When eager movie-goers queued up around the block for Independence Day in 1996, quite a number of critics were baffled. Here was a film widely criticised for its hackneyed plot and wooden dialogue, which didn’t even pretend to take itself seriously, and yet still the alien invasion-disaster hybrid was breaking attendance records.
“Judging from the summer’s record-breaking box-office grosses,” one writer moaned, “audiences no longer care – or, more depressing, are incapable of detecting – that the plots of movies don’t track.”
In many ways, Independence Day set the template for 21st century summer movies. Its event status was trumpeted by a marketing campaign almost as huge as the megalithic alien ships that descended on Earth’s quaking cities. Its multi-strand plot, ensemble cast and panavision destruction made it the unwitting grandfather of such explosive movies as Transformers, Pacific Rim and Man Of Steel. The worldwide appeal of those fiery images – the White House rent asunder by an alien death ray – gave it the kind of global reach that studios are constantly trying to play for in 2016.
All the same, it’s taken an unusually long time for modern master of disaster Roland Emmerich to bring us a sequel to his 90s invasion opus. Independence Day hails from a bygone age of high-concept movies – a period when smashing up a city in glorious slow-motion still seemed like a vaguely new idea. In a year dominated by superhero movies, does the world need another close encounter of the explosive kind?
Emmerich may not be known for the subtlety of his direction, but his movies are seldom short of self-awareness. In Independence Day: Resurgence, Jeff Golblum’s returning David Levinson watches one famous building collide with another and dryly observes, “They always go for the landmarks.” Brent Spiner’s brilliantly-named mad professor Brackish Okun, who theoretically died in the 1996 film, has instead spent the last two decades in a coma, presumably waiting for Emmerich’s cameras to start rolling again. This is a big, dumb sequel to a big, dumb movie – and Resurgence is cheerfully, gleefully aware of this.
In an alternate version of the present, the surviving earthlings of the previous invasion have rebuilt the planet and claimed the aliens’ abandoned technology for their own. America’s President Lanford (Sela Ward) rides around in a helicopter with an anti-gravity drive instead of rotor blades. There’s a huge weapons installation on the moon, which scans the inky depths for signs of another visitation. Area 51 is now a kind of prisoner of war camp for surviving aliens, where the tentacled beasts are kept in big metal boxes deep underground.
When another colossal mothership arrives to cast a shadow over our planet, it falls to two generations of defenders to save Earth from yet more devastation. Spiner and Goldblum are rejoined by Bill Pullman’s now retired President Whitmore, who’s grown a beard and has a tendency to rave about aliens in the style of Close Encounters’ Roy Neary. Even Judd Hirsch, who once again plays Goldblum’s stereotypically Jewish father Julius, comes riding back in a little tug boat.
The notable absentee is Will Smith, who became a big movie star thanks in part to the first Independence Day – so big, in fact, that his pay cheque was too steep for this production to stomach. Most movies would gloss over this glaring detail, yet Resurgence turns it into a quite odd visual gag involving a suspect-looking oil painting and newcomer Dylan (Jessie Usher) who plays Smith’s son. Whether you approve of this kind of in-joke or not will tell you a lot about whether you’ll appreciate Resurgence’s self-reflexive tone.
Usher is but one of a new generation of the film’s young (and presumably affordable) up-and-comers. His daring pilot is joined by Liam Hemsworth, who plays another daring pilot, Jake, whose reckless flying style has landed him a dull flying tug ships around on the moon. His fiancee is Pattie (Maika Monroe), daughter of ex-president Whitmore and a former pilot herself. Also joining the multi-national cast are Travis Tope as Jake’s quirky friend and pilot, and Rain (Chinese model Angelababy) as a daring pilot. As you’ve probably gathered, Resurgence has quite a few daring pilots in it.
Among the non-pilots there’s William Fichtner as an under-written military guy at Area 51, and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a psychologist and paranormal investigator of some kind (she gets about as much to do as Sally Hawkins did in the 2014 Godzilla reboot). That all the characters are fairly thin archetypes isn’t much of a surprise if you’ve seen the previous Independence Day; what keeps Resurgence afloat is that writers Nicolas Wright, James A Woods and James Vanderbilt have so much fun within the format established by that 90s relic. One scene sees a twin-katana-wielding African warlord (Game Of Thrones’ Deobia Oparei) strapped into a space craft and explaining how to defeat an alien in hand-to-hand combat.
The plot appears to borrow ideas from a range of genre sources, including Greg Bear’s 80s invasion novel Forge Of God and the anime saga Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, better known to many in the west as a chunk of Carl Maceck’s Robotech series. Along with the latter’s idea of humans augmenting fighter jets and other weapons with alien technology, Resurgence also co-opts a distinctly anime-style sense of the strange and over-the-top. There are pew-pew laser battles, big aliens, bigger aliens and really huge aliens. There’s a delightfully odd shot of a school bus racing across gleaming salt flats, hotly pursued by an angry invader.
It’s this aspect that makes Resurgence feel curiously refreshing. Emmerich, perhaps realising that we’ve seen cities collapse a billion times already, doesn’t dwell too much on that aspect of the story – although there is one such sequence that does look quite striking on the big screen. Instead, he focuses on off-kilter action scenes, sparky camaraderie and last-ditch plans that might… just… work. Admittedly, there are occasions where the effects and set construction look on the shaky side, but then again, there are also some quite effective scenes: a mothership ablaze as it enters Earth’s atmosphere, a swarm of alien drone ships spiralling in the sky like locusts.
Like its predecessor, Independence Day: Resurgence is a 50s B-movie writ extra-large. Critics who railed against the original film’s pulpy sensibility will probably find themselves enraged all over again. For the rest of us, Independence Day: Resurgence is another goofily entertaining July the 4th fireworks display.
Independence Day: Resurgence is out on the 23rd June in UK cinemas.