1996's "Independence Day" stands as the epitome of the '90s summer blockbuster, a big-budget, effects-filled, explosions-heavy disaster movie overflowing with shots of extras unsuccessfully trying to outrun certain doom. Roland Emmerich's jingoistic alien-invasion yarn was a cultural phenomenon for its time, and, thus, it is understandable why so many people of a certain age (most prominently those who were kids or younger teens at the time of its release) hold a nostalgic reverence for the film. When taking a step back from this personal connection and viewing it with 2016 eyes, the clear waters begin to muddy. "Independence Day" is impossibly dumb, clumsily written, emotionally hokey and creatively destitute. The overstuffed ensemble of one-note characters are abysmally threaded into the narrative, many of them falling to the wayside in a script that has no use for them. The extraterrestrials are personality-free bores given nothing to do but sit in their UFOs behind computers. Cliches run rampant, right down to the ludicrous coincidencesoh, look! There's the First Lady injured beside that rubble!and pesky dog in peril. Let's not get started on the groan-worthy one-liners and lame attempts at humor as the world collapses from all sides. The first act is admittedly fun, depicting the initial appearances of the spacecrafts into the earth's atmosphere and their early subsequent attacks, but it is followed by well over an hour where the plot stops dead in its tracks with no idea how to proceed. Even back in 1996, 15-year-old me recognized how pedestrian "Independence Day" was and how much more thoroughly imaginative and inspired Tim Burton's narratively similar "Mars Attacks!" was.
If my memories of seeing "Independence Day" on opening day remain vividI even recall my heart quietly breaking in the theater lobby when I witnessed a sweet elderly lady getting turned away at the box office because the showing was sold outthere are few lingering warm-and-fuzzy feelings toward the picture itself. Roland Emmerich (2013's "White House Down
") returns to the director's chair for the long-anticipated "Independence Day: Resurgence," and this twenty-years-later sequel is equally dumb but noticeably more ambitious. For fans of the original, there is little reason not to be a fan of this one. For everyone else, the best that can be said is that it is tolerable. A cavalcade of screenwritersEmmerich, Dean Devlin, Nicolas Wright, James A. Woods and James Vanderbiltstraddle the line between drifting on autopilot and making the effort to create something grander in size and conception. At no point, however, do they detectably tax themselves.
Two decades after our planet won the battle against a marauding intergalactic race, a fusion of human and alien technology has helped us to rebuild and revolutionize the world to a bigger, more advanced version of its former self. When an enormous foreign spacecraft attacks the moon's Space Defense Station and the sole UFO sitting vacant on Earth suddenly stirs to life, it quickly becomes apparent to Earth Space Defense director David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) a new cataclysmic takeover is underway. Experiencing what seems to be a psychic connection with the harvest mother, former President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is determined to help in the fight no matter the cost. As he and grown daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe) make their way to the Area 51 base camp, International Legacy Squadron leader Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher) and Patricia's fiancé, ESD pilot Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), must put their differences aside to lead a daring retaliation. If they fail to succeed, it could mean the end of everything as they know it.
Like its predecessor, the first half of "Independence Day: Resurgence" provides enough intrigue and fireworks to divert the viewer. As the invasion begins and entire cities are lifted into the air only to be dropped on other unsuspecting locales, the film proves patently implausible yet technically eye-catching (at no point, though, does it approach the scope, terror and awe of Emmerich's ultimate disaster epic, 2009's "2012
"). The second hour is comparatively plodding, forcing the viewer to focus on a ragtag collection of sliver-thin stick figures not nearly compelling enough to retain one's full attention or concern. If there is a saving grace, it is the incorporation of the aliens themselves as more than just rubbery, dull, nondescript entities. They get in on the action in a big way and, unlike in the first picture, are active participants in the story who don't simply let their laser-shooting spaceships do all the talking. The special effects bringing them and their devious global carnage to fruition are first-rate.
The handling of the actors and their charactersboth returnees, newcomers, and one key uninvolved partyare a mixed bag, to put it gently. Jeff Goldblum (2015's "Mortdecai
") doesn't miss a beat stepping back into the shoes of David Levinson; he performs with an energetic tempo and charisma made for blockbusters like this and the first two "Jurassic Park" installments. Judd Hirsch (2011's "Tower Heist
"), as David's father Julius, and Brent Spiner (2008's "Superhero Movie
"), as wild-haired scientist Dr. Brackish Okun, are also effectively welcomed back into the fold, the latter given an affectionate, refreshingly unforced same-sex romance with John Storey's Dr. Isaacs that is as close as the movie gets to giving the audience people to care about.
As the PTSD-inflicted President Whitmore, Bill Pullman (2014's "The Equalizer
") plays his once-commanding role with a shaky, grizzled, curmudgeonly streak that proves exceedingly grating. At least he has something to do, which is more than can be said for poor Vivica A. Fox (2014's "Sharknado 2: The Second One
"), wasted to an offensive degree as Dylan's mother, Jasmine. Why bring back a well-liked character and a game performer like Fox and then treat her with such flagrant disregard? MIA is Will Smith, as Jasmine's boyfriend, Captain Steven Hiller, unceremoniously killed off with only a passing mention of how he passed away. Fresh members of the cast include the strikingly handsome Liam Hemsworth, a great deal more appealing as Jake than he was in the "Hunger Games
" franchise; Sela Ward (2014's "Gone Girl
"), directed to give orders and little else as President Elizabeth Lanford; Joey King (2013's "The Conjuring
"), doing as much as she can with her thankless part of Sam, a teenage girl driving her siblings cross-country following the invasion, and the brilliant Charlotte Gainsbourg (2011's "Melancholia
"), given no chance to be brilliant as David's associate and possible love interest, Dr. Catherine Marceaux.
Finally, it would be neglectful to not speak briefly of a returning character who has been glaringly recast (and miscast): President Whitmore's daughter, Patricia. Once a member of the brave International Legacy Squadron, she has put her passions on hold and taken a job as a Presidential aide in D.C. in order to be closer to, and help, her ailing father. All of this is well and good, but there is one problem: through no decision of her own, original actor Mae Whitmana vivacious, lovely, natural, one-of-a-kind screen presencehas been distastefully replaced with the thin, blonde, leggy Maika Monroe (2015's "It Follows
") for no other reason than because the petite, brunette, normal-sized Whitman does not fit Hollywood's sexist vision of what a female ingenue in a big-budget action film should look like. Whitman has spoken publicly that she was never approached to reprise her role and would have done it in a heartbeat, a fact which taints the project in a wholly uncalled-for manner. Adding insult to injury, Monroe gives an unconvincing, monotone performance with none of the magnetism she previously displayed in 2014's "The Guest" and 2015's "It Follows
." As romantic leads, she and Hemsworth have roughly the same chemistry as a bucket of ice water dumped on a book of matches.
"Get ready for a close encounter, bitch!" Dylan exclaims with rah-rah relish as he fires away at the giant harvest mother near the end of "Independence Day: Resurgence." The characters may always potentially be one wrong maneuver away from their demise, but they are always primed for jovial banter and would-be witty one-liners. A movie as silly as this one should naturally not take itself too seriously, but when the people onscreen are so rarely reacting to terrifying life-or-death situations with the gravity one expects, it breaks the illusion. And, when they do actually shed a tear, it is manipulatively pre-fabricated to the point of disaffection. "Independence Day: Resurgence" has all the pomp one could hope for from a summertime action tentpole, but there is no reason its plasticized human drama has to be this trivial.