—Here There Be Spoilers—
You’ve had your caution. Now onto the show.
First, let me say that I had fun watching this movie. Whatever else it did wrong, it did that right. Second, the reason I was really excited to see this movie in the first place (other than the fact that I loved the original) was the evidence from the War of 1996 website that the film’s creators might have actually done their homework in terms of worldbuilding and creating an alternate timeline based on the events of the first movie. I was excited to see the new world they’d create from the ashes left in the first movie.
So on Saturday, July 2nd, my wife and I watched the original Independence Day with friends, including one who had never seen it before and ended up really enjoying it. It had been a while since I’d seen the movie, and I was pleased with how well it’s held up over the last twenty years. So with that good taste in our mouths, we went to see the sequel on the Fourth of July. Alas, this sequel, like so many others, did not live up to the original.
And now I’d like to offer you a few editorial thoughts on why.
What follows is something akin to the notes I would have given this movie’s writers if they had come to me for an edit on the script before it was produced. (They never do this, for some reason. And I think Hollywood would produce a lot more varied and interesting films if studio execs had to trust and rely on story editors in the same way publishers had to rely on book editors. But I digress.)
Here, Independence Day: Resurgence gets high marks. The alternate timeline it adheres to is really cool. As Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary puts it:
The thing it did right, it did almost perfectly. The events of the first film, set in 1996, are treated as if they happened 20 years ago. It’s now 2016, and the actors who appear in both films played their characters as having aged twenty years. Which the actors actually have. Sequels almost never get to do that to this extent, and I liked it a lot.
That fact alone makes the movie cool to watch. And lot of its ideas—from a ground war with aliens in the Congo to humans reverse-engineering alien tech—are exactly the kinds of things that would happen after a real alien invasion. Concepts like the aliens growing crops aboard their ships and other refugee species fighting against these aliens are cool answers to realistic science fiction questions. I even like how the movie dealt with Will Smith’s absence by killing his character off in the backstory but featuring his photo in various places throughout this movie. The character may be gone, but his influence is not forgotten.
So the thing I went to see the movie for in the first place didn’t disappoint. But having watched the first movie so recently, I recognized that the charm of the original never lay in worldbuilding anyway, but in its characters.
This is where I’d like to spend a lot of my time. The original Independence Day was so brilliant—and got away with having such a huge cast—because all of its characters were immediately and efficiently introduced as being normal Americans, the kind of people you related to and interacted with every day. They all had simple yet compelling arcs that existed independently of the alien invasion. Its main characters were:
- The nerdy (Jewish) environmentalist who wants his marriage back.
- The (warrior) President who’s lost his way as a leader and needs to find it again.
- The African-American Marine who needs to marry his girlfriend (not his career).
- The alcoholic, PTSD-suffering (crop duster) veteran who needs to become the father his children want and need him to be.
Everyone else in the story is either peripheral (like Dr. Okun and Major Mitchell) or essential to one of the main characters’ arcs—Jasmine and Dylan to Captain Hiller; the Secretary of Defense to President Whitmore; Connie and Julius to David Levinson. What’s truly brilliant about the first movie is how often these secondary characters help multiple other characters complete their arcs and move the plot along. Connie is important to both David Levinson’s arc and President Whitmore’s. Julius Levinson has more impact on David’s arc than anyone else’s, but even he moves the plot along by bringing up Area 51. Even minor characters have arcs, like Major Mitchell realizing (again, through Connie’s help!) that his job is about more than working a console inside the base; it’s about saving the lives of the civilians outside. And all of these arcs have satisfying conclusions by the end of the movie.
And this brilliance of character and multifaceted character interaction is, lamentably, where the sequel falls short the most. So here are my editorial notes, dear writers, about this film’s characters:
- Jake Morrison (played by Liam Hemsworth). This character did not need to be in the film. At all. Yes, I know “Hemsworth” = eye candy = women attending the movie, but a real romantic and emotional connection between characters will do more to endear a show to female moviegoers than dreamy blue eyes. And while Hemsworth does a decent job, he does so at the expense of a character that audiences already know and love: Dylan Hiller.
- Dylan Hiller (played by Jessie T. Usher). We know his backstory because we saw it in the first movie! No need to spend time introducing him like you do with Morrison. Instead, you can spend time exploring how the death of his hero stepfather has affected Dylan’s life. How hard it is living up to the legacy of the old man . . . especially if you don’t have all of his natural charm and talent. Learning to be your own man instead of living up to your dead hero stepfather’s legacy is a powerful, compelling, bullet-point arc like the original movie had. Unfortunately, in the current movie, this is touched on only by implication. Instead, we waste time having Dylan punching out Morrison. (Maybe he’s mad that his part has been replaced by an attendance ploy.) The fact of the matter is that everything the Morrison character does, Dylan Hiller would have done better (as a matter of character—I’m not commenting on the acting). Recklessly endanger the moon base with a hot-dogging flying stunt? Easier to motivate—and far more meaningful—if Dylan’s doing it because he thinks it’s how his old man would’ve behaved. Drawing the aliens’ attention through a bragadocious display? Wonder where he could’ve learned that from. Being engaged to the former president’s daughter? How’s this for backstory?
Can you have a cuter beginning to a relationshp? Them getting married later in life is exactly the kind of campy, cheesy wonderfulness that Independence Day fans would eat up! (This 5-second scene had me imagining that future at nine years old, for crying out loud!) Why in the world are you flubbing this opportunity?
- Speaking of the Hillers, I was very disappointed in the underuse of Dylan’s mother, Jasmine (the stripper turned survivor group leader in the first movie). She was a plucky yet sensitive character, a perfect match for Will Smith’s marine. In this movie, she’s running a hospital and then gets killed very early in the film right in front of Dylan’s eyes, in one of those cheesy, that-didn’t-really-need-to-happen ways. So not only do we miss any mention of how she’s gone from stripper to doctor (a worthy story in its own right!), but she dies in a transparent ploy for audience sympathy that falls flat because she’s only interacted with her son via telephone. We just don’t see enough of her to connect with the character before she’s gone. I wanted to see how she’s coped with her husband’s death, and how she’s helping and being helped by her son. I would have also loved to have seen her interact with any of the other original characters as well. What kind of relationships did they form in the intervening years?
- Julius Levinson (Judd Hirsch). The introduction of Julius and David Levinson via a chess game in the original movie is a golden example of how to fully introduce two characters in an economy of words. We learn everything we need to know about them for the rest of the movie from that one conversation. The scene is near perfect.
In this movie, unfortunately, the wonderful character established in that scene is compromised. The man who was unfailingly supportive and proud of his son in the first movie has supposedly written a narcissistic flop of a book about how he saved the world and is constantly disappointed when people ask about David instead. The character portrayed in the original movie would have written a book about how his son saved the world (because David, of course, is too busy to write it). But in this movie he somehow survives a tidal wave while on his boat and then drives a group of orphans across the country, putting them (unintentionally) in harm’s way just in time for the climax. And while Judd Hirsch’s use of Yiddish words is absolutely delightful, the subplot as a whole is unsatisfying because it doesn’t take the character anywhere new. Supposedly he’s grandbaby-hungry, but that doesn’t fit this character very well—and plotwise, it shouldn’t even be an issue, for reasons I’ll talk about in a minute. But if there is one beloved character who will really buy audience tears with his death, it’s Julius Levinson—especially if he’s been doing the things that made us love him in the first movie, like supporting his son no matter what. Then that phone call from the boat will have emotional resonance for David, and thus for us. The trailer made it seem like Julius was going to perish there, and so it felt disingenuous when he didn’t. But a final goodbye as the wave closes in, both of them knowing there’s nothing they can do about it, could’ve been the heart-wrenching beginning this movie needed to have.
- And now on to David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum). I have few complaints about this character, save one: WHERE IN THE WORLD IS CONNIE??? David’s entire arc in the first movie was about becoming the ambitious man Connie wanted him to be, and thus winning back his ex-wife. And as I mentioned before, Connie was essential to several characters’ arcs. She was a wonderful character. But in the sequel, she isn’t even mentioned. No one remembers her, and David’s wedding band, which he wore for three years after his divorce, has mysteriously disappeared. Instead, he’s given a psychologist to awkwardly flirt with (though like many character arcs in the sequel, it never actually goes anywhere).
David and Connie should have gotten remarried. They should’ve had kids, to do their part in repopulating the planet (which would have not only gotten rid of Julius’s flat subplot but also made his death sadder with him asking David to tell his grandkids that he loves them). You could have easily turned David’s assistant (played by the talented Ryan Cartwright) into their oldest son, adding an excellent character relationship between them.
- Connie should have had a role to match her own ambitions as well. In fact, I can think of no one better to be this universe’s first female PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.
(This character is currently called Elizabeth Lanford, played by Sela Ward.) Especially if, as the backstory notes, she was vice president first. Maybe this was intended and they simply couldn’t get the actress back, though that’s just supposition on my part. But it would’ve made the personal relationship between this president and Patricia Whitmore make a lot more sense. Connie helped raise Patricia in the White House, and could easily have become a sort of surrogate mother to her after Mrs. Whitmore’s death. This seemed to be the relationship that the actresses portrayed on screen, but how it got there is a mystery. But a Constance Levinson presidency would’ve made the whole thing make perfect sense.
Plus, then the president gets killed by aliens.
In novel writing, we often talk about making characters suffer. It creates good drama. Imagine the suffering our main character, David Levinson, would go through by losing his father and his wife of 20 years in a single day. It would push him to the breaking point, which is right where you want your protagonist before the climax of a drama. Two deaths would make this invasion doubly personal for David, not just professional. As it is now, he doesn’t have very high personal stakes because we know his only family is safe for the entire movie. He lost his mother years before the first movie. But now, if he loses everyone except his children, that turns his focus to saving the world for them, not for himself. I’ll come back to this focus on the rising generation later.
- Former President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman). I like the idea of him suffering some mental distress because of his experiences in the first movie. (My wife didn’t.) But even given that, I’m not so sure he would make some of the decisions the movie has him making. Letting yourself get choke-possessed by an alien doesn’t really seem like the best way of getting information about the enemy’s plans (more on this point later on, though). Nor was his backstory explored enough to motivate his suicide run.
When it comes down to it, former presidents are in a unique position of having held great power and then relinquished it—and no president ever likely held more power in government than President Whitmore, yet according to the backstory, he finished his second term in 2001. But as we see with Presidents-turned-dictators in other countries throughout history, the allure of keeping or regaining that power again can be very, very strong. And it is almost always devastating for the countries they lead for an extended period of time. What would be an interesting angle to play with Whitmore here would be everyone turning to him for leadership again once the aliens come back. After all, he led them to victory before, so why not again? This power could be even harder for him to refuse once the current president and the whole line of succession is terminated by the aliens. A theme of refusing power while wanting to help would make great internal conflict for the character, as well as add to the crisis for everyone else.
There’s our main characters. Now on to everyone else.
- Floyd Rosenberg (played by Nicolas Wright). The annoying paper-pusher who keeps following David Levinson around for some reason and eventually earns the respect (kind of) of a hardened African warlord. I think he’s mostly meant to be around for comic relief, but he’s not funny, and his actions aren’t enough to really earn the warlord’s respect, IMO. This character may also be cut with no loss to the story.
- General (and, later, President) Adams (played by William Fitchner, a.k.a. Colonel Sharp from Armageddon). I don’t have any problems with the way this character was portrayed other than that I kept seeing the Armageddon character (which might just be me). His speech wasn’t as good as the speech in the first movie, but again, that’s the writers’ fault, not the actor’s. My biggest question here is, Why isn’t Adam Baldwin reprising his role as a promoted Major Mitchell? This is perfect chance to build on the character development from the first movie, and Adam Baldwin has a lot more star power now. Of course, maybe that put him out of the movie’s price range. We may never know.
- Rain Lao (played by Angela Wing). The pretty Chinese pilot who has all of five lines, the best of which is to insist on a date instead of making out with perpetual sidekick Charlie Miller (Travis Tope). His little lustmance arc doesn’t go anywhere in the film, and neither does Lao’s potential sense of loss at the death of her uncle on the moon. Both of these characters could have been developed further if there had been more time for them and less time spent shooting close-ups of Liam Hemsworth.
- Catherine Marceaux (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg). The idea of a psychologist studying the effects of alien telepathy on people is really cool and deserves to be explored. But she’s not the right romantic partner for David Levinson (Connie is), and their flirtation never goes anywhere. A better place for her is next to President Whitmore, who is not only her patient but has also had 20 years to overcome his wife’s death and could be finally ready to look for someone new. Widowers come with baggage, though (as do therapists), so there’s lots of potential for interesting character tension, starting with the fact that therapists aren’t supposed to fall for their patients. She could also give him a reason to live, making his choice at the end of the movie even harder. And a victory for the world juxtaposed with a personal tragedy for this character would be an interesting angle.
- Warlord Dikembe Umbutu (played by Deobia Oparei). This character had violence leaking from every scar. But other than a once-mentioned desire to avenge his brother’s death at alien hands (tentacles?), he doens’t have much of an arc. As a warlord, he’s also the antithesis of the American ideals that the rest of the characters embody. Using him as a catalyst for a discussion on the merits of democracy VS authoritarianism would have added a nice social commentary aspect to the movie. He could also have been the temptor who tries to convince President Whitmore to step into power that is no longer his to take. Alternativley, if you ever needed a character who was an alien plant (possibly via telepathic control), he would be a perfect choice.
- Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner). First, let me say that Brent Spiner’s performance is so much fun. This is an interesting case of a secondary character in the first movie (so secondary that we presumed him dead halfway through) becoming a main character in the second movie—kind of the opposite of what happened to Jasmine Hiller. This Dr. Okun wakes up from a 20-year coma looking exactly the same, and he jumps back into his work so quickly that he forgets to put on pants. Which is perfect for the character. He’s almost all the comic relief this story needs (plus a few more Will Smith-esque lines from Dylan Hiller, which would’ve been nice; he only got one). What doesn’t work so well is the attempt to turn this comic character into one experiencing dramatic loss through the death of Dr. Isaacs (John Storey). It’s never made explicitly clear if they were friends or more than friends (and this may be intentionally ambiguous), but the character of Dr. Isaacs was seen so little in both movies that again, audiences don’t have a real chance to connect with him. He’s also eccentric (as anyone close to Dr. Okun would have to be), which puts another layer of disconnect between him and the audience.
- The Guys on the Boat. These guys want money, and they get money. That’s their whole boring arc. Otherwise, they basically serve as countdown announcers. (Why an alien fighter looking for some target practice doesn’t blow them up is an open question.) They could have been the Russell Cases of this movie, except that they don’t do anything remotely heroic.
A certain amount of cliche plot tropes can be forgiven if the characters are good enough. Without them, however, they shine like a black eye. Let’s mention a few:
- Bigger is Better. This is less of a trope and more of a Hollywood addiction, seen most recently in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which was, let’s be honest, the original Star Wars BUT BIGGER. The thinking (if it can be called that) goes, “The city-sized ships in the first movie were cool, so let’s build a continent-sized ship for this one!” But at these scales, your returns diminish very quickly because the size starts getting beyond what human minds are used to grasping.
- Hive Minds Have Queens! We’ve seen this before, from the Borg to Ender’s Game. We know how this one plays out, so once you establish a queen, you eliminate audience-pleasing surprises. I list this as a plot point, but it does overlap with worldbuilding a bit. However you categorize it, it’s an old, cheap trick: an instant Achilles’ Heel for our heroes to exploit. The Independence Day aliens were much cooler as a civilization of individuals linked by telepathy. Plus, having them all drop at the death of the queen contradicts their behavior as seen in both movies, where the aliens (particularly the ones in the Congo) keep on fighting after the first mothership (which David Levinson speculates had a queen on it) is destroyed, and who act as individuals in the case of the alien captured by Captain Hiller.
Speaking of the Queen, making her a giant monster is way too close to the queen from the Alien series. They even look a little too similar for my taste.
Also, if you have a queen controlling every individual alien, they would probably not develop a written language (see Ender’s Game). Writing is much more useful to individuals.
- The Artificial Deadline. The deadline in the first film was that every major city would be destroyed in the next 36 hours. It was only mentioned once, and it was a very real side effect of what the aliens were doing. In Resurgence, the aliens are drilling down through Earth’s mantle to extract our planet’s liquid core (which they will presumably use for energy and materials). First of all, there are far, far easier ways to get iron than wiping out a resistant species to grab their planet’s core. (They could have gotten almost as much stuff out of Venus, and we wouldn’t have cared.) And we don’t really need to know what they’re here for (“consuming every natural resource” is reason enough), just that they’re willing to kill us for it.
But here, the real point of establishing this at all is to give the characters a few hours to destroy the alien ship. You don’t need the deadline. The fact that the aliens are here and killing people is motivation enough to stop them. The first movie didn’t need a hard deadline, and this one didn’t need it either. Instead of spending time on a scientifically silly excuse for a time limit, show our characters fighting the aliens more! (Or even resolving conflicts with each other.)
- The Mysterious MacGuffin Sphere. Actually, I really, really love the idea of there being “refugee races” out among the stars, banding together after their various defeats by the aliens attacking Earth and trying to fight back. Broadening the scope of the conflict is a good choice because it raises the stakes (at least in the future). But the sphere’s plan leaves quite a bit to be desired. And more importantly, it would raise the stakes even higher if these other aliens were also willing to destroy humanity in order to score a strategic victory against their enemies. As Howard Tayler elsewhere quips, “The enemy of my enemy is my enemy’s enemy. No more, no less.” Making humanity have to earn an ally through its actions raises the stakes more than having super helpful and friendly aliens show up on your doorstep (where they really should have contacted us rather than waiting to get shot down, since we see the sphere use instant translation technology later on).
- Sequels Must Hit the Same Beats as the Original. This is related to Bigger is Better, but it’s not quite the same. This happens when a movie tries to imitate the best parts of its predecessor, like Star Trek Into Darkness did with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, particularly at the ending. Independence Day: Resurgence does it throughout the entire movie. You have the humans losing the dogfight scene, the chase through the giant ship as the door is closing scene, the going to blow it up from inside scene, and the final victory on the same exact same salt flats scene. You have the inspirational speech, the person slammed up against the glass while being choked by a tentacle, and lots of city skyline destruction. And the worst part is, you could tell exactly when one of those things was going to happen. This sequel tried so hard to recreate all the iconic scenes from the first movie that it forgot that it needed to have new, cool scenes of its own.
And herein lies the biggest problem of the movie for me as an editor: Hitting all the same beats undermines the world that has been built for this movie. The first movie was about unprepared humanity coming together in a last-ditch effort to save ourselves from extinction. The sequel tried to re-create that exact same situation. The problem is, once you’ve acquired alien technology (which humans would certainly do), that kind of lopsided, asymmetrical fight is no longer possible—and that’s the whole point of acquiring their technology! We want to be on even footing or better, and to make this movie live up to its good worldbuilding, we should have been. This shouldn’t have been a last-ditch “Hail Mary” attempt to save humanity; we’ve already seen that in this universe. What this movie should have been was an exposition of how much humanity can accomplish when we’re united together, when we’re determined to deliver a better, safer world to our children. This could have been a big, epic, even-odds war movie, with victories and defeats. You can still have us come back from the brink to win. But we shouldn’t start on the brink.
What I would’ve liked to have seen was a true handing of the torch from the generation of the first movie to the generation of their children. Instead of Levinson coming up with the plan and Thomas Whitmore executing it, let’s see Dylan, Patricia, and a Levinson son come up with the solution that saves the world in spite of what their parents want them to do. And then let the characters find some intergenerational respect for each other.
I’d also like to see Earth’s defenses do their intended job. Maybe five years before this movie starts, an identical mothership to the first one arrives to finish the job, only to find itself woefully unprepared for a united Earth with city-destroyer satellites ringing the globe. A good salvo of those blows up the second mothership, cementing Earth’s independence in the minds of its leaders and especially its youth (and possibly anyone else in the galaxy who happens to be observing). That hubris can be a source of both conflict and downfall when the aliens come back a third time. This whole sequence could be shown in about five minutes in flashback at the beginning of the film.
If you must make the aliens take us to the brink, then have them do it in an intelligent way. I suggest having them use our own strategy from the first movie against us: a computer virus knocks out (or takes control of) all alien-based technology in the Earth Space Defense arsenal. That way, all the technology we’re relying on, all the preparations we’ve made, are rendered useless because of a trick they learned from us. Any time you can make the solution of the first story the main problem of the second, you’re doing something right. And it would have been very easy to do in this case, and it would have carried a very big payoff with it.
Finally, the places where the characters ended their arcs in the first film needs to be the place where they start their journeys in the second (with the exception of Captain Hiller’s family). President Whitmore became a good leader. Now the very fact that he is such a good leader is causing him problems. David Levinson got his wife back and became ambitious. Now his very ambition in creating the ESD becomes the reason his wife dies (Maybe they redirect a human satellite to take out the President’s hiding place.) Dylan Hiller’s stepfather saved the world. Now Dylan’s expected to do the same thing, but maybe his fiancee does it better.
The worldbuilding of the Independence Day universe is so big and so good that you can tell any number of different stories within it (much as it appears Star Wars is finally doing with Rogue One). And from the ending of the sequel, it looks like they may be planning to do that in the future. But it is a shamefully missed opportunity not to have told a different type of story now.