Independence Day: Resurgence is pitched as an antidote to the gritty movies ushered in by the age of the super-hero blockbuster. Sometimes, however, the cure can be worse than the disease.
The original Independence Day, now 20 years old, was a bona fide cinematic event, expanding the boundaries of what was possible with CGI; the iconic shot of the White House being destroyed is still part of the cultural lexicon of anyone who was a teenager in the 90s. But mind-melting CGI has become de rigueur, and this long-awaited sequel has virtually nothing else to offer.
The plot is much the same as before: nefarious aliens are intent on wholesale destruction. Will Smith’s Steve Hiller is notable by his absence, killed off between films (Smith got burned by sci-fi box-office disaster After Earth and pulled out). Instead we have his fighter pilot son Dylan (Jessie T Usher), who is ostensibly the hero of the piece, but not really. Usher was cast to play alongside Smith and clearly wasn’t deemed leading man material after his departure – that honour goes to Liam Hemsworth’s Jake.
The two pretty young men are given a vague backstory – Jake’s maverick flying almost killed Dylan during training – but there really isn’t enough room in the flimsy narrative for both of them, and Usher is the one left out in the cold. Also returning are Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore – now an old man who hears alien voices – Brent Spiner’s Brackish Okun and, thank heavens, Jeff Goldblum’s David Levinson. Goldblum’s dry commentary is like a DVD voice-over, deadpanning lines like “They like to get the landmarks” as aliens destroy dozens of the world’s most famous buildings in one bewildering montage.
Although this is a film bursting with suffering and destruction – the death-toll must be in the billions – Director Roland Emmerich is intent on keeping the tone light, which ends up draining the tension out of even the most intense human-on-alien encounters. Part of the fun of sci-fi is setting out the parameters of your fictional world and seeing how it would play out if it were real. You need to believe that the laws of physics, probability and cause and effect remain at least tenuously functional. Jurassic Park does this brilliantly: “Okay, we have dinosaurs, here’s what happens when we put them in a theme park full of children”. Even the first Independence Day had a kind of internal logic; this time the alien space-ship is 3,000km wide, plunging entire continents into darkness. All of the planet’s coastal regions are destroyed in a single alien attack, yet this seems to have little bearing on anything. In fact, hardly anybody seems bothered.
Things are better when Emmerich sticks to what made the original so good: lashings of ripe cheese. The best bits aren’t the CGI battles – if I never see another reverse cock-pit shot it’s too soon – they’re the moments of overblown humanity: the President donning his Airforce jumpsuit one last time to fly into battle; the speeches about everyone being equal “no matter what your race, colour or creed”; zingers like Dylan’s “Get ready for a close encounter, bitch!”
There’s silly fun to be had if you check your expectations at the door, but in an age where Marvel has mastered the superhero blockbuster and we’ve seen revitalised versions of both Star Wars and Jurassic Park, Independence Day: Resurgence already feels very old.