Hollywood’s End Times

Independence Day: Resurgence reflects how little vision Hollywood — and neoliberalism — have left.

About an hour into Independence Day: Resurgence the invading aliens tractor-beam Singapore — the entire city-state — into the air and literally drop it on top of London. At about the same time, I was hoping a large building would also be dropped on me.

I wanted to believe there was some hidden historical warning embedded in the sequence: a state once colonized by the British rising up to literally flatten its former colonizer, the echo of a past which, if left unreckoned with, will spell doom for us all. Independence Day: Resurgence, however, is oblivious to history — even, and most egregiously, its own.

The whole film is so clunky — such a naked attempt to cash in on its predecessor’s iconic status — that not even Jeff Goldblum’s glorious weirdness can save it. It is a disaster film masquerading as a sci-fi film that in the end is just a disaster.

Its failure as fiction reveals more than anything the failure of the original film’s ham-handed and uniquely American vision of peace.

Apocalypse Made Boring

Resurgence’s premise is, at least at first glance, quite heartbreaking and compelling. In the twenty years since the first film, Earth’s remaining inhabitants have managed to not only survive, but thrive, using the technology left behind from the invasion to create engineering marvels, improving everyone’s lives and building colonies as far flung as Saturn’s moons. There have been no wars — no international conflicts of any kind — and the planet has managed to achieve an unprecedented level of peace and prosperity.

The world verges on utopia. But when the aliens return and bring it all crashing down again, I couldn’t muster much more than a shrug. The writers used the first film as boilerplate: the narrative arc rehashes the original scene-for-scene, and the dialogue is so incredibly lazy that the actors often appear embarrassed to say their lines.

This doesn’t just make for cringeworthy performances, but often results in ghastly racist stereotypes. One fairly important supporting character, a warlord from a fictional African state, speaks almost exclusively in phrases like “I will avenge you, brother” and “you have the heart of a warrior.”

More broadly, Resurgence’s lazy writing means that we don’t care about anything that happens. With such underdeveloped characters, how could we? Even the characters we recognize from the first film hold so little importance in the sequel that their struggles seem trivial.

When Vivica Fox’s Jasmine dies, we don’t care. When Bill Pullman’s former president Whitmore dies, we don’t care. The mass destruction of the planet, the near extinction of the human race, have all the stakes and excitement of a trip to the DMV.

Someone in the US Army’s public relations department hoped that Resurgence would be a recruitment tool, and tie-ins both in the theater and online push viewers to enlist: “Join the Earth Space Defense,” they implore us. And later, “Paid for by the US Army.” The slippage between fiction and reality feels awkward and forced. But it also very aptly reflects where ruling ideology — be it political or aesthetic — sits today.

Popcorn Internationalism

The original Independence Day was, for its time, something quite novel. Hollywood had just started to discover how profitable the global catastrophe blockbuster could be. This allowed for a newness that has been papered over by the disaster flicks that now seem to drop every other week. In 1996, something shocking, even thrilling could sneak in. And the film’s underlying theme — one that used global catastrophe to urge for global community — was well timed and skillfully realized.

Hollywood’s use of the alien threat to warn us that our divisions spell extinction is nothing new: one of sci-fi’s defining characteristics is the use of other worlds to plead for a better version of our own. One need only look at the genre’s renaissance in the years after the Russian Revolution for proof of this.

For decades after, egalitarian themes in sci-fi clearly took their cue from the then-widespread belief that such a world was possible, even if the authors and filmmakers were painting such a belief as naive. What’s more, utopian visions often seemed to shape not just the stories themselves, but how they were told, begging the question of how film might change and evolve if the people consuming it were also the people making it.

On some level, the golden age of sci-fi begged for popular participation. And in the middle of all this was the idea of a literally different world that joined fantasy and reality, the real with the unreal, the specific with the universal.

At the time of the original Independence Day, however, no such politico-cultural alternative existed. Though in a topsy-turvy way, it was almost as if one wasn’t needed — we found ourselves, after all, at the end of history. The Soviet Union had fallen, and the Clintonian-NATO consensus had engendered a rather shocking amount of optimism in mainstream discourse.

Of course it left large swaths of working-class people out of the equation — from victims of “welfare reform” at home to the laborers in spreading maquiladoras across the globe. But in the brief period before the rise of the global justice movement and the September 11 attacks, American-led globalism held undeniable sway. As infuriatingly contradictory as it now looks, it almost appeared feasible that unipolar American dominance could create a world peace of sorts.

For as fatally flawed, neoliberal, and imperialistic as this kumbaya-with-cruise-missiles optimism was, it informed Independence Day and on a basic level made it work. The film was by no means profound; this was not Godard, Eisenstein, or Pontecorvo experimenting with new filmic methods with which to tell collective stories.

Roland Emmerich’s movie is far more in the vein of WWII-era Popular Front film-making: salt-of-the-earth underdog good guys — even the president is painted as little more than an ordinary fighter pilot — up against a tyrannical, faceless, and power-hungry enemy.

Bob Chipman (“MovieBob”) sums it up well:

We can be assured that billions of people are dying but most human carnage happens off screen. What destruction Emmerich does choose to focus on is landmarks, buildings, iconography. Makes for great marketing material, sure, but what else might be going on there?

In focusing on the destruction of inhuman, symbolic structures of civilization before showing humanity rising above it, I would posit that the film establishes a key theme: that all the invaders have done is blow up the man-made structures and artificial borders we’ve established between each other, thus enabling the global, collectively unified action that ultimately defeats them.

This isn’t subtle storytelling. It’s an easy, popcorn-style internationalism that suits the gunship liberalism of the Clinton era, yet it made Independence Day not just a redeeming movie but a redemptive one: the kind of cultural artifact that future, more just societies might see a little bit of themselves in, however crudely.

But, as Chipman points out, Independence Day was one of the last summer blockbusters made by an American studio with an American audience exclusively in mind. While one might expect the world to identify with the globalist message, its American-centric narrative was very quickly at odds with Hollywood’s new international audience.

Furthermore, with the continued expansion of an already glutted film industry, studios jumped at the opportunity to reproduce the global destruction blockbuster with minimal attention to Independence Day’s inch-deep, mile-wide substance. Already, with Volcano, Armageddon, and Emmerich’s subsequent works, we could see the slide into lazy formula, the drama of global annihilation playing out in repetitive set pieces and soap-opera relationships.

Carbon Copies

The kind of liberal and muscular globalism that predominated when Independence Day came out still holds sway with most of the planet’s political class, but it is far from the ideological juggernaut it once was. Now, in the age of ISIS, of mass refugee crises, of climate catastrophe, and of state violence that tears at the psyche’s fabric, we’ve almost become desensitized to disaster.

Not because pop-culture destruction has numbed us, but because we already know that it’s the world in which we live. Films like Mad Max: Fury Road are the rare exception to the lumbering disaster movie, but that may be because a more substantive story can be told after the catastrophe than during it (which, if true, is quite unsettling).

That the makers of Resurgence can conceive of utopia — even a militarized utopia — only in order to destroy it speaks volumes. Not only is it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but capitalism can’t even imagine a positive future for itself.

There’s something tragic in this, particularly given the film’s possibilities, the promise that the reproducible image seemed to offer to people when it first began. This kind of wonder is rather casually forgotten, but it glances at the kind of artistic marvels that might be possible if, as Walter Benjamin hinted, the massive array of cultural resources that make Hollywood run were under the radical, grassroots control of culture workers themselves.

Most producers and directors — and for that matter most cultural workers in Hollywood — can’t really imagine this, which may explain their difficulty in imagining a future. There are still great films to be made, some of which will surely come from the biggest studios in the world. But that’s not what Emmerich does. Resurgence is, in a literal sense, end-times Hollywood.

It’s unfortunately the kind of sequel that draws the flaws of the original into sharp relief. Independence Day’s shortcomings from a basic artistic perspective become more glaring than ever.

The stock characters are so stock as to become hollow. Non-Americans — on the rare occasions they actually appear — are portrayed so stereotypically that they veer from the groan-inducing to the downright racist. The billions of off-screen deaths, while intended as a thematic device, begin to seem callous and flippant.

All of this easily complements the Clinton-era genus of globalism that Emmerich envisions: one in which the United States leads and the rest of the planet follows. And where has this taken us? Into the same damn thing over and over again, each time less remarkable than the last.

The viewer leaves with the feeling that we are carbon-copying ourselves into oblivion. The human race fought the alien invasion off twenty years ago only to have it return, proving our efforts ultimately futile. Even when we send the aliens packing again we cannot avoid the feeling that it’s pyrrhic. And in fact — in the one notable departure from the original — Resurgence ends with a promise to “bring the fight to them.”

In other words, imperial hubris guarantees that the threat will return, and we are doomed to repeat the same tragic scenario in a more and more farcical way until our numbers dwindle down to nothing. We are not pulling ourselves back from the brink of extinction so much as delaying the inevitable, getting more and more bored as we do so.

A further sequel looms, and as with any global conflict, ordinary people everywhere will be forced to pay the price. If we listen closely we can hear a certain Clinton-era figure insisting that it’s worth it.