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Five Things Independence Day: Resurgence Does Better Than The Force Awakens

When I saw Independence Day: Resurgence last week, I was struck by how just how competent it is. That sounds like faint praise, but this a sequel that kind of has no right existing from a creative standpoint, so it could easily have coasted on nostalgia for the original (like, say, Jurassic World), but instead it works hard to justify itself as an individual film, and that’s admirable given the way these types of sequels often go. Thinking about it brought to mind another recent movie and the way it dealt with similar hurdles and franchise baggage – Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

To let you know where I’m coming from, I liked Independence Day: Resurgence, while I didn’t care for The Force Awakens. That isn’t to say Resurgence is a great movie, because it’s not, and it isn’t nearly as good as the original; it has some major problems that could easily have been fixed, and it’s too rushed for its own good in parts. But it gets a surprising number of things right and not only did I have a good time watching it, I hope at least one more Independence Day movie gets made down the line (preferably one that learns from Resurgence’s mistakes, but embraces its creative successes).

Here, then, are five things I believe Independence Day: Resurgence does right that The Force Awakens does wrong, or not at all…

*Spoilers for Independence Day: Resurgence and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (and the first Independence Day, if you haven’t seen that)*

It Delivers Something New

That Independence Day: Resurgence does this better than The Force Awakens is an even bigger shame on the latter because Resurgence is boxed in by its subgenre; an Independence Day movie must, by necessity, be an alien invasion story of some sort (at this point; more on that in a bit). A Star Wars sequel of course had to be about some sort of war in space, but there could’ve been many different ways to go about it. Episode VII was a chance to show different types of warfare, a different power dynamic, different political aims, different weapons, any number of things to give the audience something it had never seen before in a Star Wars film. Instead, it was a complete retread of A New Hope, shameless following every beat of that plot, even going so far as to have new characters being avatars of older ones. It’s a massive wasted opportunity.

Independence Day: Resurgence does all of these things differently. The story doesn’t retread its predecessor; it builds on it, bringing the whole world of these films forward. The entire landscape of Earth has changed, with our technology having advanced sharply because of our utilizing the alien equipment recovered from the 1996 invasion. The world peace attained through humanity’s joining forces to stop the aliens remains as well, with a better Earth the new status quo (as opposed to The Force Awakens, where the defeat of the Empire seemingly changed absolutely nothing). Most of the action takes place in new locations (Florida, Europe, the African Congo, the Moon!), while the ones returning from the original look and feel like they’ve changed, and they’re used differently. The new mothership in Resurgence, for example, is certainly similar in design to the one from Independence Day, but more of it is explored, and it’s used to develop some of the main characters, show different sides to the aliens and diversify the action; that’s good filmmaking, and while it doesn’t do all these things perfectly (this should’ve been where Dylan and Jake learned to trust each other, not when they were in the locker room together), at least the attempt is there. And through that satellite drone thing, other worlds and alien races are introduced and the universe is expanded, making an intimate story about a single planet feel like a small part of a larger saga. By contrast, The Force Awakens technically has new locations, but they all feel exactly like ones from the original trilogy; what is the difference between whatever that desert planet is called and Tatooine, or Maz Kanata’s bar and Mos Eisley? Star Wars, of all things, manages to feel smaller as a result.

Most surprisingly, and most satisfyingly, the action in Resurgence is wildly different from that of Independence Day. When the space ships wreak their devastation on major cities, they don’t just cause another conflagration but actually use some sort of gravitational pull to make the cities collapse on themselves. There are boats at sea that are put in danger as well, racing to escape tidal waves as the aliens blast us once more; they even stick a character we love, Julius Levinson, in the middle of this so it means something as opposed to being just a cool new special effects display (unlike when the new Death Star – and that’s what I’m calling it because that’s all it is – destroys a planet to which we have no connection; we didn’t know anyone on Alderaan, but we knew it was Leia’s home and had everyone she ever loved living on it). Then there are the ground troops, something hinted at but never shown in Independence Day; this time, the aliens themselves kick down doors and march across battlefields with ray guns in their hands, so the aerial warfare is broken up with land skirmishes and never gets repetitive. (To be fair, Star Wars has always featured varied types of battle, and The Force Awakens does a fine job with this as well, but when taken in conjunction with all the new elements Resurgence features, I think it more than bears acknowledging.) I was a bit worried when the finale looked like it would involve, yet again, simply blowing up a ship from the inside, but Resurgence cleverly uses this as a fake-out before revealing yet another new set piece: a fight with a giant alien Queen (derivative of Aliens, yes, but it’s new for this franchise and the fight is quite different from the one in Aliens). Nothing feels like a retread in Resurgence, whereas The Force Awakens feels like a rerun.

It Treats the Older Characters with Respect

In The Force Awakens, it was thrilling seeing Han Solo, Princess/General Leia, Chewbacca and the droids again, but once the high of reuniting with your favorite characters wears off, it becomes clear that they serve no purpose to the plot whatsoever. Han comes closest, as he’s the new Obi-Wan Kenobi style mentor, but he doesn’t actually do any mentoring; he’s just kind of there to be Harrison Ford, talk about how great Rey is and die. Chewie does next to nothing, Leia could’ve been anyone and the droids are background decoration. (It can be argued R2-D2 is important because he has the map that needs BB-8’S final piece to locate Luke, but it’s wholly dependent on a new character – ironically, the one who is pretty much a carbon copy of R2 himself – so it has no real impact.) Luke fares a little better, but he functions almost as a MacGuffin, existing so the good guys and bad guys can look for him.

In Resurgence, most of the carry-overs from Independence Day are important to the plot, or at least given something to do. David Levinson is one of the central players (like the first movie, there’s no one person who is the lead), discovering ways to fight the invaders, learning more about their culture and tactics, and traveling from one key location to the other, taking the plot momentum with him. Tom Whitmore isn’t in as much, but he’s one of the people who’ve mind-melded (to borrow a term) with the aliens, so he knows they’re coming and what they’re up to; he has a role to play, instead of just being there so the studio can throw him in the trailers and say, “Remember that speech?” Dr. Okun, a character about whose return I had deep reservations (it kind of kills that subtle character moment for Major Mitchell in the first one, where he sees his friend is dead and coldly executes the alien in revenge), but he’s important too, and he has more to do than in the first movie, justifying his inclusion. Even two of the “new” characters are actually just grown-up versions of the kids from Independence Day, and that becomes one of the more successful themes in the movie: can these guys ever live up to their legendary parents? Are they really exceptional people on their own, or is their celebrity merely born of nepotism? As with the action and locations, there is at once a reverence for Independence Day as well as a moving forward of the series’ universe seen through the characters.

It Makes Death Meaningful

In movies like these, death is inevitable, but unlike The Force Awakens, Resurgence makes death actually mean something… well, for the most part, anyway. The big deaths in both films involve a major character from the franchise’s past: Han Solo in The Force Awakens, Tom Whitmore in Resurgence. But Han dies in service of someone else; he is killed to establish that Ben Solo/Kylo Ren/a hipster Starbucks barista is truly evil. That’s swell and all, but it’s a pretty lousy way to treat a character as beloved as Han Solo. He doesn’t die for any noble purpose; he doesn’t save a single life; he doesn’t even go out on his own terms. He’s thrown away like a used napkin, as much a victim of the plot as he is his demented son.  Whitmore, on the other hand, dies a hero. He sacrifices himself to save the world and to save his daughter’s life, and his death comes with both a big show of defiance to the villains and a cool one-liner (at least I thought so; sue me, I’m a sucker for these things). The kicker is, like Han, he actually doesn’t accomplish much in the grand scheme; he destroys the ship, but fails to kill the Queen, so the invasion continues and things look even direr for the surviving heroes. His death even comes in part to serve another character, as now that he’s no longer there, his daughter Patricia must step out of her father’s shadow and become a hero like him, just as Dylan, Jake and Rain must do. Whitmore’s death tics the same box as Han’s, but it also honors his character and allows him to remain a hero instead of turning him into a victim.

Jasmine’s death is a little different. She does die mostly in service of the story and characters, but she’s never made out to be an important player in the movie either, so it doesn’t feel like a cheat. She also heightens the tension later, because now we know that Emmerich is willing to kill off the people from the first movie; when we see Julius trying to survive the monstrous waves the aliens cause, we’re scared for him because, after seeing Jasmine die, we know he could be next. Han’s death doesn’t accomplish this because none of the returning characters are present in the battle once he’s gone; Chewie is there, but he gets on the Millennium Falcon almost immediately afterward and never seems to be in any danger. Jasmine also dies trying to save a mother and her baby, so even her demise has a nobility that Han’s lacks.

Just as important as killing a character, though, is knowing when not to, and again Resurgence handles this better. In The Force Awakens, Poe Dameron spends most of the movie presumed dead, having crashed-landed on not-Tatooine and sinking into the sand with his wrecked TIE fighter. This is an important story beat, as it gives the previously selfish Finn the motivation to do something good and complete Poe’s mission, as well as gives BB-8 some humanity by having him mourn his lost friend. In the final act, though, Poe shows up alive and well, with the season-six-Kenny-McCormack-like excuse that he was just over there or something, and all the meaning of Finn’s journey is gone in an instant. Resurgence does a surprise return as well when it looks like Jake has crashed trying to escape from the mothership only for his buddies to hear him announce his survival over the intercom. It takes away nothing from the plot or anyone’s character development (it actually furthers Dylan’s arc, as he’s truly crushed at the thought of losing the guy he once hated), and Jake’s survival is established right away instead of being dragged out and given a shaky-at-best explanation.

It Keeps its Villains Intimidating

The Force Awakens almost had a great villain on its hands with Kylo Ren. His opening scene is full of menace as he stops a laser blast in the air and orders the massacre of a bunch of defenseless people from behind his imposing mask and cloak. Ren is a pretty bad dude for much of the film, but once he takes off his mask, the illusion is broken and we see he’s just an obnoxious emo whose bark is likely worse than his bite. Unfortunately, the movie then proves that to be the case when Rey, someone with no formal training in the Force, kicks his ass from here to Dagobah; this would’ve been okay if he’d died, but Ren lives to fight another day, robbing any future battles of all their suspense because we know he can’t beat Rey. At the same time, the First Order’s new Death Star (which is so much more powerful than the other ones, you don’t even know!) is destroyed in the same way as its forebears were. By the end of this movie, the bad guys seem like petty annoyances more than anything else.

Resurgence once again has its hands tied in that it must feature the same alien force from the first movie, but it manages to get around this handicap with the aforementioned change in attack sequences. The aliens don’t repeat the same tactics that failed before but use different weapons to cause a different kind of damage, albeit with the same effect. The ships look the same, but they function differently and, as a result, what could otherwise have been repetitive villains suddenly become unpredictable and scary. When the heroes enact the same plan as the first film to stop them, the aliens anticipate it and use it to set a trap, showing that they’re much wilier than we may have thought. The good guys are at a clear disadvantage, and that gives the movie stakes.

Finally, there’s the big boss villain, the Queen. Like Kylo Ren, she’s defeated at the end; however, in yet another instance of this movie understanding life and death, she’s killed in battle. Her defeat is final, which means the next threat (if they make a third one, which seems uncertain at this point) will be different still. That massive planet-sized ship isn’t destroyed, but just flies away, meaning it’s a battle saved for later. In short, there is doubt about whether mankind will be able to triumph over the aliens in the future, and that’s what will make the (hypothetical) next movie exciting.

It Sets Up a Potentially-More-Interesting Sequel

Both Insurgence and The Force Awakens end in a way that demands another adventure, but they both promise something different. The Force Awakens makes an Empire Strikes Back scenario all but guaranteed, at least insofar as the young Jedi hopeful being trained by someone powerful in the Force. Resurgence manages to cut the bonds stifling it and teases an assault by the Earthlings instead of having them just wait for the next invasion. It’s a leap forward for the characters – who will now be much more active protagonists, actually bringing the fight to the aliens this time – and for the story, which will be even further removed from the structure of the original than Resurgence is. While Star Wars once again plants its feet firmly in the past, Independence Day soars toward the future.

Okay, in the interest of sportsmanship, here’s something The Force Awakens does much better than Resurgence

It Crafts Stronger New Characters

The biggest problem Resurgence has is that it should’ve been a good twenty minutes longer (about the length of its predecessor), and the new characters suffer most because of the insufficient runtime. Some of the newbies, like Dikembe Umbutu and Floyd Rosenberg, fare well, but the others are lacking in characterization. Dylan and Jake’s rivalry is resolved so quickly it may as well have never existed; as I touched on earlier, it should’ve happened while they were aboard the mothership, under fire from the enemy and having to put their differences aside and rely on each other for survival. Jake could’ve even saved Dylan’s life, which would’ve been the first step to a redemption that completed when he stayed behind, risking himself so the others could escape. A scene or two of Jake reflecting on his recklessness would’ve been nice too, and gone a long way toward making his arc seem more complete as opposed to just implied. President Langford is such a non-character that her death is meaningless when it occurs, as is General Adams’ replacing her. (This actually could’ve been solved not just by giving Langford more screen time, but by replacing William Fichtner’s General Adams with a returning Adam Baldwin as former-Major-now-General Mitchell from the first film; he’s a character we already know and like, so he doesn’t need a lot of screen time to make his assuming the office have more weight.)

In comparison, The Force Awakens spends a great deal of time developing Rey and Finn, and they’re very strong characters as a result. We can trace their evolutions because the necessary time is spent establishing them in the first place, and they turn out to be the best parts of the movie. Poe, too, feels like someone we know by the end of the film; he has little screen time, but it’s used effectively and gives him a personality that feels real. Even Kylo Ren, though I’m not his biggest fan, is well-drawn and makes sense as a character with an arc.

***

It’s crazy to think that it worked out this way. Resurgence is a sequel I never wanted, whereas I’d been bursting with excitement for more Star Wars. Ultimately, the two finished products show that a good creative team can make almost anything work, and vice versa.

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