I didn’t write a review of Independence Day: Resurgence, despite having seen it a number of weeks ago and therefore having had plenty of time to ruminate. The sad fact is that the movie was totally flat; devoid of stakes; like really expensive background music at a party you didn’t want to go to.
I loved the first Independence Day. ID4 and Jurassic Park were the defining cinema trips of my early teens, and were the first couple of films that showed me unequivocally what a blockbuster could be. ID4 was way cheesier, of course, with way too many plot threads and a bucket load of awful expository dialogue, but it was big and bold and brash, and it gave us (like Jurassic Park) one of those “this could actually happen” feelings.
In short, it had enormous stakes, because it was set in our world; the present day. The characters were a litany of 90s stereotypes and/or extreme caricatures who chewed the scenery and made us laugh even as, on occasion, our eyes rolled. It established the lives of these men and women, and endeared us to their situations economically (if a little heavy handedly) so that when that first gigantic alien ship burst through the atmosphere we were terrified for a myriad of characters’ fates. Alongside this we were also knocked for six ourselves. This was a time when massive scale battles for the fate of the earth were not a commonplace story beat for a summer movie, and to see world ending spaceships on the big screen was a bloody big deal. Everything about the impact of ID4 was palpable.
And that’s where Resurgence falls down. It’s mentioned explicitly by Jeff Goldblum’s returning scientist/world saver David Levinson that they fully expected the aliens to come back. So straight off the bat there’s no element of real surprise. The world has moved on from its near destruction and is set in an alternate future where alien technology has fuelled our weapons and defence programmes to the point that our tech resembles the stuff that nearly killed us rather than that which saved our lives. It doesn’t feel like our world anymore. It feels like a story set in a place too far from what we know, and therefore the bland exposition and clunky plotting stand out. You can’t simply gloss over hammy dialogue when it represents a place and time we don’t recognise. We have to truly care about the people and what is happening to them, and we don’t.
All of this raised a bigger question in my mind. About stakes in general, and how, in a mainstream cinematic landscape populated almost solely by huge scale action films, we build and even raise the stakes. And I don’t necessarily think the answer is to stop making massive popcorn tentpole pictures. But the answer does come from watching smaller scale films. The answer is (surprise surprise) that we have to care about characters and we have to know what the consequences are for the world displayed in the film being presented to us.
Of all the films I’ve seen in the cinema this year, my favourite (so far) is Creed. Director Ryan Coogler not only gave us a fully formed lead (Michael B. Jordan) with grounded problems and emotional struggles we can all relate to. But also he evolved a long standing cinematic icon by taking Rocky Balboa to a truly dark place; not just making him the cliché mentor figure, but tearing him down emotionally and rebuilding him with hope for the future – an arc so satisfying you’d think he was the lead. It is in this character development – both authentic and believable – that the stakes thrown up by the dramatic conflict become something we can all get involved in. We feel true empathy and true fear in the face of a character’s defeat and that is what drags us to the edge of our seat.
So yeah, Independence Day: Resurgence could have been great. It could have been set in the same alternate future and yet had us writhing with terror as the fates of its characters hung in the balance. But it squandered all of that by believing that what made its predecessor work was aerial battles and lots of destruction. We don’t want mindless destruction. We want to care about things being destroyed. Give us stakes. Or failing that give us some steaks. Either way give us something we can sink our teeth into.