(Hint: it’s all about diversity and a lack of strong representation.)
When Independence Day was released in the summer of 1996, there was no denying it’s power. It catapulted Will Smith from Fresh Prince to bonafide Hollywood leading man, it’s graphics and effects were fresh and felt realistic enough that it was in the realm of believability that an alien race could try to harvest our planet (not to mention the still-gnarly images of our landmarks getting blown to pieces that many films have since tried to emulate), and Bill Pullman became the president we all wanted sitting in the Oval Office.
With Jurassic World leading the trend in 90s Nostalgia-inspired summer blockbusters, it seemed like a no brainer to bring back the strange aliens with sweet host bodies who tried to take over Earth in 1996. However, Independence Day: Resurgence doesn’t live up to the first film, like, at all, which, in comparison now feels revolutionary on the gender/racial diversity front. It’s just another “go big or go home” sequel that offers bigger everything (see: destruction/explosions/aliens), just not representation — or that pesky little thing called “character development.” But the thing is, it easily could have been a frontier film.
1. The Female Characters Were Either Flat, Damsels-in-Distress, Underutilized, or Just Plain Killed Off Too Unjustly
Ok, so perhaps “frontier film” is a strong phrase, but given the fact that Hollywood is still very much a Man’s World, Independence Day: Resurgence had ample opportunities to subvert genre expectations while providing a . According to INCLUSION or INVISIBILITY? The Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment (CARD), “Female characters fill only 28.7% of all speaking roles in film.”
The major problem with Independence Day: Resurgence is that there were only four real adult female characters, which may seem better-than-expected, given that Jurassic World, by comparison, only had three female characters, only one of which was a character of any real consequence, but is that the best Hollywood can do?
The original film, which came out in 1996, had Vivica A. Fox’s character Jasmine, who was a hero to the First Lady; Margaret Colin’s Constance, who was the press secretary, a spunky, independent woman who had the President’s ear and confidence; the First Lady, who was a fairly stagnant character, but whose death served as palatable motivation for Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore to find the courage to tackle the alien invasion; and that teenage girl who was also in Mrs. Doubtfire. Not exactly groundbreaking representation, especially given the fact that there were 15 first-billed cast members, and only four of which were female.
Fox’s Jasmine, a stripper-turned-damsel-turned-hero-turned Doctor is the best example of a strong female character in the entire franchise. She kicked some serious ass in the first film, and kept the First Lady alive long enough to see her husband one last time. It was clear that her harrowing experience lead to her eventually going back to school — medical school — and becoming a doctor, an OBGYN, as show in Resurgence. Too bad they killed her off in the most unsatisfying way possible. She had about a cumulative two minutes on screen in the entire sequel, without enough time to catch up with her. She could have been a valuable asset, and the films best shot at a well-rounded female character. Unfortunately, her death proved that her appearance in the film was nothing short of a gratuitous nod to the original film, and didn’t move the plot along at all.
Where the first film had the press secretary and the First Lady, the sequel gives us a female president! Well, at least for the first third of the film. In Independence Day, Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore was the epitome of inspiration, especially in that oft-quoted speech he gave right before the climax of the film:
However, Sela Ward’s charming President Lanford in Resurgence doesn’t get the inspirational speech moment. In fact, she is killed pretty quickly, only serving as a glorified teleprompter, and comes off as an empty vessel without even an ounce of the bravery that Pullman’s Whitmore exhibited twenty years earlier.
It could have been an incredible opportunity to break gender boundaries in male-oriented action films to show a female president leading the armies of the world to victory against the biggest alien attack Earth has ever seen. But no. President Lanford is killed, and so is the line of succession, so it the title of President of the United States goes to some dude named General Adams, who is played by William Fichtner (who also plays every bad guy and scumbag in every film ever.) He gets all the credit.
Had a woman lead this film to it’s heroic close, it could have easily been a leader in the genre. I can’t help but wonder if the Elusive Hollywood Powers-That-Be (who are obviously all old white dude) had a hand in the decision making because her death was glossed over very quickly, like a last minute rewrite, and General Adams lines as president could have easily been President Lanford’s.
The other two female characters, Angelababy’s Rain Lao and Maika Monroe’s Patricia Whitmore are barely even characters. They’re both pilots, but neither get the credit or the time up front that they so clearly deserve. Lao is made to be some sort of Chinese celebrity who takes no prisoners, but she takes a backseat and has about 10 seconds of dialogue cumulatively throughout the film.
Patricia Whitmore, the daughter of Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore is nothing but a damsel-in-distress, a girl who cries over her fiancé (played by Liam Hemsworth) and needs him to rescue her, despite the fact that she’s also a lauded pilot. There were MULTIPLE times that her character could have saved the day — and the world — but she was never truly given the chance. She spent more time crying than she did kicking ass.
All of these representations of female characters in Independence Day: Resurgence are problematic because they suppress female identities and reduce them to damsels in the distress who are incapable of saving themselves, let alone the world; it reinforces outdated gender stereotypes and narratives that state that only men are capable of being in charge and embodying the “hero.” It’s the number one reason — with a bullet — why this film fails it’s viewers.
2. Jessie T. Usher’s Dylan Hiller was horribly underutilized.
It’s no secret that Independence Day was the film that showcased Will Smith as a leading man. This was huge, especially for a black actor. Will Smith broke boundaries because of ID4. Jessie T. Usher’s character, Dylan Hiller, the son of Smith’s Steven Hiller, did not live up to his famous on-screen “father.”
His character could have — and should have — been front and center. Dylan Hiller could have continued to break boundaries, but instead, Resurgence relegated him to supporting cast status, thus reinforcing the outdated (and, quite frankly, regressive) status quo that the original Independence Day seemed to avoid.
Instead, there was a heavy focus on Liam Hemsworth’s Jake Morrison, Hiller’s estranged best friend.
According to CARD:
The level of invisibility in storytelling was assessed via the number of shows and films that did not depict any speaking characters from two specific racial groups: Black/African American and Asian. […] at least half or more of all cinematic, television, or streaming stories fail to portray one speaking or named Asian or Asian American on screen. Undoubtedly, there is a vast underrepresentation of racial/ethnic minority groups that still plagues entertainment content.
This shows in Dylan Hiller’s character, or lack thereof. Again, he could have been a major presence, but instead was forgotten (same goes for Angelababy’s Rain Lao.) Sure, he witnessed his mother’s death and it ignited his fire for alien carnage, but that’s all I can remember about his character — a far cry from Will Smith’s memorable Steven Hiller from the first film.
CARD also found that, “Overall, the landscape of media content is still largely whitewashed. Relative to the U.S. population, the industry is underperforming on racial/ethnic diversity of leads (film).” Independence Day: Resurgence is no exception.
3. Dr. Brakish Okun Was Gay … ?
Remember this guy?
Apparently he didn’t die in the first film. He was just in a coma for exactly 20 years. And woke up just in time for the sequel!
Not only was his character wholly unnecessary (and distracting), he was also gay. Which, as a card carrying gay myself, should have made me ecstatic, given the sad nature of LGBT representation in Hollywood, specifically in film. According to CARD, “LGBT individuals are still underrepresented when it comes to lm, television, and digital series. Beyond this invisibility, intersectionality is also a problem. The majority of LGBT characters are White males, excluding women and people of color who are part of the LGBT community.”
I should be happy about a somewhat major character being gay. The thing is, it felt very forced, and was only revealed when his partner was killed by an alien, and he rushes to his side to proclaim his love in what was arguably supposed to be the most intensely dramatic and emotional moment of the film, but instead just felt very shoehorned and forced. HIs character never earned my sympathy, and his relationship was never acknowledged until it was severed by death (which, if I wanted to pick apart the metaphorical nature of that, could echo pre-marriage equality states of many LGBT couplings whose relationships were erased by death. But I won’t delude myself into thinking that Independence Day: Resurgence was making any such grandstand.)
If they wanted to make a statement, perhaps Dylan Hiller could have been the gay character. That level of intersectionality could have set Resurgence apart and been as groundbreaking for LGBT representation as the original film was for black representation in 1996.
All-in-all, Independence Day: Resurgence felt more regressive than progressive. It tried the whole “bigger, louder, faster” route of most Hollywood sequels, but it forgot about the heart at the center of the first film: it’s characters. Not only the characters, but the stories and lives behind these characters are just as important.
We need more LGBT characters.
We need more female heroes.
We need more black leading men and women.
But we need them done right. It’s time Hollywood stops half-assing “representation” and actually starts, you know, showing up and representing.