20 years gone, the world has changed since Roland Emmerich first lured audiences into theaters with images of major landmarks blown to smithereens. In 1996 “Independence Day” played like old-school disaster-movie hokum upscaled with cutting-edge effects and Bill Pullman as a slogan-shouting POTUS. Now, as Emmerich brings rapacious aliens back to Earth for a second round in “Independence Day: Resurgence,” scenes of global destruction are tired and the speechifying is rote. Unremarkable in scope and VFX by today’s standards, even this movie barely seems to care about that brand of spectacle as it wipes cities off the map.
What once splashed monolithic across the screen now seems so small. The aliens, referred to as “Harvesters,” are back, here to steal Earth’s molten core — our planet’s precious bodily fluids, if you will — but volleys of alien attack and human defense flit back and forth like a listless banner in soft breeze. There’s no heart in this movie, no urgency. 20th Century Fox clearly has further franchise ideas in mind, but as what could be the second of many chapters, ‘Resurgence’ is this year’s “2 Fast 2 Furious.”
Opening in space, where Bill Pullman’s rousing old speech echoes throughout the cosmos his words finally reach the ears of a really big alien who, upon learning of the outcome of the 1996 movie, puts pedal to metal (no, really). Destination: Earth. Mindset: Angry. Or hungry. Or something; all info we gain about the aliens this time around is delivered awkwardly via third-person exposition.
Meanwhile, the current POTUS (Sela Ward, doing hawkish fairly well) is about to take the stage for a global celebration of the aliens’ original defeat. The first human victory left us with technology and an intensified spirit of unity that transformed global politics, but that didn’t save Will Smith‘s character from the first movie — he died offscreen due to a tragic something or other. His kid Dylan, played by Jessie Usher, is still around, now a crack pilot holding a grudge against Jake (Liam Hemsworth), a fellow pilot doing menial duty on the moon after nearly killing Dylan during training.
Elsewhere people are dreaming what appears to be some sort of galactic power button, which is a mechanism to introduce a psychiatrist played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and reintroduce Jeff Goldblum‘s wacky/earnest scientist David Levinson. They’re paired with DeObia Oparei as an African warlord who carries machetes and advises, often, that the way to kill the aliens is to hit them from behind. This wisdom isn’t delivered as a joke, but it always seems laughable.
In the spirit of avoiding spoilers lets just say that a giant new evil alien ship arrives, squatting over most of the Asian and European landmass like a metal crab and probably destroying most of the cities under it in the process. London is all but swept away, but few people spend any meaningful time reflecting upon loss in this movie, even when someone close to them dies, because the whole story takes place in just a few hours. There’s no time to be sad.
It would be false to say ‘Resurgence’ starts off strong, but it doesn’t initially seem like it’s about to squander the willingness of the cast. It spins quickly out of control. Every major character in this film seems to have a sidekick, but their interactions barely manage to be more than cartoonish. Fiddly character bits far outnumber the set pieces. Hemsworth’s annoying co-pilot (Travis Tope) hits on a Chinese pilot (Angelababy); Goldblum’s annoying tagalong (Nicholas Wright) pesters Oparei about killing aliens; Maika Monroe, replacing Mae Whitman, frets about her former POTUS father. Remembering more than a line or two, even hours later, is a challenge. People appear to share scenes by virtue of editing and digital work, not because they were in a room together, like the sci-fi version of “Arrested Development” season 4 with even less joy or coherence.
Past films from Emmerich have had a signature. There’s a recognizable sheen to the director’s method of exaggerating characters and action, like Michael Bay‘s aesthetic minus all the leering. The look of “Resurgence,” however, is just as roughly assembled as the cast ensemble. It’s a quilt of concepts from much better movies, whether “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Starship Troopers,” “Top Gun” or J.J. Abrams‘ “Star Trek,” for starters. How about falling back on the movie that came before this one?
No surprise that logic takes a back seat to high-concept motion, but some internal consistency would be nice. Hemsworth steals a ship to ferry Goldblum from one place to another; no one notices. A major alien baddie reveals a capability not hinted at in previous scenes, though there’s no reason to keep it in reserve except as a clunky plot device. Judd Hirsch returns as Jeff Goldblum’s father, but every one of his scenes could be cut, with no detrimental effect.
The most interesting aspect of ‘Resurgence’ is the heavily implied romantic relationship between kooky Dr. Brakish Okun (Brent Spiner) and Dr. Isaacs (John Story). There’s no question the two characters are a couple, but in a film where every other potential family pair over-emotes their devotion to one another, Okun and Isaacs never say “I love you,” and a brief hand-hold is their most revealing physical action. This is worth mentioning given the film’s artlessly coy approach to the pair; it’s distracting waiting for the film to be as plain about their relationship as it is about everything else.
As crass as the original film was, the idea that repelling an alien attack might have united humanity together is appealing. Yet this film’s platitudes of togetherness are dry and jagged. A better movie might be able to breezily replace our last two decades with a peaceful techno-future, or convince us there’s any entertainment in this particular distraction. In the aftermath and uncertainty of Brexit, watching London ground to digital bits onscreen has none of the horrifying, riveting power of watching Pound Sterling values fall. ‘Resurgence’ stands so feebly behind its threats of annihilation that it almost seems to understand it must to deliver something more, and finally is embarrassed that it has nothing else to offer. [D+]