There was never any question that I was going to watch the living shit out of this, since spaceships and mass destruction seem to be irresistible catnip to me, regardless of what that says about my damaged psyche. However, in a rare display of not giving into blockbuster instant gratification, I actually bypassed Thursday preview night [because I obviously had to see De Palma then, its last night in theaters] and waited until Friday. See how mature I am? I can delay gratification, in the manner of the great minds of our civilization. Although the word “gratification” is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, especially in regards to this movie.
One of the synopses I read for this movie breathlessly promised “destruction on an unimaginable scale.” The way it was written, as a key selling point for the film, causes one to wonder why exactly that should be a draw for a film, and then, specifically, what should interest YOU in seeing that. The movie itself follows through on this promise, as the visions here are so vast as to be truly incomprehensible, which, on the one hand, provides things we haven’t seen before, but on the other… well, let’s just say that if it’s unimaginable, if it is like absolutely nothing in our experience, there’s no possible way we can relate to it.
We begin with a credit sequence that shows Bill Pullman making a would-be rousing speech [from the first film] about how humanity will triumph, traveling all the way through deep space to the aliens, where it enrages them. How dare that little guy spill all that hot gas! Who does this little upstart human think he is? So they prepare their quarter-planet sized ship [which we see, right there at the beginning] and take off to show those puny humans who’s boss.
We now rejoin Earth, already in progress, where so many changes have taken place since the last film that there is little left that is recognizable, and relatable. We now have integrated the alien technology to create jets that defy gravity and put defensive bases on the moon. The film largely stays away from the cities we saw destroyed in the first film, except for Washington DC, where we see that they have rebuilt the White House and other structures exactly as they were. The film does the now-common “legacyquel” thing of having the older generation from the original film interact with a new generation of younger characters, most of whom, in the phrase of another critic, “slide right off the screen.” Among these is Liam Hemsworth, whose contribution proves decisively that we already have enough Hemsworths as it is, thank you very much, and that the existence of both of them essentially splits their already slim demand. This puts one in mind of other celebrity siblings [the Baldwins, the Wilsons] and how one of them eventually becomes the bargain version of the other. You’ll have plenty of time to contemplate these unrelated issues as the senseless events of this film’s screenplay unfold.
All of the new young actors, including the magnetic Maika Monroe [sucked up for blockbusterdom from It Follows] don’t have a chance against the screenplay [credited to five people] which offers them no chance to act or do anything distinctive whatsoever. Monroe, in particular, is simply interesting to look at. You WANT to look at her. But the film offers her no chance to act, because it is just a compendium of moments from other movies, and sadly—mostly Denise Richards movies. Hemsworth gets it the very worst [Raymond Usher doesn’t even register at all, which may prove a blessing for him], with a character that is absolutely ludicrous, whose basis only exists in other films, the generic macho/sensitive blue collar guy with a heart of gold and who is a True American Hero. By the end I had to note that it seems fully half of his lines consist of whooping, yelling, screaming, yelping or hollering. He gets a hero moment when he risks his life [and that of his friend, without friend’s consent] to save the big moon laser, an act which, naturally, only gets him punished for being a rogue. Exactly the kind of rogue America needs, if ya hear me! This generic action scene was chosen to open the movie with the required action blast, and presages the rest of what you will experience throughout the rest of the film: staring at the pictures on the screen, feeling nothing.
Which is not to say that, in the right frame of mind [i.e. stoned] and with the right group of friends, this is not the laff riot of the year. It is so grandly moronic, with so many characters seriously declaiming dialogue of such absolute idiocy [“It’s sucking out the molten core!”] that it can be quite hilarious, although the grinding, endless momentum can successfully wear down any kind of enjoyment.
Okay, listen up, because I'm going to talk about the one great moment in the movie. They’ve received hints that the aliens are coming back, and soon this massive wormhole opens above the moon, quite striking in 3D, and this massive orb with a line of light across it appears, dwarfing the moon station. It is then that the appeal of visualizing events of “unimaginable scale” shows its promise, as we’re seeing something that seems truly massive in a way that blows your mind while gently caressing your neurons. In this moment, you think “Maybe this film is going to present us with some truly astonishing sci-fi visions!” But this is gone soon enough [they’re friendly aliens, but it’ll take us until late in the movie to realize that], and it’s back to BAU with the main alien invasion.
The main alien ship appears without fanfare, and, in a hilarious twist, flub, or whatever it was, most of our heroes barely react to the mere shock of it. They just start making plans to deal with it, but there is no HOLY FUCK moment when the 3,000-mile-across ship appears. These jaded earthlings have seen it all now.
Speaking of unimaginable scale, the ship is so big that it covers the entire Atlantic ocean [a sight we never actually see, btw], which is also so big as to be outside the realm of human visualization, meaning that it barely registers. The ships from the first film were quite big, so apparently it was decided that a truly huge ship would be, like, amazing. Turns out it’s so big, and so outside of human experience, that it just cancels itself out. And—should we get right to the problem?—the movie never TRIES to humanize it. In the first film, and as in most successful disaster films, we stay at human level while viewing the destruction, so we can have a point of comparison to help us vicariously experience what it might be like. The opportunity exists for this film to help us grasp these truly vast-scale events, but it eschews that opportunity by simply NOT showing humans in relation to the ship. We get views from vast distances, and unhuman spaces, like space, or the upper atmosphere, looking at thousands of miles at a time. But we don’t see what it would be like for any of the humans involved; what they would actually experience, on an earthbound level, when one of these events occur. If you watch the big destruction scene from the first film, as I just did, you notice a lot of coverage of humans reacting to the destruction. Here, that is reduced to about 3%, causing us to view it all in a distant, abstract way. The irony is that we’re probably not seeing the human impact in part to be sensitive to the fact that we’re depicting the loss of millions of lives for awesome entertainment, while the reality is that this approach takes away any feeling or empathy we might have for the loss of millions of lives. It’s a weird world we live in today.
So how is the mass destruction? Well, umm, not really great. First of all, there's that "unimaginable scale" thing, which makes it all too big [and too distant] to really take in. Then there's the fact that it just doesn't really make sense, and the sense it makes is not very satisfying. Look, I understand a building blowing up. I do not quite understand large parts of Asia being sucked up and dumped on London. It's just kind of stupid and senseless. And all of this because [supposedly] the ship is so large it exerts its own gravity? I don't quite buy that this is scientifically sound. And I can't understand the geography of why one city lands on top of another. This is not to mention the fact that the whole of the mass destruction--and I do mean EVERY SINGLE SECOND--is shown in the trailer. And none of it is satisfying, because for one you can't understand what's going on, the scale is too large, and we never see how it affects actual human beings, so it's just pixels on a screen. Also, the alien's plan this time [the movie tries to retcon that this was their plan last time, too] is to suck out the Earth's molten core in order to heat their hot chocolate, which will leave us with no magnetic field, and of course, anyone who saw The Core knows that that would be like, so awful. And again, aliens taking over our planet's surface makes sense to me, but sucking out the molten core, I'm like; "Well, do we really need it? We could use the empty space for storage. The only reason not to is like, umm, well, like, did you ever see The Core?"
Anyway, I can't go into all the "plot" convolutions, although not one of them is compelling or gripping, as they are just a rehash of other scenes from better movies. Same with all the characters. The president of the United States dies at some point, and I didn't even notice. One thing that is frustrating is that MANY scenes start to build tension and momentum within themselves, then JUST END. Like you're just starting to get into the drama of it, when it ENDS and you're onto another scene, which repeats the pattern. Ultimately it comes off that Emmerich, for whatever reason [perhaps the terrible script?] can build scenes, but can't make one of them build off of another. This leads to the impression that the film is also horribly edited. It is, but I think that's just one among a host of other problems.
This is one of those situations where it's like "Gosh, really? We're still talking about this movie?"
Here come spoilers, although I assure you they will not affect your "enjoyment" of the movie in any way. So, toward the end the alien queen [now there's an alien queen] flies her special spaceship over to yell at the magic cue ball [good alien], which leads into our climax. Bill Pullman [nice to see him again, but not under these circumstances] decides he'll be the one to deliver the bomb, a task for which you'll notice he feels it is necessary to shave his beard. Then Maika, who is his daughter, and has been an office-bound presidential scriptwriter this whole time, suddenly suits up and is an ace fighter pilot [is SO could happen!] in order to have a mid-air family reunion before pops blows himself up needlessly. By the way, watch carefully and you'll see that we NEVER actually see the queen's ship explode, we kind of join the explosion already in progress, sign of a special effect that simply wasn't completed in time. If you watch for it, it's quite obvious. Then all the fighters have been trying to get the queen to drop her shields, but only Maika is able to get through, because, like, you know. She's one of the main characters, so obviously she can do things mere mortals can't. I actually kind of liked the bizarre spectacle of this huge creature chasing jeeps and such, but I could never quite figure out what it wanted with the school bus [you'll know if you see it], especially as we're building our entire climax around this? Anyway, soon enough it's over.
Okay, so we have conveyed that it sucks, and several of the reasons why. No need to revisit. I will add that it has absolutely NO larger meaning or resonance. Like, most other movies, regardless of how out there they are, have some sort of relevance to our own times, even if it's just emotional [for example, the recent Godzilla commented on 9/11 and the Fukushima disaster]. But no, this is about NOTHING. It leaves you with NOTHING, and is evocative of NOTHING. It's just a bag of special effects and hapless actors.
All that said, I think there is an attempt in here to show us sights we have never seen before, and, perhaps purely arbitrarily, every so often one of them sticks. Like the aforementioned orb and wormhole, the huge alien running across the desert, and a few other things. And they had the opportunity to merely repeat the first film, but they made a decision to show us new things. It's just that, without a story that has any heart in it, it's just the world's most elaborate light show. Maybe in the future someone can buy up footage from all these failed blockbusters, sync it up with some Pink Floyd and BOOM! That's entertainment!
Regardless, when I reviewed Emmerich's 2012, a reader wrote me and said "I looked all through your review, and nowhere does it say 'It's a total piece of shit.'" So let me not make that same mistake twice: This is a total piece of shit.
Pretty much no, but if you do, make sure you have good drugs.