If Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s “Independence Day” (1996) pointedly refused any wonder regarding aliens and outer space, it still had a discernible spring in its narrative step, a welcome know-how for sculpting enjoyably hokey characters and relationships and a delightful commitment to corn. It was empty calories, absolutely, but it was full-flavored. Its just-released follow-up “Independence Day Resurgence”, on the other hand, is flavorless. It’s like ingesting a non-nutrient meal in pill form. Where is the fun in that? This cheerlessness is reflected in the movie’s oppressively drab visuals. Whether it’s the black of space, the dark of night, or murky underground government lairs, Emmerich and cinematographer Markus Förderer shroud the film in as little light as possible, as if unconsciously wishing the sequel would disappear into this darkness and be forgotten.
“Resurgence” is set twenty years after the original as the unfailingly angry aliens have returned to re-attack Earth. As it opens, the movie swings from the moon, where a military base has been built, back to various points on our blue planet, either disseminating necessary information with witless dialogue, or simply not disseminating at all. Gaps in logic are hallmarks of these kinds of movies, and “Resurgence” has its fair share, but those are of less consequence than the storytelling breakdown. Whereas the original film had a buoyant set-up and sturdy structure of three concise acts, “Resurgence” is ungainly from the get-go. Bereft of pace, missing the necessary scope for a supposed planetary context and conspicuously without Emmerich’s patented to ability to plant joyously obvious set-ups for joyously obvious call-backs, it is at once humdrum and herky jerky, noticeably devoid of any glee in its rendering and struggling to make clear where we are, what’s happening and who anyone is.
Characters from the original, like David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman), have to wearily exposit what they’ve been up to and what’s happened in the intervening years while new characters just kind of enigmatically materialize as if they are holograms. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Catherine Marceaux, a colleague of David’s, isn’t really even established; she’s just there, and then quickly shunted aside to do nothing but observe the obvious. She’s a far cry from Margaret Colin’s Constance Spano, whose absence is never explained, and whose romantic energy Goldlbum clearly misses playing off of.
He gets a few good lines, but mostly seems to exist in that hell-fire of blue screen, where he’s never sure what he’s supposed to be looking, or where he’s standing or sitting in relation to it. Pullman, meanwhile, never gets a handle on his mental patient ex-Commander & Chief, playing a broad caricature with too much solemnity.
Their fate speaks to the movie’s foremost flaw - that is, its painful lack of personality. The new characters of this five person screenplay are so underwritten they don’t even rise to the level of stock, and made worse because the actors portraying these parts are unable to infuse them with even the slightest spirit. Maika Monroe as President Whitmore’s daughter is a nonentity. Liam Hemsworth, playing a pilot dating President Whitmore’s daughter, is less Maverick or Iceman than Walking Potted Plant. Jessie T. Usher plays the son of Will Smith’s Steven Hiller as if his character inherited not one single ounce of his father’s considerable charisma. “Independence Day Resurgence” is the first movie that made me pine for the mellow quasi-pizzazz of Harry Connick Jr., never mind Harvey Fierstein, whose squawking would have stampeded right over this triumvirate of languid youths. (Sela Ward is a President whose sole job is to stand there and say nondescript authoritative things.)
An early scene finds David and Catherine in the Congo where they meet Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei), a Warlord, whose people spent years after the conclusion of the first film in ground combat with the aliens. Though he winds up as part of the main group, Umbutu mostly blends into the background, which is unfortunate, because his character alone has the glimmer of oomph, and who he is what this movie should be, one where African warlords and American archetypes are allies, an untraditional conveyance of global inclusiveness that the movie pitifully tries peddling later in a thinly sketched scene that is lifted straight from the original film. The latter sequence, like so many others, is lip service.
No one would confuse Emmerich with harboring an extravagant imagination given how often he cribs from other movies, but that is not to say he is un-imaginative. In his marvelous “White House Down” he aptly demonstrated his ability for out-of-the-box thinking by engineering a car chase despite the film being set, as the title implies, predominantly inside a residence. In “Independence Day Resurgence”, however, none of this resourcefulness is on display. Instead he incessantly replicates bits from the first film without re-imagining them, whether it’s a half-baked shot at another President Whitmore speech or Steven Hiller’s son firing off a godawful imitation of a Steven Hiller wisecrack at a crucial moment. And so the movie feels like a lethargic retread, as light on its feet as the Godzilla-ish alien queen that shows up at the end to stomp and smash.
It’s difficult not to note that irony, considering the woebegone calamity that was Emmerich and Devlin’s “Godzilla” in 1998. You might remember their crack at that venerable Japanese franchise ended in such a way as to ensure a sequel. Yet, its terrible telling thankfully negated that sequel. The conclusion of “Independence Day Resurgence” leaves no doubt that it wants to clear a path for another movie too. You leave with hopeful thoughts that the sheer haplessness of the finished product will prevent this from happening, and that, like Armin Tamzarian, everyone, such as myself, who loved the 1996 original so forcefully will refrain from mentioning “Independence Day Resurgence” ever again under penalty of torture.