Independence Day: Resurgence should be nothing more than another comically awful summer movie and box-office bomb. The pile-on of tropes, inconsistencies, plot holes, and tasteless comedic relief come at the viewer so rapid-fire that one barely has time to ask, “Wait a minute, so all this time the aliens have been after the earth’s molten core?”
Yet if you actually end watching this not-anticipated-at-all sequel to a summer blockbuster from 1996, you might, like me, sit through it with an insidious sense of unease. Resurgence is not only a dumb, joyless movie but in its sheer obliviousness regarding the geopolitics of an alternate universe in which Earth is under constant threat of an alien attack, it emphasizes the political decay to which we bear witness in our stranger-than-fiction reality. You leave the movie sick to your stomach not about alien invasions but our fragile global institutions.
Back in ’96—when declaring endless war on an abstract noun would have seemed silly, Republican presidential nominees were competent World War II veterans with a great deal of governing experience, and it was really hard to buy an AR-15—blowing up the White House, the Empire State Building, and most of Los Angeles just seemed like a rad summer spectacle. The CGI era gave Hollywood directors a limitless canvas on which to explore urban and global catastrophe, yet in a post-9/11, post-Katrina, post-Fukushima, post-Sandy world, it grows more and more difficult each summer movie season to wonder which of these brainless auteurs will finally prove prescient.
The Independence Day sequel posits a world where, following the events of ’96, the global community has come together under the auspices of the U.N. (Agenda 21 propaganda? Was Glenn Beck right?) to form a sort of military-industrial supra-government in which Keynesian defense spending on alien weaponry has built a prosperous, inclusive Earth. Even if you still have to use Skype on your laptop to call your boyfriend on the Moon and (troubling portrayals of) African warlords seem to know more about the aliens’ secret language than the scientists studying them, just, shhh—they’re African, so they’re from the jungle, so they get it—everything makes sense. Welcome to Earth, Home of the Brave, the Resilient, the Cooperative.
Contrast that with the fractured and fracturing world we live in. As we know from 2008, our global economy is a grifter’s paradise, structured for the benefit of an infinitesimally small economic elite, capable of unleashing havoc at any moment. Western democracies, when they do function, can still vote to shoot themselves in the face as the U.K. just did with its Brexit vote and as the U.S. might do by electing Trump. Failed states fall under the command of true warlords and the largest mass migration of refugees since World War II is greeted with xenophobia and violent rhetoric by demagogues quick to capitalize politically on chaos. Underlying it all is a singular environmental crisis, the rapidly rising levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and oceans, to which we make token gestures of cooperation even as we blow past all signposts alerting us to the cliff ahead.
When, in Resurgence, the aliens land their silly-sized spacecraft on the face of Earth like a leech latching onto a face, the movie gets off its death and destruction money shot: screaming people being sucked upward by the ship’s gravitational pull; a tsunami toppling oil tankers; the London Bridge swallowed by flames. Jeff Goldblum’s celebrity scientist looks over this holocaust and quips, “They like to get the landmarks.” This is followed moments later by a pee-your-pants joke.
This surely isn’t new. In Star Trek: Into Darkness, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan plows a starship into San Francisco, easily killing millions of people, and after the finale Kirk and McCoy are back to joking about tribbles.* Though we increasingly bear witness to larger and larger disasters, both human-caused and climatological, our culture seemingly grows dumber about them, more oblivious. But even given that blockbuster disaster movies have a bottomless history of glib depictions of ecological and geopolitical horror, Resurgence still, somehow, against all odds, manages a uniquely flippant attitude in its casual depiction of human death and suffering. Other than Vivica A. Fox (spoiler alert, but c’mon, I promise you do not care) falling to her death in a collapsing building, the entire “alien 9/11 to end all 9/11s” scene is a sterile CGI cartoon, devoid of meaning, as shallow a depiction of war and trauma as a tantrum-throwing child scattering the pieces during a game of Risk but somehow far less interesting.
In this vein, a newish summer blockbuster staple (see the Marvel franchise) is to include images of dusky-faced foreigners in tents, presumably Afghanis, Pakistanis, or any other nationality who’s been on the receiving end of a drone, suddenly cheering American military prowess now that it’s repelling extraterrestrial invaders. Another disaster staple (see 2012) is the removal of the line of presidential succession, Congress, the courts, and all other checks in favor of a single autocratic decision-maker. In Resurgence, this is Gen. William Fichtner. The implication being that when the global going gets tough, better to have a single strongman than an informed electorate.
The Brexit and the Trump campaign (not to mention the electoral success of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party or France’s National Front) are all symptoms of a rising trend of nationalism and xenophobia in Western democracies, as environmental disaster and ill-advised foreign policy create zones of chaos in fragile Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian states. We are hurtling past 400 parts per million atmospheric carbon, mass coral bleaching events are becoming more frequent, Arctic sea ice may reach record lows this summer, 2016 will be the hottest year on record, and the two degrees of temperature rise that will lock in a truly terrifying planetary future seems imminent.
As a global community, we are courting real destruction. Therefore, it’s difficult to sit through a piece of Hollywood garbage excreted from the end of some corporate orifice assembly line like Independence Day: Resurgence and not let your mind drift—not because of hackneyed plot lines and insufferable dialogue,but because you can’t help but think of all the myriad ways disaster may befall us. So maybe this is a trend to look out for: As the dire circumstances of our political and environmental situations ratchet ever higher, the escapist obliviousness of our mass entertainment will strive, misguidedly, to retain a sense of normalcy about it all.
*Correction, July 1, 2016: This post originally misspelled the Star Trek character Khan’s name.