Independence Day: Resurgence and Wasting Good Design
Zir’an can wait one more week. I absolutely must discuss Independence Day: Resurgence and how it represents the very worst parts of bad fantasy and game running. As weird as this sounds, this movie is half insanely gonzo awesome and half waste. It’s by no means a good movie, but it presents a plethora of great setting ideas… only to squander most of them in pursuit of a by-the-numbers sequel affair. Fortunately, we possess the capability to learn by observation and to extrapolate from seemingly different fields. This movie provides several lessons of inestimable benefit to anyone running a game.
Lesson One: Nothing is a Silo
One of the more purely insane things in the film is the inclusion of an African warlord as a main character. This is freshly on the heels of the film going to lengths to explore the idea of the first alien invasion unifying the world. In the intervening twenty years, international conflict has ceased. The world have collectively sought to improve every aspect of life thanks to alien technology. This includes fast, quiet, energy efficient travel, and a world-wide defense system linked to a new moon base. The world is a better place. You know, except for Africa.
For some reason, there was an on-going guerilla war against the aliens in Africa. Despite the fact that blowing up the mothership put all of the aliens on the ground in the US into a catatonic state, it was not the case in Africa. The film states that the ship over Africa was different in that it both tried to drill to the center of the Earth with a plasma drill, and because the aliens began a ground invasion. These shock troopers did not shut down when the mothership was destroyed. One of the African warlords then waged a TEN-YEAR war against the aliens in the jungle.
Let this sink in for a moment. The rest of the world was forging world peace and advancing the human race, but couldn’t be concerned about the fate of Africa. There was no intervention by any other government body. Not only that, but the rest of the world did not remember this occurred, or saw fit to mention it in their speeches celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the aliens’ defeat. The warlord’s people had enough time to learn the alien’s language, which is a critical plot point in the film. For some reason, no one else in the world could do this, and if it wasn’t for a ten-year, unassisted ground war, it wouldn’t have been possible. Protracted war leads to innovation, I guess.
This is a great example of some of the worst sins of worldbuilding. The entirety of the African warlord storyline is to serve as translator during a crucial scene, and provide some faux character growth for a secondary character who is just a shitheel. For the sake of a plot device with extremely little impact, the world blatantly neglects Africa, the victory of the first film is undercut due to the retroactive intact alien ship, and it makes the entire scientific community out to be morons. Setting elements don’t stand alone, so think through the various story elements you put in place. You don’t want to make your scientists idiotic xenophobes, after all.
Lesson Two: Hanging a Lampshade Takes Skill
I’m no stranger to meta humor and the appreciation of meta deconstructions. It can be a great way to celebrate the genre while also offering a glimpse into the tropes and cliches that define the genre. There’s a reason films like Galaxy Quest and Cabin in the Woods are so beloved, after all. On the flipside, you have a cornucopia of cheese and crap in parody films such as Disaster Movie or Epic Movie. It takes a certain level of skill in order to craft a winking nod worthy of appreciation.
Having multiple characters state, “This is definitely bigger than the last one!” is not a finely crafted piece of knowing dialogue. It’s an attempted wink at the tired truth of most sequels substituting size for any semblance of story or originality. It just doesn’t work, because so much of the story really is just about the aliens being more than the original, both in technology and actual size.
The grandmother ship is 3000 miles in diameter. This is not a scoping mistake. The ship literally covers the entire Atlantic ocean when it comes to a stop. It destroys Beijing, London, and the entire eastern seaboard of the United States. You’d think it would destroy all of Europe and Asia, but Paris is totally fine. Why? Uh, I guess the German dude feels bad destroying it. It makes no sense. The ship also has its own gravity when it is landing, but lacks it when it later takes off for no reason.
This is all a damn shame. The inside of the alien ship is actually awesome. It has its own ecology – the soldiers are fighting in a Vietnam-inspired alien rice paddy field. It’s bizarre and the neat implications aren’t explored. This is a great setting for some cool depictions and characterization of the alien invaders, but it turns into a literal pee joke. After that, it’s just a rehash of escaping from the alien ship scene from the first film.
In short, this is something you absolutely don’t want to do as a gamerunner. It turns an awesome set piece for some sweet lair action into a gigantic joke. If it had been treated seriously, it would have flipped the script. Sure, the alien ship is comically big, but a world harvester ship could be a great sci-fi dungeon crawl. Hell, it worked in Mass Effect 2 just fine. Instead of hanging a lampshade, the bigger, badder nature of sequels could have been used to say, “Yes, we know how ridiculous this is, but here’s why it can be cool.” You don’t have to turn it into a joke to have it work.
Lesson Three: Legacy and Laziness
Look, it’s a problem when your Will Smith franchise doesn’t have Will Smith. I don’t understand why he didn’t do the film, it’s not like his oeuvre is doing great in the past decade, but whatever. Having the franchise be literally twenty years later isn’t exactly a small challenge, either. Passing the torch is a good idea in this case, but it’s hard to do well. However, it’s not often I see the huge pile of donk this movie excretes.
I don’t care how mad you are at your movie star, killing off the incredibly skilled pilot – who was the first to fly alien technology – in a malfunctioning test flight of reappropriated alien technology is akin to forgetting everything about the character. The character’s primary skill was piloting. That was his thing. Not only was it was the most middle-finger flip of a character death at Will Smith, it also diminishes the role of Dylan, the stepson (also adopted son, I think) of Will Smith’s character from the first film. Instead of using the death to spin the character in a new direction, he’s literally just thrust into the role of the black veteran leader Smith would have assumed. He doesn’t get an arc at all. It’s embarrassing.
Worse is the treatment of David Levinson. Jeff Goldblum portrayed him as an intelligent man in a menial job, who was petty and didn’t live up to potential until greatness was thrust upon him. In the second film, his wife he fought to regain isn’t just missing, she’s never mentioned. Instead, he’s a distant, authority-shirking ladies’ man who hasn’t really done a great job of securing the Earth in the intervening twenty years. At the start of the film, he’s in Africa trying to make nice with the warlord on behalf of the UN. There, he runs into a woman he hooks up with at conferences, and belittles her job, expertise, and the entire field of psychology. He also refuses to take her insights into the invaders seriously. It’s awful.
The rest of the cast does what they can, but there is so little for the new characters to actually do. Instead of the legacy being passed on, it’s still retained by the old characters, and the torch passing never occurs. It’s hard to do in most franchises, I get it. Bond is the only one that regularly sees any success in this field. Still, it’s not like this film has a ton of existing properties tied to it. There’s one other film. Introducing new characters shouldn’t be all that difficult, so long as attention was paid to them as characters.
As someone who has both run and played in games that were sequels to previous games, I understand the challenge. You want to illustrate the previous popular characters, but introduce the new generation of characters who will, hopefully, capture the imagination. You want everyone to feel cool. However, this often comes at the cost of actual narrative. You have to establish characters and give them actual arcs. As much as I might take heat for this, look at some of issues in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. So much time and attention goes to characters we know and love, we get short-changed with the new guard. Poe Dameron is characterized solely through his brolationship with Finn. He has no arc, no growth, and has very little to do in the film with any sort of thematic weight.
This can make you lazy as a gamerunner. The players know the material of old, and everything could be a reference to something before without any real thought or effort put into it. It’s not doing anything new, and players are more likely to spend their time looking for “easter eggs” or talking about how things ended up the way they did instead of engaging with any of the current content. It’s rose-colored glasses, back-in-my-dayism, taken to the extreme. Don’t let yourself get complacent. You want to encourage engagement and participation, not retrospection.
Lesson Four: Action Use
The final lesson is appropriate use of action. This is another thing I might take some flak for, but I’m fine with it. You shouldn’t ever have action that doesn’t further development. I don’t mean it as experience point development, either. Unfortunately, so many movies don’t understand it. In fact, a lot of viewers don’t understand it, either. They just know that some fight scenes resonate, while other fight scenes fall flat. Independence Day: Resurgence doesn’t quite understand this, with only one or two sequences sticking the landing.
The two scenes that resonate the most come early and do a lot of heaving lifting. In fact, I’d go so far as to call the second a good scene. The president of the United States is at the core of both of these scenes, and illustrates hubris and lack of critical thinking to a huge degree. Yes, this is a kludgy analog to terrorism and 9/11, but let’s look beyond that to how the scenes exist within the movie itself.
The first scene comes when a weird-looking alien ship shows up. The observation base on Saturn’s moon has been demolished, and the president is led to act swiftly and decisively by the military. The head science advisor, Levinson, says this is likely a different alien species altogether, based on some psychic trauma idea that isn’t explored to any degree. The president shoots down the ship, and is smug in the security her actions provided. Of course, this is almost immediately dashed by the arrival of the giant enemy craft.
The second scene builds on the first. Having been thoroughly manhandled, the world tries to strike back. How do they do it? They attempt to recreate the first victory, by flying up the pie hole and exploding the ship. The reason I like this scene is that it demonstrates the mindset of the people. They are so confident in their victory that they just try the same thing that worked before. It never occurs to the Powers That Be that the plan could fail, or that the aliens might have learned something from the previous failure.
Lifting things wholesale from movies, books, and video games often doesn’t translate well to tabletop games. Tabletop games are different than a lot of other mediums, without a doubt. There is a level of interaction occurring not present in other mediums. People like getting into fights. I’m not arguing against random encounters. Instead, I’m saying random encounters need to be tied to what you are doing. The list should be curated with care, or one in which you have a list of themes to connect the creatures. For example, a chart of sea encounters might include a sea hag coven. This coven could be tied to an archfey, or serving a sea power of some sort. If there is a famine occurring, marauding orcs illustrate the desperate nature of the situation. Communicating why the players are being attacked, or what purpose the attack serves, is key. If you can build character representation in the fight, all the better. Leverage personality traits during a fight. You want players to feel the weight of the conflict, and be pressed in the right ways. The more you can draw out of the players, the better.
There is Too Much, Sum Up
This is a bad movie, make no mistake. However, even schlock can provide great lessons to take into the games you play. There are a lot of lessons you can take from this film, even more than I have the space to delve into. It’s not about recreating the specific scenes of the film, but applying the lessons in a way that makes sense for you and your game. When viewed this way, everything can be valuable. You will probably even find yourself enjoying things in different ways.