It's been twenty years since aliens epically invaded Earth in Roland Emmerich's crown jewel of his disasterpieces Independence Day and if you think our world has changed a lot since 1996, wait until you see the fictional one Emmerich has cooked up this time. Using alien technology left over from the failed invasion, the humans have accelerated their growth, revolutionizing vehicles like helicopters and beefing up military defence to the point that an elaborate base has been built on the moon.
They've even harnessed some increased speed properties, so now hothead pilot Jake (Liam Hemsworth) can fly a transport ship from the lunar surface where he's stationed down to an African desert to pick up Jeff Goldblum's alien expert David and zoom back to the moon in a matter of minutes. It's a great and imaginative way to justify this sequel's two-decades-later arrival and, considering the franchise's ties to B-movies of old, perhaps even a clever riff on how visually futuristic Hollywood movies once predicted the 21st century to be.
In addition to the inspired production design, Emmerich initially blends hope and cynicism to generate a tonal shift from the first movie’s cheesy patriotism. The hope comes from the idea that the nations of our planet have united in the wake of war with the extraterrestrials and the cynicism is then applied at an individual level.
As good as things are for Earthlings in general, the heroes of the previous pic are now mostly a mess. So ex-President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is a raving lunatic plagued by visions, enthusiastic scientist Brakish (Brent Spiner) has been in a coma for twenty years (luckily no one’s cut his hair), Will Smith’s pilot protagonist Hiller died offscreen during a test flight, and David's dad Julius (Judd Hirsch) has written a fancily published book about his survival experience only to be stuck peddling it to disinterested seniors at a care facility.
This sort of introspection is unexpected in an Emmerich movie and it reflects the time that has passed since the aliens so iconically blew up the White House in 1996. Now a cynical attitude for a cynical age! Sure, part of the fallen hero examination has more to do with Smith deciding to skip this sequel instead of some gutsy decision to go in a different direction, but it remains intriguing to see Emmerich somewhat comically ponder the other end of his own movie’s flag-waving jingoism.
With such a surprisingly interesting setup, Emmerich simply needs to deliver on the promise of mammoth destruction that he's built his career on, but it's in this department that the filmmaker seems to have lost his inspiration. The initial arrival of the aliens (spoiler alert: the aliens strike back!) is fun for anticipatory reasons, but Independence Day: Resurgence quickly becomes a bland back-and-forth firefight with the humans attacking the aliens’ ocean-sized ship in what amounts to a flurry of CGI specks blitzing a huge CGI blob.
The effects are good from a technical perspective, but there’s no originality in their deployment. The first Independence Day had the benefit of being unique in its use of state-of-the-art effects to reconfigure 50s flying saucer movie imagery. This sequel just feels lazily imitative of its predecessor as a result. It’s as though Emmerich senses that he can’t top the memories of the city destruction (a fair assumption), so he focuses more on the two-sided fight where both parties suffer gains and losses. As a plan, it’s defensible, but the way it’s executed leaves much to be desired.
The movie also readopts the patriotism it initially seemed to shun, so all the Bill Pullman fans in the audience can rest assured that he’ll get his act together in time for one more rousing speech. The return of the jingoism is inevitable, of course, and hardly worth griping about. One of Emmerich’s few non-disaster action movies is unironically titled The Patriot, so the flag-waving comes not only with the territory, but with the filmmaker himself as well. The challenge in Resurgence’s case is that the sequel isn’t as cornily flavourful and fun as the original, so when the sentiment takes over, it further illuminates how drearily the action in this one pales in comparison.
On the plus side, Liam Hemsworth urinates on the floor of the alien ship at one point, which is officially better than anything he did in all four Hunger Games movies. The downside is that he’s Liam Hemsworth. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better, but Spiner is certainly game for the silliness and Goldblum has been a rare enough sight on the big screen of late that his shtick hasn’t been given the opportunity to grow stale.
Will Smith’s absence certainly leaves a gaping hole of charisma that Emmerich otherwise hopes he can fill with all the spectacle 2016 budgets and technology can muster, but it’s a tall order for a movie that becomes increasingly less exciting and engaging as it progresses. The aliens have arrived with a very exaggerated “bigger is better” philosophy and while that’s often worked for Emmerich pics, it’s a bit of an empty threat this time around.
By the time the heroes reach the grand finale showdown with their extraterrestrial enemies, Emmerich’s excess merely reminds us how much better the intimate and thematically rich one-on-one battle that closed James Cameron’s Aliens was compared to this large-scale chaos. Independence Day has a history of being accused of ripping off H.R. Giger’s classic alien design from Ridley Scott’s original movie, so the sequel clumsily taking a page from Cameron’s follow-up seems only fitting.
It’s a shame that the movie takes such a derivative turn after beginning so coolly and confidently. Even when Emmerich’s recycling extends to his own work (he's made not one, but two big action pics explaining how aliens developed the Egyptian Pyramids), he usually brings boisterous fun to the familiarity of the experience.
Independence Day: Resurgence is then like an Emmerich movie inverted. The fun is found in the clever setup while the splashy payoff comes up short. Depicting a technologically advanced alternate 2016 is certainly an intriguing way to relaunch the franchise, but Emmerich doesn’t build on it once the aliens invade again.
The big difference between the first Independence Day and the second is that the 1996 pic was powered by imagery and the sequel runs on ideas. It’s a potentially captivating combination for a couple of pricey movies inspired by cheap B-movies of the past, that one updates the visuals and the other updates an alternate timeline. But on its own, there’s not much for the 2016 movie to do once it settles into the invasion action. The imagination dries up and the uniqueness of the onscreen world is reduced to a generic battlefield. There remains a constant across the two decades that bridge these movies, though: the aliens really do ruin everything, don’t they?