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It's hard to believe that Independence Day was released 20 years ago. The film's still a classic, with rich humor and engaging characters, but last weekend it became something else. It became the first step in building a new franchise! With the release of Independence Day: Resurgence, Roland Emmerich has revisited his much-loved brainchild and breathed new life into it. His hope is that this sequel's star will shine as brightly as the original, and we'll soon find out whether or not he's right.
However, making a sequel to a classic like this has a lot of risks. Too many years have passed, so you need a new generation to take over. But — as we're seeing with the controversy over Ghostbusters — fans expect to see the passing of the torch. The more iconic the film you're following, the greater the (fan and box office) expectations. And Independence Day is one of the most iconic films of all.
BE WARNED: SPOILERS FOLLOW!
How does Independence Day: Resurgence handle the original cast?
Let's look at some of the original cast:
Jeff Goldblum's David Levinson
In the classic Independence Day, Jeff Goldblum played David Levinson — a computer and communications specialist whose lack of ambition had brought an end to his marriage and left him with a dead-end career. It took an alien invasion to give him some ambition; he wanted to save the world! As you'd expect, Levinson has been something of an international hero for his role in defeating the aliens. He's become the world's foremost expert in alien technology, striving to prepare the human race for the invaders' return.
It's a smart play, although it risks falling into what I call the "scientist trope." In real life, a scientist who specializes in astrophysics is unlikely to be an expert on communications technology. But you really get the feeling that Levinson is your jack-of-all-trades super-genius. Still, positioning him like this means he can be the focal point of the story, drawing all the different characters together. It's fairly lazy writing, but it works.
Brent Spiner's Dr. Okun
The most unlikely returning cast member is Brent Spiner's Dr. Brackish Okun, always a popular character due to his off-beam wackiness in Independence Day. In the original film, Okun worked at Area 51 and was in charge of unlocking the secrets of alien technology. He fell victim to an alien, which used his mind and mouth to communicate:
By the end of that scene, he seemed dead — and the novelization confirmed it! But apparently, the character was instead left in a coma with a residual link to the aliens' hive-mind, and their return awakens him.
Spiner is as engaging as ever, slotting neatly into the same kind of role he had before. Unfortunately, this return is one of the less effective ones. For one thing, I found myself surprised that Okun would be kept in a medical room at Area 51 rather than at a hospital. After all, 20 years after slipping into a coma, nobody can have been expecting him to come out of it. Still, plot trumps logic.
Bill Pullman's President Whitmore
In the original Independence Day, Bill Pullman's President Whitmore was a struggling leader who was thrust into an impossible situation. One powerful speech later though, he became a legend:
That's clearly how he's viewed in the world of Independence Day: Resurgence, even as his faltering health has forced his daughter to ground her piloting career. It doesn't take long for Whitmore to become center-stage, and he even gets another resounding (yet, less effective) speech.
SPOILERS: This is where the film really does the handover. Whitmore's final scenes with his daughter are a pretty explicit "passing-of-the-torch," as he gives his life — not to save the world, but to save her.
Judd Hirsch's Julius Levinson
This, however, is where the sequel really falters. As excellent as Judd Hirsch's Julius Levinson was in Independence Day, the addition of this third generation just feels odd and off-key. In the first film, Julius really acted as a foil for Jeff Goldblum's David. Here, he has a standalone plot that isn't half as effective. Rescued after a near-death experience, he essentially travels across America collecting kids and drives a school bus into the final battle with the alien queen. If you've not seen the film, you'll read that and go, "Huh?" It really is as left-field as it sounds, and irrelevant to the film's plot.
You risk putting so much effort into the fan-service that you sacrifice the plot and structure of the film.
So who are the legacy stars of Independence Day: Resurgence?
As you'd expect from a "passing-of-the-torch" movie, many of the new generation are supposedly related to the original heroes. The world post-Independence Day is essentially one of dynasties, and while that's a popular approach for this kind of film, in a world-spanning movie it risks making the world seem rather shrunken and impotent. That problem aside, how is the new cast handled?
Jessie Usher's Dylan Hiller
Will Smith was originally invited to return to the franchise in a "father-son" dynamic, but passed on the project. Still, so iconic a character as his Steve Hiller — one of the major heroes of the first film — still needed a presence. He gets one by dynasty.
Jessie Usher's Dylan Hiller is essentially Steve Hiller Mark II, a skilled pilot whose leadership seems as much symbolic as deserved. His squadron, stationed on the Moon, are among the first to fight the returning aliens and soon he's playing a major role. In a smart move though, Emmerich's script broadens Dylan's world out. He's given a strong co-pilot in Liam Hemsworth's Jake Morrison, and the two actors play off one another with ease, each humanizing the other.
Maika Monroe's Patricia Whitmore
The next dynasty character is Patricia ("royalty") Whitmore, played by Maika Monroe. The character is sassy and engaging, but strangely off-key. Too often she's played in stereotypical ways — the girl who needs rescuing, the love-interest, the daughter who sacrificed her career to look after her father. When she finally takes to the skies, she proves to be an excellent pilot; but even then, she's quickly shot down, grounded, and reduced to playing the helpless female in need of rescue.
The final scenes between Patricia and her father (played by Bill Pullman) are haunting and a homage to classic scenes in the original film. Unfortunately, they only highlight how everybody is protecting this girl. There's a scene at the end where, just as in the original, the girl sees her fighter-pilot love walk out of the dust. Where the original featured passionate kisses, Independence Day: Resurgence goes beyond that — Patricia leaps into her man's arms, wrapping her legs around his waist as she kisses him. It's as if the film is trying to say: "See, everything you had before, but sexier!"
If Independence Day: Resurgence does indeed launch a franchise, then Patricia Whitmore needs to be handled far more effectively in future.
There are countless new characters. As always, Emmerich manages a large cast with ease. Liam Hemsworth's Jake Morrison is well-handled, with a touch of fire that suggests an irritation with the "dynasty" of this science-fiction world. It's a nice touch to have a counterbalance to it, and it's done subtly enough to not jar. Another standout character is Deobia Oparei's Dikembe Umbutu, portrayed with real presence and sure to be a major figure should the franchise be successfully launched. Even Umbutu, though, is actually introduced to us through the eyes of the familiar, namely, Jeff Goldblum's David.
Let's be honest: As the controversy over Ghostbusters is making clear, handling a sequel to a cult classic — let alone trying to make a franchise out of it — is hard work. Independence Day: Resurgence chooses to center the film around the passing of the torch, and it's a smart move. It doesn't always handle it well (Judd Hirsch's Julius Levenson is really only a distraction from the plot and Maika Monroe's Patricia falls prey to stereotype and cliche), but the film is what it is; some aspects of this "passing of the torch" are handled well, and some aren't. Only time will tell whether or not this truly becomes a franchise.