Independence Meh

Two solid decades after the release of the first smash-hit Independence Day movie, along comes the sequel, and it makes a solid case for not needing to exist at all. It’s not a total loss, but it’s very mediocre (Side question: are there degrees of mediocrity? Can something be more or less average than something else when the very definition of “mediocre” is “of only moderate quality”? Food for thought.).

It would have been impossible to make a sequel to the original Independence Day after twenty years without acknowledging the passage of time, and this is one area in which the filmmakers have done solid work.

I liked the ways that we crafty humans have adapted alien technology. We’ve got alien laser weapons, a defense station on the moon, a satellite protection grid surrounding the Earth, and our planes and helicopters are powered by alien, I don’t know, repulsor technology or something.

Characters from the first film are older, and characters who were kids in the first movie are all now grown up. Will Smith does not return, since the producers declined his frankly ludicrous demand for a $50 million paycheck for two sequels. So yes, there will very likely be a third film eventually, which is hardly surprising when you consider that this movie’s ending is quite probably the most blatant sequel-baiting I’ve ever seen. Seriously, it is shameless.

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But back to the story, such as it is. If it wasn’t already abundantly clear, I was not impressed with the movie’s storytelling, aside from seeing the ways in which mankind has repurposed alien technology. The story is cobbled together and the characters are dull, aside from Jeff Goldblum, who is the movie’s most engaging personality, mostly just by way of being Jeff Goldblum.

Bill Pullman also returns, although he’s no longer the President since 20 years have passed. He is now an aging widower who suffers from vivid hallucinations as the result of his contact with the aliens in the previous film. His daughter, Patty, is grown up and works at the White House, which has been rebuilt after having been so spectacularly destroyed in the original movie. She is engaged to Jake, a pilot who now works on the moon base, and who used to be friends with Dylan, the son of Will Smith’s character from the original.

None of these characters are interesting. They’re all quite dull, having little personality and no memorable dialogue, despite the film’s screenplay being credited to five different writers. The story is a hodgepodge of plot clichés and uninteresting characters, which make it hard to care when a new alien mothership, so big it has its own gravitational pull, inevitably arrives and starts wreaking havoc.

The movie’s pacing is way off, lacking the sense of urgency that made the original so enjoyable, despite its sharing many of the same flaws as its sequel (dull characters, uninspiring story). Resurgence is overcrowded with boring people and devotes way too much time to their various backgrounds and subplots, none of which are compelling. Especially egregious is the eccentric wild-haired scientist Dr. Okun, who gets WAY too much screentime. A character such as Dr. Okun only really works in measured doses, but the movie puts too much storytelling weight on his shoulders, and he quickly grows tiresome.

At least the special effects are good. The ship battles and various sequences of mass destruction look good and are enjoyable to watch, despite the lack of reason to care about the characters involved. I also quite liked the alien spaceships and weapons, as well as the look of the aliens themselves. Director Roland Emmerich has a lot of experience causing mass cinematic destruction and making it look convincing, and when the aliens park their new mothership right on top of Earth, the effects are impressive to watch. It’s just so hard to find good mothership parking these days.

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The 1996 movie lacked a central antagonist, but the sequel makes up for that by putting an Alien Queen in charge of the new batch of extraterrestrials. The Queen looked badass and I enjoyed the final showdown with her in the desert, but again the storytelling here is lazy. How do you destroy the alien hive mind? Why, by destroying its source, of course. Take out the Queen and the rest will be defeated. It makes sense as a plot device but feels too convenient.

And I guess it makes more sense than the original movie, in which the ingenious humans utilize a Mac virus to disable the enemy mothership’s shield generator, or at least I think that’s what happened. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t go in to movies like these expecting flawless plot continuity, but at some point all of this starts to feel haphazard. Independence Day: Resurgence doesn’t have much identity of its own, and if the title were changed it could be just about any generic alien-invasion thriller.

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For me, this movie is the Jurassic World of 2016. Decently entertaining while it lasts, but profoundly flawed and doesn’t have much staying power. There’s also no particular reason for it to even have been made in the first place, aside from the fact that it’s a delayed follow-up to a previously successful film. It’s like some movie executives were sitting around one day, snorting cocaine through $100 bills or doing whatever it is that movie executives do, and one of them was like, “Hey, remember that hit movie we had back in ’96? We should make another one sometime.” And the other one was like, “Yeah, that’s a good idea,” and then they went back to the coke and Ben Franklins.

Oh, well. I’ve seen plenty of worse blockbusters than this. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen comes readily to mind. At least this movie has some redeeming qualities, unlike that one. The biggest sin of Independence Day: Resurgence is that it’s simply not memorable. Hollywood churns out movies like this all the time, and this one is neither better nor particularly worse than your average summer popcorn flick.

Capsule Reviews, Vol. 1

Here are a couple movies I’ve seen recently that I had some thoughts about, as well as a couple of other random topics.

X-Men Apocalypse

When a movie starts in the year 3600 BC, you know it means business. The latest installment of the X-Men series sees the film debut of Apocalypse, an important character in the comics whose origin begins in ancient Egypt. In the film’s opening he gets buried under a pyramid and eventually reawakens after about 5000 years in modern-day Egypt. By “modern-day” I actually mean some time in the 80’s, which is when the movie takes place.

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The X-Men series has the most convoluted timeline of the major Marvel franchises, and I’m still not sure exactly how the time travel shenanigans in the previous film, Days of Future Past, effected the overall X-Men universe. But I just decided to roll with it, and found Apocalypse to be an enjoyable ride. The plot is messy but not incomprehensible, and the cast and special effects are top-notch.

Movies with as many characters as the X-men movies tend to have can start to feel bloated, and Apocalypse is no exception. Still, it’s nice to see the return of characters like Storm and Nightcrawler, as well as expanded roles for Seminal X-men characters like Cyclops and Jean Grey. There’s even a cameo from everyone’s favorite clawed mutant, whose third solo flick is due out next year and is reported to be R-rated, which is exciting.

Apocalypse is the fourth X-flick to be directed by Bryan Singer, and he has a really good grasp of what makes these characters tick. The movie is both a sequel and a sort of reboot, and could easily have been a mess. The mixed reviews would certainly suggest that the film is a sort of catastrophe (48% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as opposed to 91% for Days of Future Past), but as usual I feel like the critics have vastly overstated it. Apocalypse is far from perfect but is still plenty enjoyable and chances are good you’ll enjoy it if you liked the previous films.

And I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t give a special mention to the movie’s absolutely stunning slow-motion Quicksilver scene. I didn’t think Singer and co. could top the slow-mo sequence from Days of Future Past, but damn if they didn’t knock it out of the park with this one. The sequence where Quicksilver saves the occupants of the X-Mansion from a massive fireball, scored to “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, is a showstopper.

It’s a trippy movie (part of the final battle is a sort of mental duel between Apocalypse and Professor X) and it gleefully embraces its comic-book roots. The costumes are more colorful and the whole movie has a slightly surreal feel to it, which may be turn some people off but I for one found quite enjoyable.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

This is the rare Michael Bay movie that actually stayed with me after I watched it. I don’t hate the Transformers movies as much as many people seem to, they’re decently entertaining but evaporate from your mind the second they’re over, including the fourth film which is nearly three hours long.

13 Hours has more staying power. The film tells the story of the September 11, 2012 terrorist attacks on the US State Department Compound in Benghazi, Libya, and the American security operators who fought back.

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The movie is full of shootouts and explosions, filmed in hyperkinetic Michael Bay style, but the shootouts and explosions have more dramatic weight than any of the robotic carnage of the Transformers movies. It’s nice to see that Bay can still make an engaging action film that doesn’t overly rely on flashy computer effects.

One word I would use to describe this movie is mature. Bay tends to give in to his worst impulses as a filmmaker and indulge in some really stupid stuff. The Transformers movies (and many of Bay’s other films) are full of broad racial humor, cheesy romance stories, and frequently-ogled nubile young women, and it’s a relief that 13 Hours is devoid of that kind of crap.

The movie is a compelling portrayal of men at war, and it’s one of my favorite modern-combat movies, right up there with Lone Survivor and Black Hawk Down. It’s easily one of Bay’s best films and if you’re a fan of the genre you should absolutely check it out.

Ignominious Endings

Okay confession/rant time. I’ve been a fan of the TV show Castle since it started, but by the end of the show’s eighth and final season, I just felt burned out. It was one of the worst endings to ANYTHING, EVER, I HATED it, and here’s why.

The main problem is that, once the show brought its two main characters (writer Richard Castle, played by Nathan Fillion, and NYPD homicide detective Kate Beckett, played by Stana Katic) together, the writers clearly had no idea how to create drama, and resorted to increasingly stupid lengths to try to wring some dramatic tension out of the show.

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Once Castle and Beckett actually got together and became a romantic pair, there was this contrived nonsense about the lengths they went to in order to try and prevent their families and colleagues from knowing about the relationship, for some reason. Eventually they gave up on that and decided to get married, which resulted in the appallingly stupid plot twist that Beckett married some guy in Vegas years ago and then forgot about it, which makes no sense and is completely out of character for her.

Once that insipid bullshit was dealt with, the show pulled the rug out from under the feet of its loyal viewers yet again by having Castle get abducted on the way to the wedding, only to reappear a few months later with, you guessed it, the hoariest of hoary plot contrivances, amnesia. That’s right, he had no memory of where he had been or what he had done for the previous couple months. Groan.

At some point later on, not content with the number of previous rug-pulls, the show made up some excuse to get Castle and Beckett mad at each other and separate them for a while, resulting in Castle’s determination to win his wife back, basically sending the show back to square one and the “will they/won’t they” stage of TV character relationships.

Once THAT even MORE insipid bullshit was dealt with and Castle and Beckett got back together, the show tried to make a big deal out of introducing some scary mysterious villain who was operating from the shadows, or something. This plotline made no sense to me and I did not give one holy hand grenade about it, hence my inability to describe it in detail, since whenever the show got back to this storyline I automatically started to tune out.

All of this led to what turned out to be the series finale. The shadow villain turned out to be some random chucklehead who had only been in one previous episode, and in the last scene, Castle and Beckett are celebrating their victory when they both get shot. As they’re lying there on the floor bleeding, the scene fades out, only to fade back in with the subtitle “Five years later” at the bottom of the screen (maybe it was more, I forget) and shows Castle and Beckett horsing around with a few little kids. Then it ends.

Wait, what?

The most obvious explanation for this abrupt conclusion was that the show got cancelled by ABC before the season was over, so the writers had to tack on an extra scene at the very end for what ended up being the series finale. The transition from “Castle and Beckett get shot” to “Castle and Beckett happy with their kids years later” is sudden and startling and not remotely satisfying, and it’s emblematic of the show’s storytelling problems as a whole.

The show always struggled with balancing the requirements of the case-of-the-week stories with the larger overall storylines, and in the end it just fell apart. It makes me really sad to say all this, because I still like the show’s earlier seasons, and it’s a shame the writers couldn’t think of more compelling storylines once the early ones were resolved. I’m glad the show is over though, since Stana Katic said before the show got cancelled that she wouldn’t be back for another season, and if the showrunners had tried to continue the show without her it wouldn’t have been the same.

Oh, well. I can still enjoy the early seasons while choosing to ignore the mistakes of the regrettable later seasons, and part of me will still miss the show now that it’s gone.

R.I.P. Anton Yelchin

Speaking of missing things that are gone, it saddened me deeply to learn yesterday of the death of 27-year-old Anton Yelchin, who died in a bizarre accident. He was a very talented young actor that left us far too soon, and I’m going to re-watch some of his movies. I haven’t seen his recent film Green Room yet, which was a brutal indie thriller where Yelchin played a member of a punk-rock band whose band comes under attack by vicious Neo-Nazis, the leader of which is played by Patrick Stewart. Green Room got great reviews and I’m looking forward to seeing it when it becomes available, and will be sure to post a review when I can.

I will always fondly remember him for his wonderful portrayal of Pavel Chekov in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek films (the third of which comes out next month) and especially his delightful pronunciation of “Vulcan” and “Victor Victor.”

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R.I.P. Anton.