Back in the spring of 1996, I was a junior in high school, and I was intrigued by a very short but extremely effective movie trailer: July 2nd, they arrive. July 3rd, they attack. July 4th is…Independence Day. And a lot of things blowing up. It was as simple a concept as you could have, and yet it was all I needed to be absolutely stoked to see what “Independence Day” had to offer.
Back then, there was really no internet (although I was a frequent patron of America On-Line and its chat rooms), and even though you could watch entertainment access shows to get a glimpse into a movie you were into seeing, you mostly had to wait until it came out and see it for yourself before you really knew all about it. When I went with a group of friends on opening night, I didn’t even know who was in it.
That film experience to this day ranks as one of the best I had ever had. I wasn’t born yet for the first “Star Wars”, and I was very little for “Return of the Jedi” (which I still loved dearly, even at my young age). Throughout my childhood, I certainly had great movie experiences. But for some reason, “Independence Day” stuck with me. 1996 was a great year for geeks, during a period of time when geekdom wasn’t a thing. No one catered to us. We didn’t have numerous conventions that we could attend and make like-minded friends or have “nerdgasms”. But we did have “The X-Files”, which had just switched to mainstream Sunday nights and became popular, a “Dr. Who” TV movie (no matter how hard I try, Eric Roberts cannot be wiped from memory as the Master), and “Mystery Science Theater 3000” released a full length feature film in theaters.
So in the middle of the summer comes “Independence Day”, surely a retread of sci-fi yarns we’ve seen before. But the audience I saw it with lapped it up like popcorn butter, and all of us were cheering like crazy by the end. It was patriotic, bombastic, and a feel good action film. What more could you want? Well, it was fleeced by critics, and maybe your parents too–but it made a killing at the box office, and everyone I knew loved it. Myself, I saw it 3 times in the theater and even bought a tee shirt of it.
20 years later, we have a sequel. A long time coming, or far too late? Well, I never really thought the first one needed a sequel. It wrapped everything up and let us celebrate the victory against the aliens. It was satisfying. But after 20 years, you get nostalgic. And that’s what I wanted from the sequel. Just nostalgia. Doesn’t need to be great, doesn’t need to be better than the original or blow my mind. After all, the first movie was released during one of my most cynical periods of life–and yet I still loved it. So I couldn’t be that let down by this, right?
Well, let’s get into the plot first: 20 years after ID4, the earth, and America, is thriving again. It looks like we’re using the alien technology for vehicles and space related engineering, and we’ve picked up the pieces and are right back on track–and maybe in an even better position than we were. There are a few casualties: former president Whitmore (a disheveled Bill Pullman) looks to be suffering from an early onset of dementia. Captain Hiller (Will Smith) is dead, killed in a test exercise. And Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner) is in a coma–wait, wasn’t he dead? Yes, he was clearly killed by the alien who took over his brain back in the original film.
OK, so now he’s in a coma and actually survived. Then, he wakes up, and starts having visions again. Whitmore experiences the same thing, along with an African warlord (Deobia Oparei) who had close encounters of his own when the first alien attack happened.
Apparently, these aliens are coming back with a vengeance. But it looks at first as if they send a homing device to a space station. Two pilots, Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) and Dylan Dubrow-Hiller (Jessie Usher) are stationed there and when the device is seemingly destroyed, it sets off the aliens to come back to earth. Unsure of what the significance of the device, Madam President Lanford (Sela Ward), asks David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) who is now in charge of Area 51 to come back and help stop the incoming invasion. But Levinson wants to check out this device, which could be a key into why the aliens are attacking us again.
Meanwhile, the aliens do attack–sending a giant mothership crash landing into our planet along with a queen and many, many soldiers.
From there, the film is a real spectacle, with whizzing lasers and explosions. The plot itself gets a bit muddled, and there are so many characters to keep track of, we get lost in the shuffle, trying to remember whether we should care or not what happens to them.
David’s father Julius (Judd Hirsch) makes a triumphant return, now an “author” of a book called “How I Saved the World”. Judging by his book tour headlining at a nursing home, it doesn’t look to be that much of a best seller (so who published it?). His plot includes saving a group of kids and ending up on a school bus getting chased by the space invaders. I think this may be the first time I’ve seen Judd Hirsch in a car chase. Even though it’s a bus.
There are things to like in the film: the chemistry between Hemsworth and his buddy Charlie (Travis Tope, who grows on you) is cute, and better than the chemistry between Hemsworth and Usher, who should have been reminiscent of David/Steven from the first film. Unfortunately they don’t share enough screen time without those pesky aliens interrupting everything to enjoy each other’s company. That and there’s a dubious subplot involving Hemsworth’s character Jake accidentally almost killing the young Hiller–which could’ve been scrapped and probably made for a smoother transition into these characters liking each other. That would’ve helped the narrative a little. I did like seeing Goldblum and Hirsch reunited, and it’s always great to see Brent Spiner. Jake also has a love interest, Patricia, Whitmore’s daughter (Maika Monroe), who is also a pilot. Their story also leaves something to be desired.
Overall, the film is overstuffed and almost claustrophobic in how much it tries to pack into its two hour running time. If I were a 16 year old seeing this now, I’d probably be disappointed and deflated from sensory overload. Then again, that’s probably what a thirtysomething would’ve said about the first film, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Maybe it just depends on which part of your life cycle you end up on in whether you can enjoy a movie like this. Of course this is a sequel–but it’s not like the original film was all that original.
It is an experience. But it’s one that you already had 20 years ago, maybe better, and maybe you don’t need to try and recreate it. That’s probably what I would’ve told the filmmakers on this one.
So here we go again. Or do we? Well, Katniss and Peeta are heroes and are back in their District, living in better conditions but the District is still impoverished. The rest of the Districts don’t know that they believe Katiss and Peeta are really in love; but most importantly, President Snow (reprised by Donald Sutherland) doesn’t believe it. He knows they faked it to win, and got one over on him. He can’t handle it, so he tries to play a game of his own, to try and out them publicly while the new Gamesmaker, Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) comes up with a way to get Katniss to expose herself as a fraud and stifle some sparks of a new Revolution.
Katniss is still in love with her longtime friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but does have some feelings for Peeta. They’re just not strong enough to be considered “true love”. As she and Peeta go on tour through the Districts, they’re given scripts to read to each one; and are basically paraded around to show that the Hunger Games were worth all the death, I guess. I still can’t really figure out the purpose of what the “Hunger Games” is about. I mean, the overall message to the audience. But by now, I don’t think it matters that much. This movie, once it gets going, really is more about the action and adventure…and love. It’s not really about having a message.
And, like the first one, that’s all fine well and good. Meaning, I still enjoyed it. I think Jennifer Lawrence is even stronger in this film, showing a more emotionally fragile Katniss who has to be stronger than she was in the first Hunger Games. Hutcherson is still likable as Peeta, and we’re introduced to some new characters too: Finnick (Sam Claflin), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), Wiress (Amanda Plummer), and Mags (Lynn Cohen), who cannot speak. Her partner in her district is Finnick, who seems cocky and arrogant but does have a soft heart underneath. Beetee and Wiress are sort of nerds who are more tech savvy. And then there’s Johanna (brutally played by Jena Malone) who…really isn’t necessary at all. All of these characters were former winners of Hunger Games as well. Because of the plan to stifle talks of a new Revolution, Snow believes it’s time to make a distraction with a new Hunger Games. So it’s kind of like, Hunger Games: All Stars. Mark Burnett would be so proud. Oh, Woody Harrelson is back as well as Haymitch. Only he’s even less useful in this…but he still is always drinking. Have to love that. What else is there to do in a dystopian future?
The Hunger Games begin again and it becomes very familiar territory…although I did like the poison fog. It’s quite disgusting what happens to your skin if it engulfs you. But just when it starts getting too familiar, the game is changed. Literally. And what it sets up is a delicious looking conclusion…which we’ll have to experience in two parts, like “Harry Potter”.
Overall, this is a good continuation of the story. I don’t know that I’d call it a true sequel because it’s just another part of a clothesline story that’s inevitably going to conclude itself in the fourth film. It’s like calling “The Two Towers” a sequel. Just doesn’t sound right. Hey maybe if “The Lord of the Rings” was made now, there would be a “Return of the King Part 1” and “Part 2” as well. Can you imagine how long that would be? Probably as long as it was anyway…
“Catching Fire” is fun, and now that we’ve gotten it out of the way that it’s not anything more than that…I suppose it’s time to start just enjoying it.
In the 1980’s, there was an entire subgenre of action/adventure that was dedicated to roided up hunky heroes killing bad guys and loving every minute of it. The kings of this subgenre were definitely Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and to an extent, Bruce Willis. The three of them were icons of machismo in that decade, bringing back the identity of the alpha male in lead roles for blockbuster films. The three of them even ran a restaurant business together–we all have to remember Planet Hollywood. I personally enjoyed the Hollywood Club. The one disappointing thing was, though, the three of them never shared air time in a movie together.
Well, in 2010, Stallone decided it was better late than never to bring them all together in a big, bombastic action lark, “The Expendables”. Unfortunately, the chemistry wasn’t all there yet in that film, and Arnold only shared a brief cameo with Willis and Stallone that was meant to be funny but came off more as awkward. The film itself seemed to take itself too seriously considering what it was supposed to be, which was just a big dumb action picture. There was an unnecessary heavy-handed (and heavy drooled) scene with Mickey Rourke, who was basically evoking his Randy the Ram character from “The Wrestler”, and the characters weren’t fully fleshed out yet.
Here, the formula and chemistry finally comes together. This movie is fun. The cast seems to be more at ease with each other; it helps that they can all speak English (letting Li have a small role in this film was a great choice). The bickering, snarkiness, and good natured ribbing between Stallone and Jason Statham is much more amusing than it was in the first film. The two really seem to like each other more as people in this one. Lundgren is also more entertaining…he was a bit too brooding in the first film. Here, he’s more of a comic foil, and that works fine. I liked the new additions of some younger blood with Liam Hemsworth and Yu Nan. And another thing missing from the first film that fits perfectly here?
Chuck. Norris. Yes, he’s only in a bit role, and he also looks a tad uncomfortable. He does borrow a “Norris”ism from the famous internet meme. But it’s cute because Norris is so genuinely nice that he seems to be enjoying having fun with himself. I would’ve liked to see him perform a roundhouse kick to the face of someone, but that’s OK. We do get a few good ones from the villain, who is very nicely played by Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Everyone is right at home in this film, and it really comes off the screen so we can just sit back and watch the sparks fly. The plot, which is the weakest element of the film, revolves around a mission to nab something from a safe, and it gets taken by Van Damme and his crew, and the gang has to retrieve it. We never really know why this thing is important, but this is one of those movies that when you start trying to break it down, you’re just going to get lost in plot hole hell. So don’t think about it.
This film is the definition of a popcorn movie. But it seems to be more self aware, and I like that Stallone handed off the directing duties this time. It’s great to see these guys still be abe to carry a film, even though they’re too old to do it without a little help. It’s sad in a nostalgic way–growing up these guys were just awesome. They’re showing they’re mortal, and they’re not exactly aging well. But their sense of humor is in the right place here, although some of the self-referential stuff gets a bit drawn out (the “Rambo” line was useless).
If you’re up for some brainless action candy, this will not disappoint. It’s a good excuse to get out of the house for a few hours, and it’ll put a smile on your face to see that these aging hunks still got it.