Just in time for the phrase to become politically loaded and potentially tarnished, “Independence Day” returns to cinemas with a sequel two decades in the making. As Earth prepares to celebrate 20 years since the last alien invasion, it falls to current President Lanford (Sela Ward) to reset the counter because – whoops, apocalypse – here they come again.
It’s become somewhat fashionable to dismiss and deride the original “Independence Day” but it’s a crowd-pleasing effects-driven movie that – for better or worse – redefined the summer blockbuster afresh in the mid-1990s in the way that “Jaws” and “Star Wars” did in the 1970s. One of the secrets of its success is that while it wraps itself in the trappings of a sci-fi war movie, it’s really a lavish disaster movie and is structured accordingly, introducing pockets of disparate characters who eventually cross paths and join forces to save the day. It’s a hokey, sentimental and unashamedly patriotic slice of prime American cheese. The cast’s performances lift the characters above the superficial writing and give it real heart, overcoming the story’s shortcomings and plot logic and huge debt to H G Wells. Basically, the whole thing’s so goofy and adorable that you can’t help but get swept up in all the feel-good fun.
“Independence Day: Resurgence”, on the other hand, clearly doesn’t understand what made the first film work and so tries to replicate everything it possibly can with little success. Emmerich has long been trying to self-style himself as the new Spielberg and here he makes one of the same fundamental mistakes as his idol. If Spielberg’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” taught us anything, it’s that Jeff Goldblum’s quirky and brilliant scientist sidekick characters make terrible lead characters but in the absence of Will Smith (more on that in a minute) Goldblum’s David Levison steps up to take centre stage with the exact same result as when Ian Malcolm did the same on Isla Sorna. The invaluable Judd Hirsch is back too as David’s father but his entire sub plot is a leftover from the franchise disaster movie roots and feels clumsy and awkward, although nowhere near as awkward as the utterly unacknowledged and unexplained (on screen at least) absence of his wife Constance (Margaret Coin).
Someone, somewhere obviously made a note that the characters were one of the best things about the original because every some effort has been made to bring all most of them back. Smith famously passed on returning when “After Earth” soured his (and our) appetite for Big-Willy-Style space shenanigans. In truth the film must have been quite different when he was on board because it’s hard to see where he would have featured in the movie as presented, although it conceivably would have been about twenty minutes shorter because they could have removed all the scenes where someone talked about him, referenced him or looked meaningfully at a picture of him. Without even being in the movie, Will Smith became the franchise’s Poochie.
Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore is back too but seems decidedly fragile and an attempt to repeat his wondrously rousing speech stunt from the first film falls flat narratively and performance wise due to his oddly high pitch. There are returns for other supporting characters too – Vivica A Fox is brought back and basically given the role and scene that Boomer the dog had in the original, Maika Monroe takes over for Mae Whitman as President Whitmore’s daughter (not because she wasn’t asked, she declined to audition for the role) and they even wheel out a near unrecognisable Robert Loggia for a disturbing death’s door cameo. Finally, the zany Doctor Okun wakes from his 20 year coma in near-perfect physical health to deliver the film’s only real genuinely sweet moment as he’s reunited with his spouse.
The new cast members, Jessie T Usher (who plays a character who might as well have been called ‘Your father was a great man, son’), Liam Hemsworth and Angelababy all serve to fill the gap left by Smith’s departure and there’s not quite enough character to go around, leaving them blandly interchangeable. They’re all fighter pilots, you see, which brings us to another of the problems the film has. The original was a disaster movie. The sequel, on the other hand, is as generic a sci-fi action movie as it’s possible to conceive of, part satirically neutered “Starship Troopers”, part “Space: Above And Beyond – The Movie”. It wants to be something new and exciting but it still has the baggage of the original to sort through before it can do what it wants. At least there’s a more international flavour to the heroes this time as the producers seek to milk the lucrative Chinese box office.
“The Empire Strikes Back” has often been described as having a middle, middle and a middle but it’s a paragon of contained storytelling compared to “Resurgence”. This film exists for one reason only, and that’s to take us from a story that’s already been told to the one Emmerich wants to tell us in “Independence Day 3” (If we get one. I hope we do, I think it’ll be bananas – in a good way). There’s retconning left, right and centre throughout “Resurgence” to carve out the narrative room for the heavily signposted third instalment and as Emmerich dutifully ticks off the list of things he thinks the audience expects to see from an “Independence Day” movie he completely misses re-establishing the palpable sense of dread and doom the first one managed. Although there are numerous moments of characters looking pensive or musing that they probably can’t win, nobody really seems to believe it and there are few if any ‘squeeky bum’ moments when the outcome hangs on a knife-edge. Even the aliens seem not to have learned from their last encounter with humanity and remain as bone headed as ever. In fact, for a race with a strong strategic goal in mind, they seem ridiculously prone to provocation and distraction for petty revenge.
Visually, the film’s a bit of a let-down too. Thanks to the improvements in effects technology, we also get better, longer looks at the aliens themselves but all that means is that their Geiger-influenced design is more transparent and obvious than before. Following the credo ‘bigger is better’, this time the actual mother ship (3,000 miles in diameter) lands on the surface of the Earth. You’ll have seen most of the money shots in the trailer when Goldblum gasps that ‘it has its own gravity’ before delivering his killer gag: ‘They like to get the landmarks’. Yeah, the vast alien ship has its own gravity – except when it doesn’t. The gravity has no effect on the ground or oceans when it lands (witness the tiny research vessel mere miles away from the mile-wide laser drilling into the Earth) and in fact is only seemingly active for the one scene where it drops Kuala Lumpur’s Petronus Towers onto central London to set up Goldblum’s line. It’s cynical trailer-driven filmmaking and atrociously filmed (described memorably and accurately by the great Sarah O’Connell as ‘a muddy CGI shitstorm’). It’s the tipping point where you realise that they can’t top the first film visually but they’re going to keep trying, instead of besting it in the areas where it was weakest. In theory the vastness of a near Moon-size ship squatting on the Earth’s surface sounds awesome. On a human scale, though, where movies need to be, it’s too big to be really relevant. Yes, the sky looks a bit grey and metally and it’s a bit shady but that’s about it. Still, if the ginormity of the mother ship isn’t doing it for you, how about we throw a kaiju into the mix too? Yeah, that moose knuckle you glimpse in the trailer is foot/hand of a great big alien, for some reason.
It still has its moments and – crucially – if you’re not really familiar with the first one it’s probably got some excitement and spectacle. I saw it with a group of 9-10 year olds for Mertmas’ birthday and they loved it. I hope it does well enough that Emmerich gets to make his intended third movie – it sounds pretty awesome and if it comes off could give us the kind of sci-fi action movie we haven’t had for a very long time. The posters for “Independence Day: Resurgence” dutifully warn us: ‘We Had Twenty Years To Prepare’. Well, so did the makers of this movie and it’s hard not to think they should have done a lot better than this.