For a movie about aliens attacking Earth and wiping out the human race, Independence Day was an awful lot of fun. Released in 1996, a halcyon time in the years before 9/11—when the idea of actual major city landmarks being destroyed was relegated to fiction—director Roland Emmerich’s paean to global destruction carried a giddy thrill. Viewers could enjoy a visceral jolt of phony devastation without having to suffer any of the real-world consequences. A big, dumb popcorn movie drunk on the escapism that summer blockbuster season provides, Independence Day was the first film I ever saw in a theater in which fellow attendees brought an inflatable beach ball to happily punch into the air and pass down the aisles before the flick began. If this was the end of the world, we were going to make sure it was a blast.
Independence Day: Resurgence is a reasonable facsimile of the original: Aliens invade, havoc is wreaked, the good guys kick ass and save the day. But in lots of small, important ways, it’s a profoundly different movie, proof that twenty years of blockbusters have inured us to the original’s innocent pleasures. What once was giddy is now professionally polished and soullessly crafted. What’s the point of destroying humanity if you can’t even enjoy it?
Adopting a more mournful tone than its predecessor, Resurgence quickly establishes what’s happened to the central characters since the 1996 attack. In the film’s one really clever conceit, society has advanced rapidly thanks to humanity’s utilization of the vanquished aliens’ superior technology—in only twenty years, we’ve established moon bases and high-speed travel on Earth. The nations of the world now live in harmony, the trauma of nearly being eradicated has inspired them to put aside their conflicts.
Then it’s back to Emmerich’s boilerplate heroics. Will Smith, and his character, is missing from this film; we’re told he has died, and his dutiful son Dylan (Jessie Usher) is trying to fill his shoes by serving as a fighter pilot, just like his dear old dad. But the real stand-in for Smith—or, at least, his wiseass energy—is Jake (Liam Hemsworth), a fellow pilot who had a falling out with Dylan years earlier. Their very minor conflict is as paper-thin as the love story concerning Jake and his fiancée Patricia (Maika Monroe), the all-grown-up daughter of former President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman), who remains traumatized by his battle with the extraterrestrials.
Nobody goes to an Emmerich film craving a nuanced plot or layered performances. The delight of his movies is that they’re user-friendly—less noxiously macho than Michael Bay’s films but also more shamelessly cartoon-y than a real auteur, like Steven Spielberg. Independence Day was peak Emmerich because it best harnessed the “God, isn’t this great?!” enthusiasm he had for larger-than-life spectacle: Smith’s widescreen grin and Jeff Goldblum’s not-quite-winking turn as a bemused scientist perfectly synched up with their director’s weightless tone, clueing us in that it was okay to sit back and let the concentrated tomfoolery wash over you.
In Resurgence, Goldblum still cracks his wry jokes—Brent Spiner and Judd Hirsch reprise their roles as one-note comic relief—but the original’s pleasure has mostly been replaced by a formidable competence that won’t inspire a lot of beach balls in the theater. In part, this is because Resurgence’s greatest suspense isn’t whether Earthlings will be able to stop a new band of invading aliens but, rather, how Emmerich can justify revisiting his blockbuster so many years later.
Many sequels have to elevate the stakes so a follow-up seems understandable, but with Resurgence, Emmerich is essentially just repeating himself. The director isn’t merely competing with his 1996 film—he’s squaring off with a litany of invasion and disaster movies that he and others have made since. It’s no contest: The alien ships may be bigger and the creatures themselves more impressively rendered, but the déjà vu of destruction doesn’t do Resurgence any favors. One of the first film’s strengths was, oddly, its unoriginality: Emmerich didn’t reinvent the alien-invasion storyline so much as he figured out the most mainstream, super-sized way of telling it. By comparison, Resurgence is an echo of a rehashed notion, as irrelevant as it is solidly executed.
Does it matter that the new film
comes out in a post-9/11 world, one where it doesn’t take much imagination to
envision a peaceful city ripped to shreds or buildings reduced to rubble? Where
other contemporary blockbusters try to ennoble their scenes of carnage by
introducing an air of dignified shock and solemnity, Resurgence blithely ignores the real-world parallels. Lots of
characters self-sacrifice for the greater good—and others’ deaths are meant to
be motivating factors for our haunted protagonists—but it all just glides right
This might be tact on Emmerich’s part—the director understands his movie’s role as harmless entertainment—but one suspects that it’s more likely a sign that he doesn’t want to mess with a sure-shot formula for a movie that needs to be a big hit. Emmerich’s last real commercial success was 2012, which came out seven years ago, an eternity for a blockbuster filmmaker, and Resurgence feels self-consciously fashioned to serve an audience its director hopes is still out there. This film isn’t a resurgence—it’s a retrenchment. Why wait 20 years to prove you can make your best film all over again, but without the sparkle that made it so special in the first place?