Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

★★

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Independence Day Resurgence PosterDirector: Roland Emmerich

Release Date: June 23rd, 2016 (UK); June 24th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Liam Hemsworth, Maika Monroe, Jessie T. Usher

When you make as many disaster movies as Roland Emmerich, a few things are bound to happen. One, the law of averages suggests you’ll eventually churn out something a bit rubbish that’ll be branded a “disaster” by a publication whose wordplay skills aren’t quite up to scratch. And two, it is likely customers will start to encounter genre fatigue. Independence Day: Resurgence is Emmerich’s sixth out-and-out catastrophe appraisal, having averaged around one every two years since 1996. And while it certainly isn’t a poor effort, it is a tired one.

We’re 20 years removed from the events of Independence Day and humanity has taken significant steps towards protecting itself against future attacks. The Earth Space Defence programme operates from locations like the Moon, made habitable via good old militant colonisation. Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) is one of those orbiting the Earth, a fighter pilot with skill and a cocky demeanour. He’s no Han Solo, but then Resurgence is no Empire Strikes Back. What the film is, though, is familiar, hitting many of the same notes as its predecessor only this time with crisper technical tendencies — the Moon base purveys that futuristic grey-silver Prometheus sheen. Hemsworth’s Morrison is a reflection of that sameness: a marketable replacement for Will Smith’s Steven Hiller, Smith either too expensive to rehire or personally fed up with sci-fi roles.

Some of the familiar is good though. Jeff Goldblum, for instance, recaptures plenty of that self-aware wit he displayed as scientist David Levinson (now a lead Area 51 researcher) in the original. Whenever he appears the film lights up, freely recognising its silliness and gleefully bathing in it. “I heard his son is much more of a moderate,” Levinson says in reference to warlord Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei) before meeting with the commander’s militia, each fighter sporting high impact weaponry and a no-nonsense facial expression. It is the sort of snappy levity popularised for better or worse by Marvel cinema, but perfected by Goldblum whose poise and timing are, arguably, unmatched.

However, just because the film is generally aware of its wackiness doesn’t mean it should skimp on an engaging story. Aside from its predecessor, Resurgence has more in common with White House Down than anything else in Emmerich’s portfolio, especially tonally. Both movies take would-be serious predicaments — an attack on the President there and an attack on the world here — and imbue them with carefree notes. There is no narrative weight, which is fine, but Resurgence doesn’t offer any alternative means through which stakes can conjugate. We have already witnessed a failed alien attack on this world and it’s not enough simply that the scale is larger this time around. The characters, though generally likeable, are as expendable as the other billion civilians squished by an enormous spacecraft docked atop half the globe.

The manoeuvring of pieces often feels forced. Former President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman), whom we meet in a state of mental anguish, evades his high-level bodyguard and appears on stage alongside the current President (Sela Ward). You can only fathom such a thing happening because the story needs it to. It needs to have a panicked Whitmore warn the world about incoming aliens and the only way to get there is through an unrealistic turn of events. While it is true these calamity blockbusters rely little on sturdy plot dynamics, the successful ones often find a way around that issue. San Andreas managed to distract from any story inefficiencies by dabbling in simplicity: hosting a handful of straightforward characters led by a charismatic force of nature in Dwayne Johnson. Goldblum could be that force of nature here but there are so many other players in the game, therefore everyone’s arc suffers and the overarching narrative is rendered a bit baseless. This issue comes to a head right before the third act: as Goldblum spews out waves of exposition, he might as well be reading from the Instruction Manual for Ending Disaster Flicks.

Maika Monroe, breakout star of The Guest and It Follows, is someone who should have more to do. At one point you think she’s going be lumped into a love triangle opposite Hemsworth and Jessie T. Usher (he plays Steven Hiller’s son Dylan, another accomplished flyer). But the complexity of their three-way relationship soon makes itself known, born not out of love but Jake’s cockiness gone wrong (he almost killed Dylan in training). When it becomes clear Patricia’s only romantic ties are with Jake, the focus then shifts to her productivity elsewhere. She is Whitmore’s daughter and an adviser to the current President but Patricia can also handily navigate a fighter jet — not that the film wants to show it. She could be assisting the resistance from the air but instead splits her time between house-buying conversations with Jake and controlling her erratic father. There is a moment of reprieve as the film reaches its finale but by then it has already wasted the fiery talents of Monroe. She even says it herself: “You should’ve let me [fly].”

Emmerich and his squad of writers do try to reflect the catastrophic reverberations of the Independence Day attack in their characterisation of various individuals. Whitmore, as discussed, and also the returning Dr. Brackish Okun (Bret Spiner), fleetingly humorous as he ambles around excitedly looking for the next thing to shoot with a giant ray gun. It’s because these characters are played for laughs that the piece is unable to really delve into the emotional scarring they might be privy to. There is also an instance where you think the film might explore how said scarring has had an impact on the moral endurance of humankind: it involves military decision-makers and government officials debating whether to destroy a seemingly neutral ship. Alas, popcorny action stuff gets in the way.

The brooding hum that plays in tandem with the alien mother ship’s arrival is an example of what could have been had the outing further tapped into its natural sci-fi/horror instincts. Another such flirting occurs later, when military men and extraterrestrials play a game of cat and mouse in a dark bunker. It’s essentially a scene from Alien or Aliens, only without the benefit of a creepily construed atmosphere. Clearly Emmerich had one eye on Ridley Scott’s work when making Resurgence given the alien mother looks like a cross between H. R. Giger’s Xenomorph and Smaug from The Hobbit trilogy.

In 1996, Emmerich used scale models to achieve the level of bombast required to compel the cinemagoing public. While I can’t see too much that sets this sequel apart from its parent, there is something about the practicality of blowing up a mini White House that endears more than the admittedly impressive visual palette on display here. Maybe that sums up Resurgence: a film made with so much technical proficiency that it seems to forget about intuition, be it something akin to the scale model intuition that once charmed viewers, or the sort of narrative intuition that plants us in a recognisable world with new, engaging possibilities. It all feels too easily earned.

Independence Day: Resurgence - Jeff Goldblum & Bill Pullman

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

Independence Day (1996)

★★★

Independence Day PosterDirector: Roland Emmerich

Release Date: July 3rd, 1996 (US); August 9th, 1996 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman

Two years before his monstrous monstrosity Godzilla, Roland Emmerich hit the streets of Washington DC to tackle an alien invasion. Time — and a great deal more effort — would go on to prove extraterrestrial superiority over the giant lizard, though that’s not a particularly astounding declaration. Just how effective is Independence Day? If popcorn-munching and Coke Zero-slurping is your kind of thing then the global disaster flick works a treat. Don’t expect any intellectual poise for there’s hardly an ounce to be had. But that’s not a problem — you wouldn’t show up to Comic-Con looking for a Jane Eyre panel. Emmerich zaps many of the right notes here and, despite the modern datedness of a visual palette once heralded as ground breaking, Independence Day cajoles along boisterously.

The unexpected arrival of alien spaceships only a few days premature of July 4th sends the United States into disarray. Major cities are under immediate threat causing the peoples within them to scatter. With less than a spoonful of hope to consume, President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) finds himself seeking aid from somewhat unconventional sources; specifically, ambitious pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith) and nutty computer expert David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum).

Technology finds its way into the heart of on-screen antics more often than not. Alien or otherwise, this is sort of a love letter to technological innovation. The grandiose ships planted neatly above cityscapes not only hover with pristine accuracy, they also completely wipe out the land below with bellowing power. It’s technological warfare and the otherworldly beings have the upper hand, even when it comes to pertinent human made artefacts. (“They’re using our satellites against us.”)

But this appreciation of and for innovation speaks to a higher purpose relayed across the exceedingly long two and a half hours. Though the implementation is fairly blasé in terms of a ponderous deficit in depth, the film does propose the age-old alien versus human musing that has captured the imagination of pop culture since Neil Armstrong and of cinema since Stanley Kubrick, more or less. Emmerich and co-writer Dean Devlin’s script struggles to delve anywhere past the glossy surface — in truth, it can be really glossy — but the vigilant thinkers amongst us are still able to briefly consider some interesting possibilities as events roll across the screen.

Initially, we’re fed a distinct juxtaposition: disparate humans manifest, from the amusing to the serious to the disbelieving, whereas the stoic extraterrestrials are collectively brooding and sophisticated. It’s not until further down the heavily destroyed road that similarities strike; aliens, though technologically adept, can be just as frail as humanity. The suggestion of familiarity is intriguing but it doesn’t receive enough focus to fully unravel.

That’s because Independence Day rockets along with energy and sappy joy. Let’s be honest: the President’s Independence Day speech is amiably absurd, even more so than preceding the alien invasion. (“Perhaps it’s fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom.”) This mightn’t boast the scholarly prowess of a 2001 or even the tingling tension of an Alien, but it does come armed with fun and humour. Maybe it’s simply the childhood beer-goggles still clouding my judgement 15 years on, however it seems like the 90s was a time for chaos and frantic comedy on the silver screen. I’m thinking Space Jam. Jurassic Park. Home Alone. These films each share the same semblance of bumbling pandemonium as Independence Day, a trait that is rather infectious.

Admittedly, it is true that the quartet of aforementioned films come equipped with the stock aloof goof. We’ve essentially got two here, though Jeff Goldblum’s David Levinson is a tad more measured than his father Julius. (“‘All you need is love’ — John Lennon, smart man… shot in the back.”) The two bounce off each other with amusing distrust yet above the familial cabin fever, they’re a healthy duo and probably the best characters. Will Smith is as charismatic as ever, it’s the lack of well-roundedness that lets him down. His character Steven Hiller, along with most others, suffers from genericism syndrome. At least the guys fare better than the girls, the few of whom don’t have an awful lot to do.

Granted, this isn’t a spectacular examination of the human psyche or anything, it’s pure entertainment with a spectacular visual array. Unfortunately almost 20 years has passed and this once award winning ocular jigsaw has become penetrable. There are a number of clunky moments — the tunnel fireball stands out — but it’d be unfair to criticise a film for ageing.

One area that ought to attract some denunciation though is the prevailing lack of threat, an element that is sorely needed in order to usher in the full effect of disaster. There’s hardly any depth to the story, nor is there any strand of worry interwoven throughout proceedings which is odd given we watch the decimation of huge cities. Personal anxiety should arise, but never really does. Exposing the audience to so much carnage early on sanitises the remainder of the film — we know the worst has come and gone and the characters themselves aren’t really worth investing in, thus there is no obvious agent of emotion to clutch dearly.

Nevertheless, that is not Independence Day’s primary prerogative. Emmerich directs a film that should command greater emotional gravitas given the velocity of proceedings, but when push comes to shove this does what it sets out to do with exuberance and laughter. In fairness, compared to Godzilla, this is Citizen Kane.

Independence Day - Smith and Goldblum

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

Jurassic Park (1993)

★★★★

Director: Steven Spielberg

Release Date: June 11th, 1993 (US); July 16th, 1993 (UK)

Genre: Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough

Who knew rippling water could be so menacing? Steven Spielberg’s early 90s dino classic swings from a slyly humorous thrill-ride to a tense environmental duel harbouring geopolitical connotations. Visually enticing beyond its years, the opening of Jurassic Park’s gates ushers forth a landmark in technological achievement on screen with effects that wouldn’t look too far out of place amongst the CGI blockbuster behemoths of today. There are one or two missteps along the way, most notably a paternal plot strand that feels forced rather than instinctive and an outrageous accent that seeps from the mouth of Richard Attenborough which at times threatens to boil over into caricature territory. Subtlety mightn’t be on the menu (that spot is reserved for human beings) and nor should it be in this rip-roaring tale of imagination, immorality and animatronics.

After a worker is killed by an errant Velociraptor, lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferraro) converges on Jurassic Park, an island owned by entrepreneur John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) and inhabited by cloned dinosaurs. Hammond simultaneously invites doctors Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), a palaeontologist and palaeobotanist respectively, to join the certification jaunt knowing the pair have more than keen interest in the fossil business. Mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) gets wind of the goings-on too and accompanies the party on their venture around the island that is prospected to open publicly in the near future. They ought to fix that fencing first though.

From the moment our ragtag band of explorers and suits reach their ill-fated destination, David Koepp’s screenplay based on Michael Crichton’s novel — also a co-writer here — strikes up a juxtaposition bearing an awesome visual gloss, but with a dirty underbelly. We first see the immense dinosaurs roaming across the landscape at the same time as Dr. Grant and company, the creatures’ awe-inspiring repertoire generating a sense of splendour. However, it’s not long before crass ignorance and abject misconduct take over; touring car doors are missing locks, the park is understaffed, a disinterested slob controls central safety measures and flimsy wired fencing is implemented as a harnessing mechanism. In essence, the park is a sham.

This notion of lawlessness disguised as grandeur is developed further as it latches onto certain characters. In a scene pivotal to the narrative’s apparent wary message, the group settle around a sleek table to discuss degrees of wrong. Is humanity’s imperious domination over nature — mirrored by CEO John Hammond’s genetic manipulation and cloning — immoral? Effectively, is this the rape of the natural world, to paraphrase mathematician Ian? Financial gain is presented as the ultimate destination for some (“We will have a coupon day or something”) whereas it’s the inherent allure of discovery for others. Spielberg refrains from indirectness here, instead placing his cards on the table and facing the query head on. The film asks questions that are perhaps even more relevant to this day, and doesn’t shirk away from picking sides. It’s a mature approach that, coupled with a visual affluence, successfully challenges the viewer to consider external prosperity gained at the cost of nefarious biochemical control and human tyranny over nature.

Tonally, Spielberg hammers a balance between the geopolitical and the humorous. Admirably, there’s no shortage of the latter as we see a witty, banterous dynamic rear between the various characters on display. As resident number-cruncher Ian, Jeff Goldblum scoops and skilfully delivers many of the funniest quips. Goldblum’s timing is terrific and the film would’ve benefited further if he had garnered more screen time towards the conclusion. Sam Neill’s Dr. Alan Grant relays humour cut from a blunter cloth, and his pseudo-Indiana Jones demeanour — the attire, the adventurous mind, the standoffish personality — is a tad camp, but amusing when paired alongside Ian, his polar opposite. In fact, an ongoing campiness exists throughout the film, embodied by zoomed-in camera shots on shocked faces and the occasional line cheesy in obviousness (“They’re approaching the tyrannosaur pen”).

The only significant issue Jurassic Park must contend with is a sub-plot that is unnecessary in existence and contrived in execution. John Hammond’s grandchildren arrive mid-way through, and it just so happens that they find themselves under the care of Dr. Grant, who dislikes children (“They smell”). Though the actors do a fine job and present a duo of child characters who are not in any way annoying, their inclusion feels primarily like a method solely intent on generating sympathy where sympathy is superfluous to requirements. At a stretch, it is conceivable to consider that the intention behind these characters is to reflect civilisation’s should-be protective instinct towards nature, though there is already enough weight behind this particular cog.

Other than Richard Attenborough’s disastrous Scottish accent that chimes more off-putting than funny, the remaining performances invariably contribute peripheral goofiness and/or tension. Laura Dern is Dr. Ellie Sattler and endears from start until finish. Samuel L. Jackson’s hard-headed poise is particularly humorous, playing a cigarette smoking engineer who oversees many of the park’s operations. Computer geek Dennis Nedry (paha) grumbles in his chair and bumbles in the rain — pathetic fallacy is almost a character on its own — and funny man Wayne Knight portrays this ineptness as well as anybody. And aside from the accent, Attenborough does well as the increasingly flaying visionary whose plans are progressively falling apart.

When we aren’t laughing or contemplating moralities, a brooding atmosphere grabs hold and gains momentum as the film evolves. The T-Rex reveal is timely; held back long enough to allow simmering anxiety and in turn create a mystique that bellows danger upon the dinosaur’s appearance. Cinematographer Dean Cundey captures the mechanical appearance of the park where metal fences, armoured vehicles, durable weapons and giant food dispensers retract from the dinosaurs’ animatronic motions, subsequently accentuating their perceived fluidity. Some scintillating sound work complements the tremendous visual array and bolsters said ominous atmosphere.

“We never had control, that’s the illusion!” bellows Dr. Sattler as proceedings begin to go awry. The line effectively sums up an inquisitive narrative that denounces immorality, but also wholly contradicts the efforts of Spielberg and co who absolutely always have control and resultantly chisel out an optical cinematic milestone.