“We always knew they were coming back,” reads the tagline of Independence Day: Resurgence — referring, presumably, to Jeff Goldblum and his grab bag of neurotic tics. Or maybe to the likes of Vivica A. Fox, noticeably absent from sci-fi blockbusters in the two decades since Independence Day (Sharknado 2 does not count), or to Brent Spiner, whose long-haired, eccentric Dr. Brakish Okun appears in the new movie despite, I’d thought, being strangled by an alien’s ventriloquist tentacle. (What a movie!)
No matter what, “We always knew they were coming back” cannot possibly have in mind the Hollywood aliens it seems to invoke, not even those from Roland Emmerich’s classic 1996 movie. Those aliens cannot come back: They never left. They’re still here, vying for our imaginations and money by razing entire major cities for the hell of it, like their telepathic, tentacled forebears from the ’90s. You could say Independence Day was influential: nowadays, even Batman must come to blows with a city-destroying alien to make a buck. The world that greets Resurgence is not the world that greeted Independence Day in 1996 — the world the sequel faces is wrought, somewhat, by the original. Seeing the White House blow up during the ’96 Super Bowl, in a trailer that ended with the lines, “Enjoy the Superbowl. It may be your last,” was an invitation to Hollywood to get audacious. Think bigger. Widen the canvas. And here we are: overrun with apocalyptic hero-myths, and with reboots, and with reboots of reboots. Hollywood has fallen into a mystified stupor, dumbly repeating the same motions like a broken mechanical toy.
An Independence Day sequel feels all but predestined in such a climate. By now, we’ve learned to play along with the meta-narratives of Hollywood franchises, dutifully nodding at every instance of self-reference and making excuses for movies that increasingly feel as inconclusive as a midseason episode of television. So when, in Resurgence, Dr. Okun’s alien ventriloquist act gets staged anew, this time with the grizzled President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), you think, “Oh yeah, I remember that. Cute.” Same thought when the shadow of a spaceship slides ominously across the bright surface of the moon. And when a character screams, “Get ready for a close encounter, bitch!” you think, “A little on the nose … But sure. Whatever.”
But by the time a crazy-eyed President Whitmore stops to serenade a group of young pilots with selections from Best American Locker Room Speeches 2016 — like old times — you’ve learned to see the movie for what it is: an insult to your time. Set 20 years and millions of deaths after the original, Resurgence is joyless: a flavorless rehash, a collage of cosmetically upgraded throwbacks. Its variously intriguing, insulting and insipid new additions — Charlotte Gainsbourg, a second alien species, an African warlord, a Hemsworth — will not distract you from the fact that you’re watching the movie equivalent of running Windows 98 on an iPad. Using dial-up. In 3D.
Resurgence is a lesson in the uselessness of a common, degraded form of nostalgia. Like too much else, it insists on reliving the past through in-jokes and references and repetition. But why bother? We can see Independence Day anytime. It isn’t going anywhere — why not go somewhere new with it? That Emmerich seems unable or unwilling to do so offers another lesson: on how he’s no longer apace in the sport of his own making.
Did it have to be this way? The question facing any sequel is whether it earns its affiliation with the original. The question facing Resurgence was always bound to be tougher. Could Roland Emmerich’s sequel rise to the particular challenge of a movie that engineered the modern phase of the big-budget, blow-’em-up summer blockbuster?
I don’t envy Emmerich the task: The first movie is a home run. Independence Day is gleeful, destructive, cheesy, iconographic, and self-aware. It’s a movie that takes its time to get where it’s going — a movie that understands the importance of foreplay, that the best thrills are worth waiting for. The aliens don’t attack until 45 minutes in. Everything until then is deliciously overwrought buildup: a shadow on the moon, Vivica Fox stripping in a nearly empty club, Bill Pullman looking concerned, scrambled TV signals. And the following stages of drama, the oozy layers of blockbuster cheese, all play out with a mathematical rigor that, thanks to Emmerich’s skill with speed and tone and the perfectly evocative image, draws you in. You’re hooked. You’re having such a good time you don’t even notice Jeff Goldblum decrypting the aliens’ intentions with bad chess metaphors.
How do you top that? You don’t, apparently: Nothing in Resurgence proves as satisfying, save maybe a late encounter between a galloping alien queen and a school bus, in which Emmerich’s classic mélange of humor and action prevails for just a moment. Much of what you get otherwise are action scenes that play out like bad jokes with mumbled punchlines: You reflexively go “Huh?” before remembering that you don’t care. Maybe we should have expected this. Emmerich seems to have been crowded out of his own lane; Marvel et al. don’t hire Roland Emmerich to make Roland Emmerich movies. White House Down flopped, thanks in large part to the release of movie-twin Olympus Has Fallen a few months before. Artistically, his 1998 Godzilla recently got its ass kicked by Gareth Edwards’ admirable 2014 spectacle. His 10,000 B.C. drew unfavorable comparisons, in terms of style and money, to Zack Snyder’s 300: the student mastering the teacher.
The last few years have seen Emmerich turning away from blockbusters — toward smaller movies that happen to also be box-office flops in need of a different metric than the number of shots in front of a blue screen. There was Anonymous (2011), a curious historical thriller about the “true” author of Shakespeare’s works. More notably, meaning more disastrously, there was last year’s Stonewall, about the Stonewall riots of 1969, a momentous occasion in LGBT history. That movie was accused of absenting the historical event of the people of color many believe were at its center. “As a director you have to put yourself in your movies, and I’m white and gay,” Emmerich said. Suffice it to say, he did. And people were not pleased.
It’s hard to move up from a track record like this, and there’s no room below. There may be nowhere to turn but inward. Last year, Emmerich told BuzzFeed that his friends had been asking, “When do we see a personal film from you?” It’s a short-sighted question, one that equates “personal” with “not an action movie.” But it’s a question best answered, in Emmerich’s case, with blockbusters: with the likes of Independence Day, his environmentalist agitprop-action movies (e.g., The Day After Tomorrow) and, more recently, if less successfully, White House Down. These are the films in which Emmerich’s penchant for throwing what he calls regular Joes into the ring with spectacles of human annihilation rings clearest. It’s the reason a critic might be moved to compare him to Cecil B. DeMille, and it’s what makes some of his films feel personal, even politically frustrated, amidst all the dumb, dumb, dumb.
Perhaps the single most invigorating scene in any Roland Emmerich movie, one that gives a sense of what its director loves, comes in Independence Day, during the first encounter Captain Steve Hiller (Will Smith) and his fellow pilots have with the space freaks. Steve’s suave, overtalkative best friend Jimmy (Harry Connick Jr.) dies in battle, and it’s just Steve and a single alien pod, twisting and winding through a tight canyon with the freewheeling vigor and audacity you’d find in a Howard Hawks movie. Like some of Emmerich’s best action heroes, Steve is an outsider, so beyond the political and social world of the movie, so independent, that he doesn’t even notice the aliens when they’re practically parked right outside his front doorstep. To top it off, he’s just learned he’s a NASA reject. Yet here he is, outliving his entire company and out-flying an alien, in a script that’s conspiring to position him to save the world.
I sense Emmerich’s delight, in the 1996 film, in what a disaster movie’s images can do to the imagination. I sense an understanding of the fact that we’d never imagined the White House in flames or even had a genuine taste for that image until a movie gave it to us. I miss those feelings. Emmerich has been getting beaten at his own game, and audiences have been getting beaten down by increasingly spectacular movies whose sense of play, levity, and fun have languished — alongside Emmerich’s career.
There’s a lot riding on Resurgence, in other words, starting with his need to show the world he still has it — that, in the midst of flying men in tights fighting world annihilation playing out anew on the big screen seemingly every week, he can still stand out. In his movies, he blows the world up merely to let us see a hero prevail. What will it take to see him prevail, again, at the movies?