Spoiler warning: This piece mentions many specific plot points from Independence Day: Resurgence, including character death.
One of the big plotlines — and deadlines — in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day: Resurgence involves a bunch of aliens drilling a hole through the Earth’s mantle to get at its molten core. This comes up a lot: Important Science Guy (Jeff Goldblum’s character, returning from the original 1996 Independence Day) shouts “they’re after our molten core!” as if he were in an ’80s commercial, trying to protect his precious breakfast cereal from a wacky cartoon character. In the film, the planet’s gooey center is often referred to solely and ridiculously as “the molten core,” as if that were a common human expression, or as if the film is trying to sneak in native advertising for Hershey’s Molten Core Lava Cakes™.
But when the aliens do go after the molten core, audiences get one establishing special-effects shot of a giant energy-beam hitting the ocean, and then they don’t see those aliens again until the threat is ended. What do they get instead? A bunch of scruffy men on a scruffy salvage boat, periodically looking out of a porthole and reacting, presumably to some really impressive offscreen special effects: “Boy, this is bad! Those aliens sure are getting close to our molten core!” This is no-budget indie filmmaking 101: If you can’t afford an explosion, or a house burning down, or aliens drilling into the molten core of the planet, you shine a bright, flickering light on the characters’ faces and show them responding to imaginary horrors. But Emmerich didn’t make a shoestring movie, he made a $165 million blockbuster. So why does it feel like there’s a scene or two accidentally missing in that sequence, or like Emmerich ran out of money and decided to scrap part of the storyboard?
Plenty has been said about Resurgence's bizarre storytelling choices, including a 20-story alien queen who stops in the middle of destroying her species' nemesis to run after a school bus full of kids, like a distracted terrier chasing a moving car. But while the ridiculous stuff onscreen is a problem, so is all the stuff that apparently happens offscreen, due to choppy editing, a lack of interest in the characters, or possibly just a limit to how many destroyed cities $165 million can buy. It's not that the movie is creating meaningful or intriguing questions by gliding over connective tissue and basic plot establishment. It mostly just creates jarring "wait, did I miss something?" moments. Here are some of the things that happen offscreen:
- An entire space outpost is destroyed. Early in the film, Saturn gets mauled by a fly-by from an alien spaceship so gigantic that when it eventually lands on Earth, it looks like the planet is wearing an oversized yarmulke. Earth command's reaction? "Oh, something's going on around Saturn, our base there suddenly doesn't exist anymore, we don't know why." Even though that base was presumably built specifically to warn Earth about incoming alien ships, we don't see it threatened or destroyed, and we don't see anyone trying to figure out why it's gone. It's casually called into existence and then disappears in a single line.
- Something goes wrong on the moon. A misplaced gigantic weapon nearly crushes Earth's moon base, killing everyone there. This is how we meet Heroic Protagonist Pilot (Liam Hemsworth), who has to break the rules to save everyone's lives. It could be that his partner, Humorous Sidekick Pilot (Travis Tope) causes the accident through inattention, but it's impossible to tell, because the setup blurs by in two seconds. We instead focus on Heroic Protagonist and his reckless maverick behavior, and the shit he takes for it afterward. That's an awful lot of excitement based around something with no clear visible cause.
- An accountant gets unprecedented security clearance. Goldblum's Important Science Guy first shows up in a convoy somewhere in Africa, on his way to meet a machete-wielding warlord (Deobia Oparei) and check in on a giant alien ship. But for some reason, there's a nebbishy paper-pusher (Nicolas Wright) in the car with him, bitching at him about some paperwork that needs to be signed. There's something to be said for introducing a character with action and letting it define them, and Nebbish Guy certainly defines himself by whining about documentation on a top-secret scientific mission in the middle of a war zone. But what does he want, how did he get into the convoy, and why does anyone tolerate him there? Nebbish Guy's undefined paperwork is so important, he literally follows Science Guy to the moon, then to Area 51, whining all the way. (Until the end, when he freaks out and shoots some aliens, and Machete-Wielding African Warlord tells him, no lie, "you have the heart of a warrior.") But did he get those papers signed?
- Many other characters have defining moments. Again, introducing a character via action rather than spending time on the boring backstory is a good way to keep a film moving. But most of the new characters in Resurgence — Charlotte Gainsbourg's Angry Science Woman, the Sad Carful Of Orphans, John Storey as the sweet, patient gay partner of Dr. ÜberCrazy (Brent Spiner) — introduce themselves by referring to events that have just happened and sound much more interesting than the weepy or mumbly aftermath.
- Dozens of pilots somehow don't die, then presumably die. It's sort of cool when almost all of Earth's flying forces are lured into a trap inside the giant alien mega-ship, which disables all their planes and sends them into free-fall, then contains all their bombs so they do no damage. Onscreen, Heroic Protagonist and a couple of key buddies plummet to their tragic deaths, narrating their fall to the listeners back home. Offscreen, though, Protagonist and his team escape their disabled planes and survive to try some guerrilla warfare against the aliens. Onscreen: Protagonist wakes up to find he's parachuted free and a bunch of other pilots have also escaped in the interim. Offscreen: They apparently all die again, because when Protagonist and the three named characters we're supposed to care about all escape, they're suddenly alone. It's certainly possible to fill in the blanks about what happened here, but this entire sequence is a rushed mess. And yet, somehow, Emmerich could spare plenty of time to show us Protagonist pissing on the alien ship.
- The Amazing Super-Ex-President does ninja stuff. It's understandable that with the alien apocalypse descending, people get sloppy about security — for instance, letting Machete-Wielding African Warlord and Nebbish Guy drop in on Area 51 unannounced. But even before the aliens show up, Former President And Current Crazy Man Bill Pullman manages to evade his personal security detail, acquire a car, sneak it through the security at a public event involving hundreds of thousands of people, and drive it right up to Current President Sela Ward during her big speech. Her secret service detail looks astonished when he just lunges at her from six feet away to yell about aliens, and no wonder.
- All the captured aliens escape and go... somewhere! After 20 years of imprisonment, Earth's supply of captive aliens all break out of their cells at once. How? Doesn't matter! What happens to most of them? Doesn't matter! We just need a couple of them to be a threat for 20 seconds, so we can prove that Nebbish Guy has the heart of a warrior. And of course the filmmakers need a way to murder half of the cute gay couple they just introduced for this film.
- The protagonists realize what's really important! Protagonist and Important Science Guy approach some mysterious alien wreckage on the moon. Suddenly, they're attacked by aliens, and they barely make it back to their ship alive. So of course they... nearly get everyone killed retrieving one specific small hunk of the mysterious alien wreckage. Why that one piece? Presumably because there's an image on it that looks like an important symbol in the aliens' language? But since the protagonists never check the rest of the wreckage, how do they know the one chunk they look at is so important?
And all these "Wait, why are they doing that? What did we miss?" moments are enough to raise the question, did Resurgence run short on money at some point? Is there a practical reason for skipping so many plot-significant moments in such awkward, startling, distracting ways? Or are Emmerich and his four co-writers just convinced that no one cares about the details, as long as someone punches a giant flailing tentacle-beast in the face at some point in the film? More likely, is there a three-hour version of this film that actually introduces its characters, keeps track of where they are from scene to scene, and sets up the big developments before surprise-reversing them? Presumably we'll find out when the home-video versions hit the market. In the meantime, look out — those aliens Emmerich didn't bother to animate sure are getting dangerously close to stealing your Trix. At least they'll do it offscreen, when you aren't looking.