well, and it's certainly not the best, Resurgence fixes its predecessor's most gruesome problem: you see, Resurgence is as chock full of jokes as any Emmerich joint to date—to the extent it might be a half-successful comedy with disaster film pretensions, rather than the other way around—and yet something like less than 2% of this film's comic relief is really, painfully bad, which represents a very significant improvement.

We may chalk that up to the decision to repopulate Emmerich and Devlin's cursed Earth with a new lot of subordinate fighter jock heroes, who are boring rather than obnoxious: Liam Hemsworth (playing Maverick); Jesse Usher (also playing Maverick); Travis Tope (Goose); Chinese model Angelababy (Iceman for Heteros); and, most bafflingly, indy horror ingenue Maika Monroe (possibly Jester, but all Top Gun analogies must eventually break down).  These five humans range across the fullest possible spectrum of actorly mediocrity; and Monroe, the only one with a solid track record, barely manages to convince you she's alive.  Thus you ponder if there's any sense in being bothered that (apparently) nobody ever asked Mae Whitman to reprise her role as President Pullman's daughter, above and beyond the likelihood that she got DUFFed out of a character who, in all honesty, is so marginal and sexless that even if you did malevolently buy into the bizarre idea that Whitman is somehow "not attractive enough" to be the female lead in a major Hollywood production, it's impossible to square this with the objective fact that Monroe isn't asked to be this film's "female lead," or much of anything beyond another Emmerich and Devlin Character Module.

But yes, you probably should be a little bothered, and not just on a moral level: because whatever possible upside there might've been to this approach—vanilla tastes better than poison—it cuts decisively against the grain of Emmerich's usual strategy, which is to people his films with semi-famous folks (like Whitman!) who can bring their own extrinsic personality into the fray.  That's how Independence Day wound up with any memorable characters in the first place, despite Emmerich and Devlin's utterly mechanistic screenwriting style.  To give credit where it's due, however, Deobia Operai does make something of an impression, as the alien-slaying African warlord, and he's the only new guy you could enjoy outside the presence of the old guys.

Luckily, though, Resurgence brings back enough of the old cast to still make it feel like a legitimate continuation.  Thus does Goldblum Goldblum all over the place, and when he's around, Resurgence can be a beautiful thing.  Let's not forget Brent Spiner, either, whose Dr. Okun rises from a coma only to berate his boyfriend for growing both fat and bald in the intervening twenty years—it's the sort of Bayish joke that oughtn't work, but kind of does.  And, sure, there's some kind of While You Were Sleeping gag somewhere in here, but I just can't find the words necessary to bring Bill Pullman into it.

But maybe that's because (President) Pullman is the weakest link in the whole cast!  He's marginally compelling only so long as his telepathic trauma keeps him weird; but the very moment he becomes a real player in the plot (at the latest, the instant he shows up with his great crazy old man beard shaved off), it becomes clear that Pullman is either making some horrifyingly bad acting choices, or he just got so bored with his character that he couldn't even deliver his character's last line with with anything more energetic than a yawn.  It's so contemptibly bad that you can practically picture the editor desperately trying to give it the slightest punch, though he only succeeds in ruining it further, slamming the knife down on the scene before Pullman can even close his damn mouth.

And so, our story concludes—well, actually, our story does not conclude, because this one ends on a sequel hook about an intergalactic war, and yet does not have the basic decency to render the Earth uninhabitable, thus making Resurgence's space opera origin story remotely worthwhile.  So our story climaxes, anyway, with an utterly goofy and imagination-free scene that proves, solely, that Emmerich and Devlin didn't learn anything from the world's reaction to their attempt to appropriate Godzilla for America.  Born from the kernel of a pretty great idea, in the execution, it's rote and boring and way, way too busy, cursed with yet one more swawm of ugly CGI, such as we've seen in every other space-based movie for the past decade.  (And, for God's sake, who decided that every laser should be an indistinguishable shade of green?)

But no: there is a fair amount to enjoy as Emmerich and Devlin set up their brave new world, just to knock it down again.  But Resurgence collapses under the weight of its own passionless boilerplate at precisely the point that its predecessor was just starting to get good.

Score: 5/10

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