The Fly II (1989)

One of my favorite phenomena in the history of genre cinema is the R-rated horror film that feels like it was made for children. Mostly born of the VHS era, titles like The Dentist, The Ice Cream Man, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and practically any Charles Band production you could name all feel like they were intended for a juvenile audience in their artistic sensibilities, but also happen to be overrun with sex, monsters, and intense gore. Much hated for its deviation from its predecessor’s more adult tone, The Fly II (1989) is an impeccable specimen of the R-Rated children’s horror. Directed by Chris Walas, the special effects artist responsible for the grotesque mayhem of Cronenberg’s iconic 1986 remake of The Fly (1958), The Fly II is an over-the-top indulgence in ooey-gooey practical effects work worthy of the most vomitous nightmare. Most of the The Fly II’s negative reputation is in the claim that Walas’s special effects showcase was the only thing on the movie’s mind, that there is no plot or substance to speak of outside the movie’s many, many gross-out gags & surreal bodily transformations. That criticism discounts the most interesting aspect of The Fly II, the fact that everything outside its Lovecraftian, sci-fi creature transformations plays like a late-80s kids’ movie more than any direct Cronenberg descendent likely should. The two central relationships at the film’s core are essentially a boy-and-his-dog coming of age drama and a wish-fulfillment fantasy about growing up overnight, conveying R-rated perversions of movies like Big & My Dog Skip. The juxtaposition of these kids’ movies sensibilities and the nightmarish gore of the film’s gross-out creature transformations makes for a much more interesting tension than The Fly II is often given credit for. The movie deserves to be understood less as a diminished-returns echo of Cronenberg’s work and more as a high-end, well executed specimen of one of the strangest corners of VHS-era horror cinema.

For a movie with hardly any cast rollover from the Cronenberg “original”, The Fly II is shockingly confident in operating as a direct sequel to its predecessor. Tertiary player John Getz, the only returning cast member, watches in horror as “Geena Davis” (replacement actor Saffron Henderson, whom the film makes no attempt to disguise) gives birth to the resulting child from her first-film love affair with Jeff Goldblum’s Brundlefly. Goldblum himself only appears in-film in the form of pre-taped video diaries documenting his (disastrous) teleportation experiments, which are essentially deleted scenes from The Fly repurposed to legitimize this film’s existence. It’s difficult to take too much notice of these casting cheats & narrative workarounds, though, since the birthing scene that opens The Fly II is so overwhelmingly traumatizing that the petty concerns of series continuity are entirely beside the point. “Geena Davis’s” pregnant belly writhes with the contortions of a monster struggling to break free from within. She shrieks, “Get it out of me!” as surgeons pull a mutated, inhuman knot of tissue from inside her body, a cocoonish husk that leaks a milky bile from its creases. The husk cracks open to reveal a healthy-looking human baby inside, which the surgeons lift into the light with perplexed awe. This unholy surgical nightmare of an opening scene is a warning shot for the many grotesqueries to come. The body horror of bug-like transformations & fleshy decay from Cronenbrg’s The Fly repeat here, but Chris Walas uses them as a mere launching point for a relentless onslaught of even more varied gross-outs: mutated pets, infected injection wounds, face-melting bug bile, and an extension of the first film’s climactic reveal of the Brundlefly’s final form into nearly a half-hour’s worth of shameless creature feature mayhem. It’s easy to see how someone could dismiss the film as an excuse for indulgences in gross-out practical effects (especially given Walas’s background & the flimsy connective tissue between its narrative & the previous film’s) but that unwillingness to engage with the film doesn’t consider two very important factors: practical effects gore is inherently cool on its own and this particular story would still be remarkably bizarre without it.

“Geena Davis’s” inhuman husk-baby is raised as the property of the evil corporation who funded the original film’s teleportation experiments. Martinfly, son of Brundlefly, grows up incredibly fast (and with incredible intelligence) thanks to his father’s compromised DNA. In the early stretch he’s a Book of Henry-style smartass (complete with homemade helmet contraption) who maintains a lifelong rivalry with the evil scientists who study/torture him – corporate villains he refers to as “the people who live beyond the [two-way] mirror.” Because of his accelerated Brundlegrowth, Martinfly doesn’t last long in this juvenile state. On his fifth birthday he’s revealed to be a full-grown Eric Stotlz, a super intelligent specimen with the emotional intelligence of a young child. In this “adult,” rapidly decaying body, Martinfly fulfills common childhood fantasies about growing up overnight, claiming the privacy & personal property privileges of being a grown-up that most children long for. This bizarre version of Big is made horrifically perverse when the five-year-old Martinfly woos himself a twenty-something girlfriend (with their taboo lovemaking secretly surveilled & documented by the evil corporation’s science lab staff, of course). Concurrently, Eric Stoltz’s adult-toddler also befriend a golden retriever who is kept on-site as a test subject in the continued (and increasingly unsuccessful) teleportation experiments. This boy/dog-bonding children’s media trope is turned into its own skin-crawling nightmare when the poor pup is horribly mutilated in a failed transportation, then kept alive for years in intense pain & physical dysfunction for further research, a mangled mess of muscle & fur. Martinfly eventually gets his ultraviolent revenge on his lifelong abusers, particularly the Daddy Warbucks father figure who placated him through the torture/research, when he retreats into a second husk and metamorphosizes into a giant, killer bug beast, destroying the facility that has imprisoned him since birth. Everything preceding that traditional creature feature payoff, however, is a bizarre, nightmarish perversion of kids’ movie tones & tropes, which is exactly what makes The Fly II stand out as a unique practical effects gore fest.

Of course, there are a few moments of so-bad-it’s-good camp that flavor The Fly II’s VHS era pleasures. I’m particularly tickled by a scene where a dejected Martinfly bitterly stares at a bug-zapper while his housefly brethren are obliterated by its allure – the blue glow of their destruction lighting his melodramatic monologue about the meaningless of life. The over-the-top staging of that third act slump feels entirely at home with the film’s other campy touches, which recall the juvenile, unsubtle eye of vintage superhero comics. Not only does the movie begin as a kind of superhero origin story and heavily features a smiling Lex Luthor-type archvillain as its antagonist, it also leans heavily into the increased strength & agility Martinfly’s transformation affords his body. Even the creature’s final form is surprisingly mobile (especially for a hand-built puppet), leaping from platform to platform in the evil science lab like a visibly grotesque superhero, getting revenge on faceless baddies who torture animals for profit. This comic book sensibility is partly what makes The Fly II feel like it was made for children despite the intense gross-out gore featured throughout. The movie’s direct sequel even took the form of a short-run comic book instead of a feature film: a miniseries titled The Fly: Outbreak, published in 2015. Considering The Fly II’s distinct comic book sensibilities, the larger boom of R-rated kids’ horror in its late-80s era could be understood as a continuation of the tradition established by EC Comics in the 1950s, where juvenile morality tales were filtered through increasingly grotesque, supernatural plots. The same year of this film’s release there was even a more deliberate, direct attempt to keep that EC Comics tradition alive in the launching of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt horror anthology series, which also juxtaposed adult sex & gore with juvenile media sensibilities.

Like the better episodes of Tales from the Crypt and other VHS era oddities of its ilk, The Fly II feels like the exact kind of movie that would grab a child’s attention on late-night cable after their parents fell asleep, then scar them for life with nightmare imagery of melted faces, mutated dogs, gigantic bug-beasts, and milk-leaking husk babies. Its tone can be campy at the fringes (as expected, given the material) but it’s also complicated by the severity of its details, especially its dog torture & Eric Stoltz’s lead performance, which is heroically convincing, considering the ludicrous plot it anchors. The Fly II may over-indulge in Chris Walas’s artistic interest in practical effects gore (an attention to tangible, hands-on craft that only becomes more valuable the further we sink into CG tedium), but the consensus claim that those effects are the only noteworthy aspect of the film deliberately ignores how incredibly bizarre its R-rated children’s movie sensibilities can be and where that astoundingly self-conflicted tone fits in with the larger history of horror as a modern artform.

-Brandon Ledet

Hotel Artemis (2018)

There was a long period of time where slick crime pictures with deliberately overwritten dialogue felt distinctly like post-Tarantino drivel. The post-Tarantino thriller was a far-too-common manifestation of macho posturing where fresh-out-of-film school cinema bros could indulge in style-over-substance “subversions” of genre flicks – mostly to their own delight. Now that the artform of the Tarantino knockoff is much less ubiquitous, however, it’s evolving into something much more adventurous. Free Fire remolded the overly-talky Tarantino formula into an absurdist meta comedy about how audiences should be feel bad about being endlessly entertained by gun violence. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (embarrassingly) attempted to graduate it to the level of Oscar Bait Melodrama. Neither were nearly as satisfying as the post-Tarantino sci-fi comedy Hotel Artemis, which has evolved the medium into something I never thought I’d see it become: adorable.

Set in a near-future dystopian Los Angeles where Jodie Foster is clearly tired of your shit, Hotel Artemis details a single night of backstabbing, thievery, and bloodshed among chatty, professional criminals. A sprawling cast that somehow includes Foster, Dave Bautista, Jeff Goldblum, Jenny Slate, Sterling K. Brown, Charlie Day, and Zachary Quinto mingles in the titular art-deco-meets-steampunk hotel while a historically massive riot rages on outside. Stray references to a border wall and the exorbitant cost of clean water detail the general state of the decaying, overpopulated world outside, but Hotel Artemis mostly concerns itself with the John Wickian criminal society that walks its wallpapered halls. “Hotel” is kind of a misnomer, as the space these organized, warring thieves occupy is in fact an underground hospital run by Foster: a rules-obsessed nurse who does not suffer fools gladly. She and Bautista, who acts as her enforcer yet fancies himself “a healthcare professional,” struggle to maintain order on this particularly chaotic night at the Artemis. Various criminal members with barely-concealed agendas talk shit & start deadly fights throughout the increasingly bloody night, counteracting the hotel’s intended function as a hospital for critically injured reprobates. As the situation worsens by the minute, Foster seems more annoyed than disturbed, passing off the rules-breaking violence around her as just another busy Wednesday shift, her least favorite night of the week.

Unlike most overwritten, post-Tarantino crime thrillers, this film is genuinely, consistently hilarious. With the hotel setting and absurdist mix-ups of an Old Hollywood face, Hotel Artemis embraces the preposterousness of its exceedingly silly premise in a way that more cheap genre films could stand to. Foster & Bautista have the adorable rapport of a local news segment on a raccoon that made friends with a baby elephant. Foster shuffles down the hotel’s hallways with animalistic determination & a distinct old-lady waddle that might go down as the comedic physical performance of the year. Bautista brings the same matter-of-fact line deliveries that are so endearing in his role as Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, somehow making lines like “I will unheal the shit out of you” endearingly warm despite the physical threat of his massive body. Even the general rules of the film’s world-building are treated as a kind of throwaway joke. Characters repeatedly exclaim their surprise at the hotel’s existence, claiming they thought it was a myth, despite the massive neon sign that reads “Hotel Artemis” on the building’s roof. The entire film plays like that, casually breaking with logical consistency for the sake of a gag, relying on the easy charm of its cast and throwaway action movie one-liners like “Visiting hours are never” to pave over any jarring bumps in the road. It’s a gamble that totally worked for me, as I watched the entire movie with the same wide, stupid grin throughout.

I don’t know that I would recommend Hotel Artemis for sci-fi fans specifically. Besides shallowly explored concepts like 3D organ-printing & medically employed microbial robots explained in lines like “Yeah yeah yeah, I know what nanites are,” the movie’s genre beats are more consistently defined by its old-timey hotel setting and its clashes between various criminal elements. There’s minimally-employed CGI and even less world-building exposition, so I’m not sure a true sci-fi nerd is going to get the genre payoffs they’re looking for. Similarly, fans of the Tarantino & John Wick aesthetics the movie superficially echoes in its chatty crime world setting are likely to walk away unsatisfied, as the movie lacks the macho energy of either influence (and is better for it, in my opinion). It’s hard to know who to recommend Hotel Artemis to at all, given its bafflingly low critical scores and the fact that I was the only audience member laughing in my theater (for the first time since . . . Spy? Chappie?). The joys of watching Jodie Foster waddle around the Artemis and lovingly tell patrons they look “like all the shades of shit” are very peculiar & particular, which means that Hotel Artemis will have surprisingly limited appeal for a movie with this objectively wonderful of a cast. That kind of highly specific appeal can be a blessing in disguise for a scrappy, over-the-top genre film, though, and I can totally see Hotel Artemis gathering a dedicated cult following over time. I hope that appreciation doesn’t take too long, though, as Foster & Bautista’s adorable chemistry in this picture deserves to be recognized as a Cinematic Event.

-Brandon Ledet

Isle of Dogs (2018)

Director Wes Anderson has such a meticulously curated aesthetic that his work is almost polarizing by design. As his career has developed over the decades, long outlasting the wave of “twee” media it partly inspired, he’s only more fully committed himself to the fussed-over dollhouse preciousness of his manicured visual style. That can be a huge turnoff for audiences who prefer a messier, grimier view of the world that accepts chaos & spontaneity as an essential part of filmmaking. Personally, I can’t help but be enraptured with Anderson’s films, as if my adoration of his work were a biological impulse. Like the way house cats host parasites that fool pet owners into caring for them, it’s as if Wes Anderson has nefariously wired my brain to be wholly onboard with his artistic output. It’s a gradual poisoning of my critical thinking skills that stretches back to my high school years, when his films Rushmore & The Royal Tenenbaums first established him as a (divisive) indie cinema icon. Anderson’s latest work, Isle of Dogs, only makes his supervillain-level command over my critical mind even more powerful by directly pandering directly to things I personally love. A stop-motion animated sci-fi feature about doggos who run wild on a dystopian pile of literal garbage, the basic elevator pitch for Isle of Dogs already sounds like a Mad Libs-style grab bag of the exact bullshit I love to see projected on the big screen, even without Wes Anderson’s name attached. As he already demonstrated with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the director’s twee-flavored meticulousness also has a wider appeal when seen in the context of stop-motion, which generally requires a level of whimsy, melancholy, and visual fussiness to be pulled off well. That’s why it’s so frustrating that Isle of Dogs is so flawed on such a fundamental, conceptual level and that I can’t help but thoroughly enjoy it anyway, despite my better judgment.

Set decades into the future in a dystopian Japan, Isle of Dogs details the samurai epic-style adventure of a young boy attempting to rescue his dog from an evil, corrupt government (helmed by his own uncle). All dogs in his region have been exiled to the pollution-saturated hell of Trash Island (which is exactly what it sounds like) amidst mass hysteria over a canine-specific virus, “snout fever.” The story is split between two efforts: a search & rescue mission involving the boy & a gang of talking Trash Island dogs (voiced by Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton, etc.) and a much less compelling political intrigue narrative in which an American foreign exchange student (voiced by Greta Gerwig) attempts to expose the government’s villainous deeds. As an American outsider himself, Wes Anderson is at times contextually positioned in the POV of both the Trash Island Dogs and the foreign exchange student, the only consequential English-speaking characters in the film (a large portion of the dialogue is unsubtitled Japanese). In his worst impulses, Anderson is like Gerwig’s foreign exchange student– an enthusiastic appreciator of Japanese culture who awkwardly inserts themselves into conversations where they don’t belong, wrongfully feeling entitled to authority on a subject that is not theirs to claim. From a more generous perspective, Anderson is like one of the American-coded trash dogs– compelled to honor & bolster Japanese art from a place of humbled servitude, even though he doesn’t quite speak the language (either culturally or literally). By choosing to set an English language story in a fictional Japanese future, Wes Anderson has invited intense scrutiny that often overpowers Isle of Dogs’s ambitious sci-fi themes, talking-dog adorability, and visually stunning artwork. This is especially true in Gerwig’s (admittedly minor) portion of the plot, which sticks out like a sore thumb as one of the film’s more conceptually flawed impulses. For a work so visually masterful & emotionally deft, it’s frustrating that it seemingly wasn’t at all self-aware of its own cultural politics.

There are much better-equipped critics who’ve more thoughtfully & extensively tackled the nuanced ways Isle of Dogs has failed to fully justify its Japanese culture-gazing: Inkoo Kang, Justin Chang, Emily Yoshida, Alison Willmore, to name a few. As a white American, it’s not my place to declare whether this gray area issue makes the film worthy of vitriol or just cautions consideration. I could maybe push back slightly on the cultural appropriation claims that say there’s no reason the story had to be framed in Japan and that Anderson only chose that setting for its visual aesthetic. Like Kubo & The Two Strings’s philosophical relationship with the finality of death (or lack thereof), Isle of Dogs engages with themes of honor and ancestry that feel very specific to its Japanese setting (even if not at a fully satisfying depth). Truth be told, though, I likely would have enjoyed the film even without that thematic justification. Unless Isle of Dogs is your very first exposure to the director’s work, you’ve likely already formed a relationship with Wes Anderson as an artist, whether positive or negative. It’s a relationship that can only be reinforced as the director doubles down with each project, sinking even deeper into his own particular quirks. I assumed with Moonrise Kingdom that no film could have possibly gotten more Wes Andersony. Its follow-up, Grand Budapest Hotel, immediately proved that assumption wrong. While Isle of Dogs stacks up nicely to either of those films in terms of visual achievements, its own doubling-down on the Wes Anderson aesthetic is tied to the director’s long history of blissful ignorance in approaching POC cultures (most notably before in The Darjeeling Limited). It does so by submerging itself in a foreign culture entirely without fully engaging with the implications of that choice. As a longtime Anderson devotee in the face of this doubling-down, I’m going to have to reconcile my love of his films with the fact that this exact limitation has always been a part of them, that I’ve willfully overlooked it in my appreciation of what he achieves visually, emotionally, and comedically elsewhere. Isle of Dogs is a gorgeous work of visual art and a very distinct approach to dystopian sci-fi. It’s a great film, but also a culturally oblivious one. The conversation around that internal conflict is just as vital as any praise for its technical achievements.

-Brandon Ledet

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok marks the third Marvel release of the year that focused on fun and adventure, and all for the best. After last year’s kinda-dreary Civil War and the visually arresting but narratively empty Doctor Strange, the film branch of the House of Ideas was in top form this year, churning out an equal sequel with Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and the delightful Spider-Man: Homecoming. Although Guardians 2 may have leaned a little hard on the beats with its humor (kind of like your friend who tells great jokes but is also a little desperate and always ends up laughing too hard at himself) and Homecoming was an out-and-out comedy with intermittent superheroing, Marvel brought it home with a good balance of strong character moments, spaceships flying around and pewpewing at each other, new and returning cast members with great chemistry, and a hearty helping of the magic that is Jeff Goldblum.

After visiting the fire realm ruled by Suftur (voiced by Clancy Brown), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard after a few years galavanting about and looking for the Infinity McGuffins, only to find Loki (Tom Hiddleston) still disguised as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and ineffectually ruling Asgard while propping up the myth of the “dead” “hero” following Loki’s supposed sacrifice at the end of The Dark World. Thor enlists Loki in helping him seek out the real Odin on Midgard (Earth), but events conspire to release the long-imprisoned (and forgotten) Asgardian Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett).

Her return to Asgard to take the throne leaves Thor and Loki stuck on the planet Sakaar, ruled by the Grandmaster (Goldblum), who offers the space- and time-lost denizens of the planet their proverbial bread and literal circuses in the form of massive gladatorial games. As it turns out, this is where our old buddy the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) ended up after his exit at the end of Age of Ultron, and he’s the champion of the arena after having stayed in his big green form since we last saw him on screen. Also present is Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson), a former Asgardian Valkyrie who likewise found herself on this bizarre planet after being defeated by Hela before her imprisonment. Meanwhile, Heimdall (Idris Elba) is hard at work putting together a resistance and biding his time until Thor and company can return to Asgard, stop Hela and her new lieutenant Skurge (Karl Urban), and prevent Ragnarok.

Despite apparently being no one’s favorite Avenger and being overshadowed in virtually every installment by inexplicable (to me) fan favorite Loki, Thor has experienced a lot of growth in the past six years since he was first embodied by Hemsworth, and so have his films. The Dark World was, in many ways, the nadir of the MCU franchise as a whole (until Doctor Strange came along), where it felt like everyone was just going through the motions after having a lot more fun with the surprisingly pleasant balance between the fish-out-of-water humor and royal family drama of the first film. I quite like Natalie Portman, personally, and I would have loved to see her continuing to have a role in these films, but she was sleepwalking through that last film with so much apathy that she made Felicity Jones look like an actress.

Here, however, everyone is totally committed to the job, which is probably easier under the guiding hand of the bombastic and colorful Taika Waititi, who seems to be the embodiment of Mr. Fun, than it was in a film helmed by Alan Taylor, whose work tends to be more grim, if not outright melancholy. This is a movie with setpiece after setpiece, all in different realms and on various planets with their own palettes and aesthetic principles, which lends the film a verisimilitude of scope, even though each conflict (other than the opening fight sequence) comes down to something much more intimate and personal: the friction between selfishness and the responsibility to something greater than oneself. The wayward Valkyrie forsakes her desire to drink herself to death while running from the past in order to defend her home once again, Bruce Banner risks being completely and permanently subsumed by the Hulk in order to lend a hand when Asgard calls for aid, Skurge finds a strength he didn’t know he had when faced with the extermination of his people, and even Loki ends up making a decision that helps others with no apparent direct or indirect benefits to himself. The oldest being in the film, Hela, has never learned this lesson despite having nearly an eternity to do so, and it is her ultimate undoing (maybe), and it’s a strong thematic element that comes across clearly in a way that a lot of films from the MCU do not.

There are some mitigating factors, as there always are. Those of you hoping for a Planet Hulk adaptation are going to be mightily disappointed, although you should definitely check out Marvel’s direct-to-video animated version, which is not only the only unequivocally good animated film Marvel produced before ceding that realm to DC, but also has a starring role for my boy Beta Ray Bill, who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as one of the faces carved into the Grandmaster’s tower. There are also some character deaths earlier in the film that I think are supposed to be shocking in a meaningful way, but come on so suddenly and have so little effect on the plot that it feels kind of tasteless. I would have loved to see more of Sakaar’s arenas as well; it’s hard not to feel cheated when a movie promises some gladiatorial combat and ends up giving you only one match-up.

I’ll save the rest of my thoughts for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, but I’ll say this for now: this is a fun summertime Thor movie that somehow ended up being released in November, but it’s nonetheless a delight. Check it out while it’s still in theaters, as you should never pass up the opportunity to see a live action depiction of that ol’ Kirby crackle on the big screen.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

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Several years ago when Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake was first announced, I asked my neighbor and fellow horror fan Drew if he thought it would be worth seeing. In his trademark bombast, he declared that there was no point; the original Halloween had spawned so many imitators and copycats over the ensuing decade that the movie had essentially been remade dozens of times.

I couldn’t help but think about the autumn afternoon that conversation took place while sitting in the theatre watching Roland Emmerich’s latest cinematic outing, Independence Day: Resurgence last week. Why should we revisit the world of Independence Day when there have been so many imitations, parodies, and virtual remakes of that movie in the twenty intervening years between the original and this too-late sequel? Especially given that many of the attempts to recapture ID4’s success were made by that film’s director? After early career success with cult film Universal Soldier and the big-budget sci-fi flick Stargate (which I rather like, although I understand and accept that I’m in the minority on this one), Emmerich hit the film world with comparable force to one of the ID4’s flying saucer beams. The 1996 film was the highest grossing movie of the year, with a box office take of $817.4 million (for comparison, Twister was the second highest grossing film of 1996, raking in $494.4 million, about 60% of ID4’s total), and led Time to declare that science fiction was back in the mainstream. Comparative quality aside, Independence Day was essentially the Star Wars of the nineties: a surprise blockbuster success that catapulted almost everyone involved into another level of Hollywood starpower.

There are those who argue that Independence Day is a dumb movie, including most internet reviewers like (my personal hero) Lindsay Ellis, although even the hardest-hearted nitpicker can admit that there’s nothing wrong with loving a dumb movie. I have an unabashed fondness for ID4 even after all the times that I’ve seen it, and I can’t even find it in my heart to consider it a dumb movie, for all of its flaws. The characterization is generic and bland; as a result, most of the audience investment in the film rides on the charisma of its leads, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, and (especially) Will Smith, even more than the show-stopping effects work that turns DC, LA, and NYC into smoldering ruins. The film is unabashedly patriotic and jingoistic, but in a largely positive way; it’s not pro-America to the extent that non-Americans are portrayed as chaotic evil monsters, as in films in the vein of Emmerich’s later film The Patriot. What I love most about ID4 is that the stakes feel real and tangible, because the world of Independence Day is, for all intents and purposes, our world.

Resurgence’s biggest flaw lies in how it fails to understand the simple appeal of that reality. Because all the reviews that you’ve seen talking about how Resurgence is an awful piece of shit aren’t really accurate: Resurgence is a perfectly serviceable modern science fiction film. That’s faint praise and I know it, but it’s the truth. Resurgence is not a good movie or a bad movie, it’s just a moderate, middle of the road, mediocre film. It’s just as “dumb” as ID4 but without the charm. It’s basically a Syfy Channel original but with actors who can recite dialogue like they’ve met a human being before (minus Brent Spiner) and a budget that accommodates the spectacle that Emmerich wants to put on display. It’s as bland and inoffensive as a film can possibly be, and it would be as quickly forgotten as comparably unmemorable sci-fi time-passers like 2013’s Oblivion and 2014’s The Signal were it not for the fact that it’s a follow-up to a movie that people have intense nostalgic fondness for.

But before I spend any more time deliberating on the differences between the sequel and the original, a brief plot outline: 20 years after the “War of 1996,” the various nations of the planet are largely unified into a single governmental body and with a singular planetary defense force. Doctor Ian Malcolm David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) is director of Earth Space Defense, and his father Julius (Judd Hirsch) wrote a self-aggrandizing book and is living off of its profits on an apparently indestructible houseboat. Former President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is tended to by his daughter Patricia (It Follows’s Maika Monroe taking over for Mae “Her?” Whitman, because the latter is “not pretty enough” I guess), who is also a former space jet pilot and current staffer in the White House under President Sela Ward, who may have been given a character name but damned if I can recall it. Dylan Dubrow-Hiller (Jessie Usher replacing Ross Bagley), the stepson of Will Smith’s character in the first film, is the leader of a squadron of “legacy” pilots, including new characters Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) and Charlie Miller (Travis Tope), who have been busted down to menial work after Morrison endangered Dylan in a practice flight. Also, Charlotte Gainsbourg is in this movie for some reason, as a researcher who thinks that a very simplistic icon that repeats itself in the drawings of people who were psychically connected to the aliens is important before disappearing as soon as the plot no longer needs her. Oh, and Brent Spiner is back as Dr. Okun, only this time he’s a major part of the plot in addition to service as one of the film’s four(!) comic relief characters. The plot follows the new generation (Hemsworth/Monroe/Usher) teaming up with the old (Spiner/Pullman/Goldblum) to destroy a new alien threat, which is the same as the old alien threat but bigger.

One of Emmerich’s trademarks is that his films (that aren’t the least historical historical pictures ever committed to film, like The Patriot and the utter garbage Anonymous) usually open with one character finding out about something, then that information being communicated to several other people before being disseminated to one of our protagonists. Stargate opens with a child in Egypt discovering something that becomes her life’s work, and then James Spader is eventually brought in to translate the hieroglyphics that kickstart the plot. In ID4, a signal is detected and the information is eventually escalated to the point that the president is awoken to be told this information. Often, someone of import will be in the middle of a party and then be called away to answer a phone call. As lazy as it is to repeat this trick over and over again, it’s a decent filmic way of using a gigantic cast of characters in order to convey a sense of scale. That’s part of what helped ID4 feel so global, but here the world of the film feels very small, and we see characters that we already know almost immediately. A lot of this has to do with the film’s world-building, which is another element that alienates this sequel from the original. The appeal of Independence Day is that it took place in our world, whereas Resurgence takes place on an Earth with antigravity helicopters, interplanetary “tugs” that can shuttle to the moon and back in a matter of minutes, a building that you don’t even realize is the rebuilt White House at first, and soldiers carrying around Halo-esque pulse rifles. Everything in the film is futuristic because it’s been reverse-engineered from alien tech; this needn’t inherently detract from the film, but it does mean that the world of Resurgence isn’t ours, and it’s hard to care about the stakes in this film when compared to the original. This entire film could take place on Alderaan or Arrakis for all that it resembles the 2016 we’re all living in. And when we live in a world where 9/11 imagery is used to “sell” the audience destruction on a massive scale in everything from Man of Steel to Transformers, Independence Day’s relatively tasteful and understated destruction and use of practical effects seems dated now, but Resurgence goes too far in the other direction, with the over-the- top devastation looking like outtakes from 2012 that were put back in the box for being too unbelievable.

There’s honestly too much to say about why this film fails as a sequel, so divorcing it from that context and viewing it as a run-of- the-mill sci-fi flick that combines absurd schlock (Judd Hirsch outrunning a tidal wave on a tiny boat is some ‘98 Godzilla shenanigans) with occasional tenderness (Monroe and Pullman pull off some damn fine interfamilial love) is the best way to enjoy it Resurgence, should you want to do so. There are interesting ideas aplenty: post-singularity life forms that exist elsewhere in the universe, an insular nation where a ground war against survivors of a crashed alien ship went on for a decade after the invasion proper was thwarted, and the haunted dreams of post-invasion survivors are all woefully underdeveloped in comparison to subplots that are useless and forgettable, like Charlie’s crush on the Chinese pilot, the tagalong auditor comic relief character, the busload of kids that Judd Hirsch rescues, and pointless rivalry between Dylan and Jake. The attempts to recreate the personal relationships of the first film fall flat, and it would have been better not to try at all.

Overall, Resurgence is too little, too late, and it doesn’t have the heart and charm that the original did to cover its flaws. But it exists now and we all have to live with it, so my advice is to either not bother or try to enjoy it as an Asylum flick that somehow got a big-screen budget.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond