The first Independence Day, along with Jurassic Park, set the tone for two decades of blockbusters to come. Or, more accurately, it set the bar: clever and quotable dialogue, well-cast actors inhabiting memorable characters, special effects that blew audiences' minds. It's a lot to live up to, which is something Independence Day: Resurgence does not come close to achieving.
Many of the same pieces are there: director Roland Emmerich, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsch, aliens. And some of the fun remains, if your idea of fun is "forcefully shoehorning in a dying, silent Robert Loggia."
Each scene feels like it was filmed in a single take, and not because the actors nailed it in one. You can barely list the ridiculous moments on two hands: Pullman's President Whitmore uses a classic "oh hey look over there" move to distract his world-class pilot daughter and sneak away for one last mission. A prominent female character from the original comes to an unexpected and almost entirely unmourned end. Hirsch's Julius Levinson survives a tsunami and essentially adopts an orphan family that he carts around on a school bus. Two characters (Nicolas Wright's doofy accountant and Travis Tope's lil' buddy pilot) feel like they were cast through a "send in 10 cereal box tops and get an acting job" type contest. It's appalling how bad the two actors are; for their sakes, one can only hope Emmerich specifically demanded such grating, unlikable performances.
There's no character development to speak of. The hotshot pilots played by Liam Hemsworth and Jessie Usher are essentially the next generation of Harry Connick Jr. and Will Smith (Smith declined to return), only without any hint of struggle or growth. They're super cool, and they're here to stay. Meanwhile, Goldblum is just collecting a paycheck by coming back for more David Levinson. It's not his fault; all his lines are spouting scientific mumbo-jumbo with an oddly cast Charlotte Gainsbourg.
And it’s getting to be a common refrain these days, but massive cities are destroyed and no one gives a fuck. What made the original Independence Day so jarring was that no one had ever blown up the Empire State Building before. It was a catastrophic turn of events, but on a scale we could fathom (especially given later events in New York City). Somewhere between then and now, directors have decided to toss any hint of realism out the window and insist that bigger is better. They’ve left us behind to focus on worldwide destruction on a level that approaches absurdity, where our only response is to scoff and instantly drop out of their fictional world. Never has that been pursued so lazily as in Independence Day: Resurgence.
One of the few bright spots is the unexpected return of Brent Spiner as Dr. Brackish Okun. In the original, Okun is used by an alien as a telepathic loudspeaker and seemingly murdered in the process. But we come to find that he’s been in a coma for decades, waking up in the nick of time to defend Earth from the returning threat. Oh, and also he has a gay lover—a fellow scientist at Area 51—who took care of his comatose body, only the movie refuses to actually admit that they’re gay. It’s almost as if, despite Emmerich’s statements and his own homosexuality, they wanted to offer a ‘safe’ option for uptight audiences: that they’re just really, really, really good friends.
But that unspoken romance between the two scientists, along with Okun’s promotion from “hippie comic relief” to “brilliant scientist who saves everyone,” offers the only real arc in a movie that desperately needed something for us to care about. Their struggle, both to live and to love, would be nothing special in a competent feature but stands out here as a rare silver lining in a very dark cloud. Still, it’s beyond insane that Spiner gets so much dialogue and screen time in a summer tentpole, and indicative of how few ideas Emmerich and his screenwriters must’ve had. In the year 2016, the guy who played Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation is arguably the lead in a $165-million blockbuster. Let that sink in, and let it be the only thought you pay to Independence Day: Resurgence ever again.