Last Sunday Clau and I went to the library and discovered Roku, which is a loaner dongle that plugs into your HDMI port and lets you access the streaming movies that the library has signed up to lease for that month. I talk a big game about how infrastructure and public projects have lasting social benefits, so its nice to see this working for my own pocketbook so directly, if only as an example I can show people who don’t understand socialized government (I hate this term. It’s redundant, but will be relevant later in the post.)
The upshot of this is I get to review a whole bunch of movies for you guys! The downside though, is the relative ease of punching in a dud. So let’s get one of the duds out of the way first with Independence Day Resurgence, in case you were looking to Amazon Prime it or something.
First of all, there is no reason whatsover that should compel you to see this movie. If you’re hankering for the absolutely gorgeous visuals that drew my dumb ass in, you can have your fill with the trailers. Literally every shot that isn’t CGI is amateur hour. Somebody can probably splice the dogfights together and get a workable movie, or even a totally better, rewritten movie, like some kind of reverse Power Rangers. But I’m putting the gattai before my henshin, so here’s a summary.
It’s twenty years after the events of the first ID. Will Smith is dead (reason number one to skip this one) and Jeff Goldblum has spent his life preparing Earth for an invasion just like the one they barely survived. Cue the appearance of all your old favorites, Bill Pullman as the heroic president, Brent Spiner as a revivified kook, even Judd Hirsch as the classic New York Jewish comedian. It sounds like a recipe for success, especially when you throw them all together and tell them to go kill an alien mothership the size of the ocean.
Then somebody decided to throw some Chinese funding in there and the whole movie goes to shit.
First of all, I’m Chinese. I’m from Hong Kong, originally. So nobody gets to tell me not to rag on it and rip it apart. From the first moment the Chinese milk carton dropped down in outer space I knew we were in for some Michael Bay, product placing, massive superficial crock. I got nothing against product placement. James Bond managed to do it well, for the most part. But when it goes bad, you get some Pierce Brosnan era, totally pointless appearances. Like why the fuck do you have to check your fancy watch with its tiny dials in the middle of a damn alien firefight? Doesn’t that fancy hologram screen have a watch?
Then there are the actors. Oh god, the actors are trying SO hard. You can see it every time the brilliant Brent Spiner gets to show his nerd cred, and every time Bill Pullman shows up with his ridiculously handsome mug and that speech delivery that is so on point. If only that speech wasn’t worn threadbare, and robbed of its heart…
Here’s the problem. What IDR does is take tropes from the 90’s blow them up huge, gilt with fancy cgi and surgically beautiful cast, then change all the endings so it makes sense to Chinese people. No Chinese landmarks are destroyed, the plan works perfectly because the government set it up, and the science is stupidly implausible because nobody can understand it anyway, and the nice Chinese girl doesn’t kiss the guy after the fat lady sings. Dinner first.
I get that the market is huge there for this sort of blow-em-up adventure movie, but ID wasn’t great because it was full of explosions and aliens and pew pew pew. It was great because it was a quintessentially AMERICAN movie. ID was ridiculously awesome because it was the American spirit writ large. We stand up to overpowered enemies, we do things that aren’t just disobedience for disobedience’s sake, but because they’re the right thing to do. And the money shot in the original ID was the ultimate ’90s Americana Mythos: an old white veteran screaming “FUCK YOU” and being a gigantic suicidal asshole while saving the black people, the Jews, and the kids (read: the future he can never be a part of.) It was just stupid enough to work.
It’s just sad that the sequel stuck a literal timer on the whole world and it still didn’t create any tension. IDR fails in almost every respect, and really just ruins a favorite Scifi franchise. Literally everyone had to be in the right place at the right time for it to work, which contradicts every shot where people die left and right to be immediately replaced by someone equally unimportant. I mean, they literally said the alien mother ship just didn’t have to slow down and it would have killed everyone on the planet just by landing. So why didn’t it? Why didn’t it deploy some kind of long-range laser and scour the surface before drilling for the gooey goodness? And how the hell is it covering every major Western landmark and some nameless Chinese cities when it’s hovering over the Pacific?
These things only make sense in the context of a Chinese audience that wants Chinese culture glorified, damn the plotholes. They had to blow up a Chinese guy in the beginning of the film just to make sure the audience gave a shit, and then his daughter didn’t even get an angry vengeance scene. It’s almost like they purposefully made the film bland and unfeeling so it would be easier to translate. And it’s not really the audience that’s at fault, either. This is a result of Beijing censoring everything for about twenty years. They basically loosed a Chinese nursing home full of doddering geriatrics who got to work sticking Mao-era propaganda and conservative marriage advice over the gratuitous violence and badass rulebreaking.
Let me just say that Chinese cinema before 1997 was by and large very freaking good, and the tradition kept up for some years after the Chinese takeover of the Hong Kong movie production industry. There’s a whole B-movie list to go through, including Mr. Vampire, a slew of martial arts films, Storm Riders, A Moment of Romance (Andy Lau, gangs, ’80s sportbike, truck surfing, romantic tragedy. Perfect in every way), and every Stephen Chow film ever made. And that brings up a very good point: Stephen Chow clearly illustrates what’s wrong with Chinese cinema today. Just track his film career: all his best stuff was made before the transition to Beijing’s government intervention in the arts, that famous policy that prevents anything remotely R rated or rebellious from making it into the collective unconscious. Take Tricky Brains, or Out of the Dark, or Flirtong Scholar. They’re all films about the outsider being hilariously more awesome than the group, saving their asses through a combination of perversion, clever wordplay, and plot armor. Great stuff. Then slowly we get the infusion of films like CJ7, which basically suck. They glorify a Chinese culture that is very different from the one depicted in early Stephen Chow. The group survives the individual, coordinated dancing is somehow cool, and no dirty jokes, ever. What the hell is the point of you then, Stephen? What? Your name sounds like PENIS in Cantonese! PENIS!
Back in 1999 Stephen Chow made a little gem called The King of Comedy. It’s probably in my top ten of Chow films, but it was a stark departure from his usual stuff. Dark humor, real consequences, and character development that makes my real life feel shallow and unlived. On its merits alone, the film probably cemented Cecilia Cheung’s chops as a real actress and not just a pretty face. But even with the relatively westernized Hong Kong audience, the film was a flop. What did you expect, when the crowd at your average Chinese theater is leaving the cinema almost on the words of the final scene? I’ve been in theaters when the lights come on over the end credits, because the average Chinese viewer doesn’t have the attention span for the cathartic last words. And, ironically, Chinese people love shit they’ve seen before. They love knowing what’s going on, even at a movie. They’ll stop at famous movie locations on tours of Japan and immediately leave after getting a picture. I mean, what the shit?
Basically the problem with IDR and Chinese films are the same. Without the possibility of failure, the characters could never get us to care. And when the intended audience won’t watch characters unless its really freaking clear how they’ll live, nobody actually cares. That’s why IDR is a Chinese movie in disguise. It’s not really meant for Americans. And goddamnit, that’s just a tragedy for a movie named INDEPENDENCE DAY.