A 1990s Japanese Mecha Anime: Perry Lam reviews ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’

The problem that I have with blockbusters with this day and age is the necessity to be “highbrow” entertainment, in order to be taken seriously. Everyone wants a bit of “conflicted protagonists” or disagreements between the heroes to go along with the popcorn. Which is why Independence Day: Resurgence is so refreshing. Its the 90s action extravaganza updated for the Netflix generation.

20 years after the events of the first movie, Earth has recovered from its devastation at the hands of the alien menace. Using salvaged alien technology, humanity is now in a golden age, its military upgraded with the intention of preparing for another assault. Of course, the aliens do come back but they are bigger, smarter and obsessed with finishing what they started, wiping humanity out. Once again outmatched, humanity now has to rely on heroes both old and new, to make sure we will not go quietly into the night.

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No surprises here, Independence Day: Resurgence’s plot is pretty much the same deal as the first one, big ugly aliens come to earth to invade, we fight back. But there is no tedium to this predictability, in fact, it is this familiarity that makes the film endearing. Narratively the film is tight enough and heavy on plot, the first act is arguably the film’s most well developed and established in terms of storytelling.

While the plot is well established, it is the scale that truly brings out the screenplay’s grandiosity. In a time where blockbuster films would navel gaze and offer us an examination of a hero’s morals and character, Roland Emmerich dusts off the old playbook and gives audiences a reminder about what blockbusters are really about. Scale. Big heroes and even bigger threats. Emmerich offers up massive science fiction vistas, stuff you only have a glimpse of on the covers of retro futuristic science fiction pulp novels, characters climbing up a grounded mothership’s exterior hull, the alien worldship’s gravity well tearing up cities from London to Singapore in a continent sized storm of fire and steel.

The film begins fading in the second act, struggling with what it wants to be. Splintered into two parallel narratives, the first and more interesting one follows the characters from the first act as they find a way to retaliate against the alien threat. However, the film introduces a second ‘everyman’ narrative, where we follow a group of kids in order to experience the devastation of ‘ground zero’ that the aliens have caused, it is here the film introduces 5 characters too many and the main plot line suffers for it. With the script’s emphasis on plot and spectacle, the addition of more characters does not help the film, as this dilutes the entire roster as a whole. We spend some time with each group of characters but never enough to actually give us any relatability.

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Along with the weakly established characters, another sore spot in the film is the third act, which while frenetic, does not exactly pay off as it should. To blame is plot driven script, we do not care for any of the characters and as we race towards climax after climax (there is more than one), one does not ask the question ‘Who is going to survive?’ but rather, we are left with ‘When is it going to actually end?’. The finale nosedives down to power rangers territory, as the aliens transform into bigger threats but since you are not really invested in the threat, you just find it hilarious.

One of the most curious highlights of the film would be the scenes on the moonbase. Straight out of a 1990s Japanese mecha anime, the bitter relationship between Liam Hemsworth’s Jake Morrison and his rival and former friend, Jessie Usher’s Dylan Dubrow-Hiller is very much a classic example of anime rivalry. This is also carried onto the supporting moonbase characters, as Travis Tope’s Charlie is the lovelorn comic relief who pines for the unattainable, stoic Rei Ayanami surrogate, played by Angelababy. Even the premise is steeped in anime tradition, young men and women flying futuristic spacecraft to battle overwhelming extra-terrestrial odds. This is the Evangelion live action film no one expected.

There is a prevalent sense of nostalgia in the film, even beyond the anime influence, other characters like Nicolas Wright’s Floyd is the typical 1980s and 1990s bureaucratic wimp that cowers in face of the ‘macho’ violence that the heroes partake in, yet in an interesting twist, Floyd manages to evolve as a character beyond his perceived lack of masculinity as he gradually warms up to killing aliens, albeit played for comic relief. Which is where the film gets it strengths, it refuses to be taken seriously, it knows what it wants to be and is unabashed in casting itself as such. The dialogue is heavy on one liners, almost all of which are groan inducing, they rarely work as serious lines of character building dialogue but as fun, ‘I can’t believe he/she said that’ moments, they are a riot.

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This cheesy throwback approach works as a great time at the movies but upon closer inspection, it is all the film has to offer. It is coasting on old glory, a well-worn road we have been down on. Perhaps it is more accurate to describe it as Emmerich’s style, the nostalgic approach that worked for the script, giving it a fun upbeat attitude only serves to amplify the weaknesses of the technical aspects of filmmaking. In short, the film looks dated, the overabuse of mid shots, so we can see AND hear what is going on screen instead of one or the other, is an extremely safe approach to large scale movie making in a bygone era.

Close ups rarely factor into the story, only used to capture pilot faces during dogfights. And wide shots don’t even serve a storytelling purpose beyond establishing shots to show where are the characters visiting next, which is usually accompanied by ominous looking government style font on the bottom screen to remind us we are in Area 51. This ‘play it safe approach’ is not exactly problematic but it turns the movie into a really generic looking one, you will enjoy your time in the theatre but you will have have a hard time remembering them past a few establishing shots.

Aurally the film is nothing to shout about either, it is a typical action movie score that does not add to the story, there are no cool motifs or powerful anthems. There is nothing that the music can do that the dialogue already did, all it serves is a reminder that we are supposed to feel sad if a character dies or happy when lovers are reunited. It is utterly mechanical.

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Mechanical can also be used to describe some of the performances, though one can argue, with the plot driven narrative and the focus on spectacle, the actors really do not have much to work with. The new hires fail to capture the imagination, Liam Hemsworth and Jesse Usher are serviceable as the two leads but they can’t hold a candle to Will Smith’s charisma and screen presence in the first film. Angelababy is awful in her role as Rain, clearly a shoo-in to capitalize on the booming Chinese market, she nonetheless looks out of a league in her scenes, overwhelmed by what is happening around her. On the flip side, the old guard fares better, proving they still got it. Jeff Goldblum is one of the better things of the film, as David Levinson he is quirky as ever but never annoying. Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore is now a broken old man, he isn’t the heroic, hotshot pilot and orator anymore and Pullman manages to humanize the iconic role, offering an intriguing take on the character as well as providing the film with one of its only character arcs.

In face of the non-existent character development and its generic craftsmanship, I still have to say, they don’t make movies like this anymore. This is not a good film but it is an enjoyable time at the pictures. The film dares to be old school and succeeds at capturing the tone and storytelling methods of a more innocent time, it is mediocre, it is uneven but above all else, it is fun. That makes it an endearing film to cheer for.

 

***/5

A live action saturday morning cartoon. For those who were old enough to have watched the first film, this is a grand time at the movies. For those who don’t, this is a lesson in film history, of how tentpoles used to be made.

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Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of the documentary short film BLACK RAT has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas. https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/
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