Saturday 23 July 2016

Empty space: "Independence Day: Resurgence"

In the absence of sound new ideas, the Hollywood studios have come to bet the house on nostalgia - and given the vast sums of money hoovered up over the past year by such retro-leaning endeavours as Jurassic World, SPECTRE and The Force Awakens, you can't fault their financial logic, at least. After a couple of stalled shots at seriousness (Anonymous, Stonewall), Independence Day: Resurgence is Roland Emmerich succumbing to give-'em-what-they-want thinking in trying to replicate the success of a dumb-as-nuts popcorn flick that went down like gangbusters back in 1996. Twenty years on, we might have cause to wonder whether it's possible for anybody to be nostalgic for a large-scale, effects-heavy exercise in city-trashing, given that that's exactly what 90% of major American releases now are; surely you can't miss what's put before your eyes every other week.

Although the new film opens with a you-must-remember-this datablast of President Bill Pullman's rousing fightback speech from the original, it's soon clear Will Smith will not be returning - we get the character's son (Jessie T. Usher) instead, who appears to have rebelled against his pop by becoming the most stolid of state functionaries - and that the series has undergone a marked paradigm shift. Emmerich's Big Idea this time around is that mankind piggybacked upon those alien craft that stalled or crashed at the end of the first movie to establish a foothold in space. Resurgence's version of 2016 is therefore closer to Blade Runner than to our own reality, with various ships hovering over the Washington skyline, but the space business only gives the film the look and feel of very generic sci-fi.

Key elements here include people in spacesuits bouncing round in zero gravity in scenes that play like plasticky Ridley Scott, Liam Hemsworth as a cocky space cowboy with the inevitable name of Jake, several token Chinese characters in another flagrant play for the expanding Asian market. (Where ID4 could be claimed as part of Emmerich's imperial phase, its sequel reminds you of the opportunist who, back in his native Germany, attempted to surf the Ghost Busters zeitgeist with the little-rented Ghost Chase.) Clearly, the filmmaker has decided to turn his hand to "hard" sci-fi (or as hard as the numbercrunchers will allow, factoring in the success of Gravity and The Martian), but all he's succeeded in doing is diluting the brand: I'll happily make public claims for the first movie's zappy thrills, but Resurgence was not the Independence Day sequel I was looking for.

Down on Earth, the returning Jeff Goldblum moves on from the loss of the Smith character by forming an unexpected double act with photojournalist Charlotte Gainsbourg, and for a while, the pair's offbeat rhythms please the ear. Yet the actors are hunting for scraps in a script that's otherwise preoccupied with reintroducing dimly recalled survivors from the first movie (Pullman, Judd Hirsch, Brett Spiner, each offered the narrative equivalent of a walk-on and a wave at Comic-Con) or introducing entirely new characters. Emmerich has no qualms about doing this as late as an hour in, in defiance of all known storytelling laws: some kids in a car (who never develop beyond the initial mental logline of "some kids in a car"), some blokes on a boat (ditto), your mum's friend Doreen from two doors down.

But of course, you tell yourself, these scenes are just the entrees before Emmerich furnishes us with the main course: the colossal blowing-up of shit. To give Resurgence some due, it at least bothers to find one new way of achieving this: our new alien foes have developed a means of overturning the Earth's gravity, which gives them (and the VFX team) the opportunity to suck buildings, air traffic and any other hangers-on up and fling them elsewhere rather than smashing them to smithereens on the spot. Yet so much of Insurgence's spectacle is literally throwaway, of no consequence whatsoever. The Emmerich of 1996 could make a big deal out of nuking the White House; his 2016 equivalent, sensing (rightly) that we may have seen much of this before, hastens from one green screen to the next, barely stopping to look for survivors. (And when movies, like politicians, don't appear to give a damn about we ordinary proles, why should we give a damn about them?)

The relentless cross-cutting gives Insurgence a sense of movement without momentum, undermining any attempt at pathos - this two-hour product leaves scant time for mourning - and yet the film's real failure is one of scale: that Emmerich should have squandered a ginormous budget while somehow managing to generate not a single moment of genuine wonder or horror. (The average item of Independence Day messageboard fan fiction would surely have been more inspired.) Previous alien invasions have been violent, comic, politically loaded; in the case of last year's Under the Skin, strange and beautiful simultaneously. This one has all too clearly been initiated by executives who've spent more time consulting spreadsheets than scripts: all artlessly arranged ones and zeros, it's alien invasion as here-today-gone-tomorrow content. This time round, they're here to distract us.

Independence Day: Resurgence is still playing in cinemas nationwide.

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