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We waited 20 years for that?
Two decades after Independence Day decimated our landmarks in a fireworks spray of patriotic pomp-and-circumstance (while making global sensations out of Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum and Mac-based computer viruses), Roland Emmerich returns with Independence Day: Resurgence, a hollow and laborious blockbuster that's more obligation than it is celebration. "That is definitely bigger than the last one," planet-saving scientist David Levinson dryly surmises near the start of this sequel. He's describing a new Mothership that's heading toward the Earth, but he's also talking about the movie itself, a massive endeavor that's Michael Bay-esque in its bloated generic-ness, populated by stiff cardboard cutouts who race through bland digital chaos without forging a single memorable human connection. Oh, and Will Smith didn't return, which means there's no sizzle on this surprisingly flavorless steak. Worth the wait? Not particularly.
Twenty years after what's now known as The War of 1996, our society lives in a highly advanced state that assimilated alien technologies plucked off the ships we downed in the first movie. In addition to advancements in the fields of transportation and communication (you can Skype people on the moon, with nary a blip in the signal), we also have increased our military defense system, which includes a Moon Base staffed by soldiers preparing for the next possible alien attack.
Naturally, it occurs on the day our planet is celebrating the 20th anniversary of first contact. Our moon base is approached by a mysterious sphere, which current President Lanford (Sela Ward) orders be shot down, immediately. (Reason to celebrate, Republican readers. You apparently won the election in this alternate universe!) Striking first and striking hard wasn't the best possible approach, however, as the decimation of the sphere only leads to the arrival of a much larger ship -- one that measures 3,000 miles in diameter and is approaching the surface of our planet, causing all sorts of Emmerich-brand hysteria down below.
With Independence Day: Resurgence, everything old is ... well, old still. Original cast members not named Will Smith all return, and it's fun to see Jeff Goldblum once again sheepishly solving exaggerated problems like a GQ chaperone for the Math Club. He and Bill Pullman, playing President Thomas Whitmore and getting half of an inspiration speech, carry the nostalgic load, while Vivica A. Fox is dispensed of rapidly, and Judd Hirsch is abandoned in a subplot involving a stranger's family that makes no sense in the grand scheme of the story.
But Emmerich still seems like he's aiming to make a shlocky 1950's sci-fi drive-in movie, and Resurgence is hopelessly hokey and cheesy, even though the effects and tools at the director's disposal have improved dramatically in the past 20 years. Going bigger isn't better in the case of Resurgence, as the film loses focus the minute the massive Mothership enters our atmosphere. Emmerich ends up copying his past successes when it comes to staging his spaceship-induced chaos -- literally, as a scene with a man in a taxi cab eventually running from a decimated skyscraper plays like a blatant homage to Harvey Fierstein. (Who, at age 62, absolutely should have been brought back for this. If Brent Spiner can emerge, ridiculously, from a coma and return for the sequel, then Fierstein's doting Marty Gilbert could have received a line or two of dialogue.)
The new cast -- dubbed the Legacy Team in the story -- also doesn't rise up to fill the shoes of their predecessors. The five credited screenwriters immediately drive a wedge between male leads Liam Hemsworth and Jessie T. Usher (playing the son of Will Smith's ID character), meaning both men play sullen and morose instead of cocky, funny and cheerworthy. Maika Monroe replaces Mae Whitman as Whitmore's daughter, Patricia, though she isn't ready to be the physical action hero the movie asks her to be. And the final nail in the coffin is the noted absence of a ticking clock, a brilliantly simple plot device that created real urgency in the original Independence Day. Without it, Resurgence stumbles from one gigantic, generic set piece to the next, stopping alien resistances with relative ease and a lack of drama that helped the first movie cook, despite its faults.
There's an interesting trend happing at the multiplex lately. Long-awaited sequels like Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens have blown the dust off dormant franchises and successfully answered the question, "So, can Hollywood go home again?" Independence Day: Resurgence, meanwhile, drops into theaters with a CGI thud and raises a different query: "Why bother?"