‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ Review: The Aliens Are Back, Bigger, Dumber, and Stupider Than Ever
Like so many Hollywood blockbusters these days, Independence Day: Resurgence ends with a beginning. Before the dust has even settled on the final conflict, the next conflict is already set in motion. Rather than tying a bow around the previous two hours of planet-leveling carnage, Resurgence’s last scene begins teasing another sequel.
Then it cuts to black and the credits begin to roll. When they did last night at Brooklyn’s United Artists Court Street 12, one of the other attendees began screaming. This is as much of their tirade as I could transcribe:
Bulls---! Bulls---! I want my motherf---ing money back! In 38 years, that is the worst movie I have ever seen in my entire life! What the f--- was that? We just watched a f---ing preview!
This enraged rant was a tad hyperbolic, but given Roland Emmerich’s cinematic predilections towards widespread devastation, perhaps a bit of overindulgence was appropriate. It also wasn’t entirely off-base. Independence Day: Resurgence is a bad movie, occasionally in ways that are good for a chuckle, like when people earnestly deliver lines like “Now listen up! They’re going for our molten core!” but mostly just bad in ways that make you wish you hadn’t wasted your money or your time. And it is basically a preview for another movie which they will almost certainly make in a couple years. Like one of this franchise’s giant alien motherships, you can see these things coming from a great distance, and their arrival means nothing but bad news.
Resurgence is set a full 20 years after the first movie, and its aliens’ unsuccessful invasion of Earth. Since then, the world has been transformed (even if Hollywood moviemaking has not) thanks to salvaged technology from the wreckage of the aliens’ ships. But despite the best efforts of computer wizard David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) to create an Earth Space Defense to prepare for subsequent attacks, when the second wave finally does strike, mankind is hopelessly outgunned. This time the E.T.s arrive in a ship 3,000 miles wide, instantly wipe out the ESD’s big Moon base and defensive satellites, and park themselves right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
The aliens’ new spacecraft is supposedly one-fifth the size of our entire planet, but Independence Day: Resurgence feels vastly smaller than its predecessor. The movie barely even does the one thing everyone remembers from the original Independence Day, which is demolishing iconic world landmarks. This time, in a winking joke, the White House gets spared from the chaos that wipes out the rest of the Eastern seaboard. Most of Resurgence’s destruction money shots already appeared in the film’s trailer; the stuff they haven’t revealed is more of the swarms of human ships battling swarms of alien ships and big giant aliens in the middle of nowhere variety. Perhaps the sad reality of our violent world has negated some of the cheap thrills ID4’s images used to provide. But if that’s the case, why make the sequel at all?
The new cast is a mix of returning veterans and newcomers, almost all of whom have some relation to the older characters. (The movie is very much a legacyquel.) At times it feels like everyone on the planet has been killed by aliens — except the dozen or so people David Levinson personally knows, including his bumbling father (Judd Hirsch, who looks like he’s having a grand old time). Bill Pullman is back as former President Thomas Whitmore, whose rousing speech on July 4th, 1996 helped inspire the people of the world to victory. In the new film’s only remotely emotional subplot, Whitmore’s contact with the aliens has slowly driven him mad, and this once-great leader can now barely speak. Whitmore’s grown daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe) gave up her career as a fighter pilot to care for him. Now she works as an speechwriter to the new President (Sela Ward).
Goldblum remains a quirky delight, but he’s mostly saddled with a young cast so generic and uniformly uncharismatic that they make Liam Hemsworth look like Chris Hemsworth. Liam plays hotshot ESD pilot Jake Morrison, who’s engaged to Patricia, and who has a long-standing beef with Dylan (Jessie T. Usher), another pilot who’s the stepson of Captain Steven Hiller, Will Smith’s character from the first movie, who apparently died in an accident some years earlier.
Independence Day was the film that made Will Smith a movie star; Usher is as blank and forgettable as Smith was charming and irresistible in essentially the same role. Emmerich and his five credited screenwriters must have felt they needed some connection to Smith (Vivica A. Fox also makes a brief cameo as Dylan’s mom and Hiller’s wife), but the character they came up with only serves to remind the audience just how much better the first movie was, and in particular how much more entertaining its motley crew of scene-stealing characters was.
The original Independence Day was no masterpiece, but at least it had some memorable performances, and truly astonishing special effects for its day. It also had some bite; when people died, we saw their final moments as they were consumed by fire or buried beneath rubble. Resurgence razes most of society, but largely offscreen. The computerized havoc is so enormous that there’s almost no human element at all; half the world gets obliterated and it means nothing. Even worse, we feel nothing about it.
Independence Day is sometimes credited as the movie that created the modern blockbuster. If that’s true, then I suppose we have no one to blame for Independence Day: Resurgence but ourselves. All that remains from the original movie are its outsized villains and special effects, and an inordinate amount of inexplicable comic relief characters. (Someone please explain to me why the guy with the glasses followed Jeff Goldblum’s character all the way to Africa. I dare you to try.)
For a while during the film the whole reycling alien scraps into new spaceships gimmick felt familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite figure out from where. Then I realized: This is increasingly the only way Hollywood makes movies, by sifting through the remains of what came before, and then repurposing it for their own use. I didn’t entirely agree with the angry customer at tonight’s screening; I’ve seen worse movies in my life than Independence Day: Resurgence, including a few just in the last couple months. But that’s exactly why I knew where she was coming from. Things look as bleak at the movie theater lately as they do at the Earth Space Defense base in Area 51. That customer’s speech was as impassioned as the one Bill Pullman gives in the first Independence Day. And it was certainly more memorable than anything in Independence Day: Resurgence.