The original film hit theaters at a time when the world seemed relatively safe. There were terrible wars going on, but they seemed limited to poor, "backwards" parts of the world. The "West" was relatively tranquil, and even the Middle East (which is the West's obsession) was in the midst of an unprecedented wave of peacemaking (Israel and Jordan had just signed their peace treaty in '94). We could contemplate the end of the world without worrying that it might actually happen.
It was also a time when technology began to promise a dramatically different future. I bought my first PC in 1996, and connected to the internet for the first time. We began to see hints that the world as we knew it was about to change. No one expected buildings to blow up, but the infrastructure of civilization was shifting. In that sense, an "end" was indeed coming, but with the promise of technological re-birth soon after.
Because of that, "Independence Day" was a perfectly-timed film. It presented a metaphor for the collapse and re-birth of civilization, something we could recognize and celebrate. It was a film not about our vulnerability, but about our resilience, about our future. Since we didn't feel especially vulnerable, the message worked.
But we live in a very different world now. I remember seeing the towers fall in September 2001, and noticing (subconsciously at first) the similarity to the way buildings were destroyed in "Independence Day". That fiction could no longer function as a pure escape - it triggered too many memories.
|Fiction ("Independence Day" (1996))|
"Independence Day: Resurgence" attempts to avoid 9/11 imagery. The alien ships don't zap landmarks with lasers the way they did in the original film. The destruction is different, bigger. Where the original film excelled in creating powerful images of an individual building's destruction, this film fills the screen with destruction - so much of it, in fact, that there's nothing to look at any more, no central point to draw our attention, just billowing clouds of debris.
But even those billowing clouds remind me of 9/11. On-screen destruction of cities, the death of countless civilians, it still feels too real. And since we're living in times when the fear of the "alien other" plays out in our daily lives, the very nature of an alien invasion story loses some of its best escapist qualities.
Truth be told, many superhero films feature 9/11 imagery and themes: "The Avengers" (Whedon, 2012) destroys Manhattan. Billowing clouds of debris fill the streets in "Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice" (Snyder, 2016) - and in that film, the images are almost perfect re-creations of the images we remember from the news reports in 2001. It makes sense that we, as a civilization, are still grappling with, still confronting the event that changed our world. But it's hurting our escapist entertainment.