I watched the Independence Day sequel on Independence Day. Here's what I learned.
It's instructive to watch movies on the dates that matter to them. I watched the Back to the Future trilogy on Oct. 21, 2015, and goggled at how long Donald Trump has haunted our dreams for America's future. Now that America is teetering on that darkest of dark timelines, I decided to shove aside my reservations and celebrate Independence Day by testing my American mettle. On the 240th anniversary of our nation's birth, I lunched at McDonald's, drove to the biggest mall I could find, and watched Independence Day: Resurgence.
The sequel to 1996's jingoistic powerhouse Independence Day, Resurgence seemed as good a way as any to gauge the evolution of our patriotic fantasies over the last 20 years. It has Jeff Goldblum! Bill Pullman! Data! Space! All that was bright and good about the '90s (except Will Smith, who got too expensive). Plus Charlotte Gainsbourg, which makes absolutely no sense and is therefore perfect. What does a triumphalist story about mankind coming together to overcome insurmountable odds look like in 2016?
It looks, in a word, old. We're 20 years older and — unlike Goldblum and Pullman and Spiner, whose character has literally been asleep since the '90s — a lot more cynical than we were the first time round.
Resurgence isn't a good movie, but if you're trying to work out what Independence Day means in 2016, that isn't the point. As the descendant of the revolutionary blockbuster that tried to export our national holiday to the entire world, it's a better X-ray of America than most. It's a fun and fitting sequel to the peculiar strand of American self-fashioning we practice on the Fourth of July. We celebrate "independence" by lacing frivolity with danger: bunting and barbecues, fireworks and beer. Psychically, the Fourth is about the warlike leisure elicited by reflecting on a shared enemy. This is a holiday where we come into community by imagining ourselves into — and then out of — oppression. As a prècis on the United States' position in the world, it's almost exactly 240 years out of date, but these are embattled times. We celebrate by forgetting we're a country divided by foreign wars and rampant injustice and carnivorous primaries. Resurgence helps. It shares with its predecessor the fantasy of an outside enemy so gargantuan and terrible that our bitterest factions are forced to forge a temporary peace against it.
As philosophical exercises go, this is the least sophisticated vision of "independence" imaginable — world peace thanks to intergalactic war — and the Independence Day franchise chases that fantasy so hard it kind of undoes it. Because the longer you think about it, the worse of a title "Independence Day" is for what the movies describe. Independence implies a sometime relation that is no more (in imperialistic contexts, it connotes a kind of abusive intimacy). But the Harvester Queen and her hive just want Earth to refuel. They're basically Vogons. It seems spurious to declare your "independence" from a power that has no interest in keeping you alive.
So if independence was never the point of these movies, what is?
Pullman's speeches in the original and the sequel betray that the fantasy was never independence at all: It was interdependence.
Movies like Independence Day function as time capsules. Remember 1996? We'd sent a spacecraft to orbit Jupiter then too, and America was getting tipsy on science champagne laced with dot-com bubbles. The future seemed bright. Stanford's Hoover Institute published a sunny report on how global warming would benefit Americans (40,000 fewer deaths a year!). Our stock was rising. And sure, we'd seen Jurassic Park three years earlier, but we'd come away more thrilled than chastened (Dolly the sheep was born in 1996). We were developing artificial intelligence while remaining superior to it: Deep Blue bested a chess grandmaster, but the grandmaster beat him right back. Things were in balance.
And despite its impressively horrific footage, Independence Day was a fairy tale about humanity's ability to unite and stave off catastrophe. Since then, the "staving off" part has dwindled and died. We no longer believe technology will save us. We've instead become anxious and expert consumers of apocalyptic fictions. Between The Walking Dead, Last Man on Earth, The Leftovers, Under the Dome, The Strain, The Hunger Games, and others, we've conducted so many collective thought experiments on global collapse that perhaps we've stopped fantasizing about preventing it. Global warming will not spare us. The apocalypse is a given and the Death Stars just keep getting bigger (in Resurgence, it's 3,000 miles across).
Today, everything is out of balance. We're feeling outmatched.
While Resurgence tries to pretend it's meeting us where we live by saying "it's worse this time," the film nevertheless remains thoughtlessly triumphalist. It doesn't crumple into darkness the way the American superhero movie has. Its science scribbles are joyous nothings. No one, not even Jeff Goldblum, the pessimistic uber-scientist of the '90s, pauses to wonder whether drilling through the Earth's crust might have some seismic consequences even if the aliens didn't quite make it to the core. Rather than mourn or rebuild, his thoughts turn to politics: Resurgence is excited about forging a sort of United Nations in space and taking the fight to "them."
This is a movie entirely at odds with the angry "independence" movements driving Trump and Brexit. And because it fails so completely to address that anger — because it works so hard to externalize the cause of our crises — it feels like what it is: a throwback.
It tries to change with the times, of course. One of the pleasures of throwback-sequels like Resurgence is how amusingly they expose films' recent effort to catch up with TV when it comes to things like gender parity. You can almost see Hollywood dragging itself out of the tar pits, crawling toward equal representation. The movie's intentions are so good! Maika Monroe's Patricia Whitmore has inexplicable access to every political and military facility (she even — briefly — gets to fly). The president is even female this time! She's a terrible president, to be sure, utterly charmless compared to the male presidents. Still, she exists. There's a Chinese pilot (played by Angelababy) who doesn't say much, being Chinese, but she has pluck.
Resurgence is trying on other fronts too: It's at least hinted that Okun and Dr. Milton Isaacs are gay and their dialogue is some of the best in the movie. And while it isn't exactly better on race — whereas the original Independence Day made a black man the savior of all mankind, Jessie Usher's Dylan gets much less screentime than Liam Hemsworth — but it does try to give Africa some agency in escaping the literal black hole it tends to become in these sorts of stories.
It fails, of course. Watching Independence Day: Resurgence on the Fourth of July in 2016 feels different from watching Independence Day in 1996. We were on the upswing then; we could take the hits. We could afford to fudge the difference between independence and interdependence. These days, that sense of ourselves as heroic unifiers seems as bearded and worn as Bill Pullman's President Whitmore. Instead of reveling in mankind's victory, there's a post-apocalyptic itch to scramble for limited resources: London is annihilated, the Earth's crust is likely compromised, so, hey, maybe a few people will fit into an alien space capsule and start again somewhere else?
After the movie, I felt tired. It seems telling that despite Resurgence's vision of an alien coalition with mankind leading the charge, real-world Britain and the United States are getting more and more obsessed with keeping even human "aliens" out. Telling, too, that China, not America, just finished building a gigantic alien-detecting telescope.
The motto for American independence in 2016 might as well be "leave us alone."