Very few advance screenings preceded Independence Day: Resurgence's arrival in theaters on the evening of June 23. That’s eight days ahead of the July Fourth weekend, which in simpler times — like 1996, when Independence Day was the year’s biggest hit — was traditionally reserved for the biggest, ka-blammiest movie of the summer. So is this follow-up one week early or 15 years late?
Both, kind of. Independence Day was a goofy throwback even two decades ago, marrying the paranoid flying-saucer flicks of the 1950s to the bloated disaster epics of the ’70s. Their offspring was quintessentially ’90s: Jeff Goldblum repelled a technologically superior invading armada with a computer virus, while Will Smith graduated from sitcom rapper to movie star. The trailer played before seemingly every movie I saw in the first half of 1996, and the money shot of the White House being vaporized by an alien death ray got cheers every time.
That the White House gets spared by a matter of inches is the only memorable sight gag in the new Resurgence. Director Roland Emmerich has trashed the place several times already, dropping the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy on top of it (!) in 2012 and flooding it with terrorists in White House Down — a Die Hard ripoff that tanked even though it had Channing Tatum in the bloody undershirt.
The whole of London and at least one unspecified Asian city aren’t so lucky. Or at least that was my impression while watching Resurgence. I later learned from an interview with Emmerich that I’d vastly underestimated the scale of the digital carnage: The invaders’ continent-sized mothership had in fact picked up the whole of Asia and used it to smash Europe. Suddenly Brexit doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
Emmerich was giving us genocidal body counts (but sparing the dog) and 2½-hour runtimes long before the maturation of CGI made these elements de rigueur in would-be blockbusters. For a few twitchy years in the early aughts — just prior to the rise of the superhero movies Emmerich has publicly dissed — his films were somehow both behind the times and ahead of them: 2000’s Mel Gibson–starring Revolutionary War fantasy The Patriot channeled right-wing anxieties about guns and government, while 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow suggested humanity’s existential nemesis was not global warming but a new ice age — one that arrived just as quickly as Jake Gyllenhaal could, um, run away from it.
The biggest surprise in Resurgence is that it gets the world-building, the melodramas among its forgettable under-30 characters and the world-destroying all done in a pithy two hours. (It feels longer.) Another curious thing: It’s not a reboot or a prequel or a sidequel but just an old-fashioned sequel that imagines the world Independence Day wrought, 20 Years Later. In this alternate 2016, wariness of a common interstellar foe has meant an end to wars among nations. Instead, a united Earth has busied itself strip-mining all those downed saucers to build pew-pew energy weapons and super-fast cold fusion–powered ships. The Earth Defense Force features admirable race and gender parity, not to mention a moon base out of Newt Gingrich’s dreams.
Because Will Smith declined to return, the cocksure swagger he brought to human-extraterrestrial relations has been transferred into the person of Liam Hemsworth, playing an EDF pilot orphaned in the ’96 invasion. This is a puzzling choice, considering the movie also features one Jesse T. Usher as the Smith character’s son. He’s a hot shot pilot, too. Given Emmerich’s love of old-timey melodrama, it’s a minor miracle he didn’t have these two airmen both fall for the same swell dame or something. He doesn’t do that, nor does he give Usher’s character any other reason to show up at all.
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The veterans are more interesting. Ex-president Bill Pullman, leaning on his cane and haunted by visions of the invaders’ return, seems pleased that he gets to be crazy in this movie. (His Dave Letterman/Jon Stewart retirement beard really drives the point home.) And yes, kids, settle down: 81-year-old Judd Hirsch is indeed back, as menschy and humane in the face of extraterrestrial aggression and earthly panic as ever. He’s still meddling in the love life of the movie’s true star, Goldblum — a man who looks so fit and youthful at 63 that he must revitalize his body daily by harvesting cells from unfamous Hemsworths. The poetry of the steak, as he once said in some bug movie.
William Fichtner wasn’t in Independence Day, but he’s played enough soldiers that his role as an EDF general charged with speaking the phrase “Earth’s molten core” more often than anyone else feels like a reprise. The only new player of any interest is Game of Thrones’ Deobia Oparei, as a Congolese warlord who has deciphered some of the aliens’ written language. (The fact that everyone still just refers to an advanced species we’ve been studying in captivity for 20 years as “the aliens” is a barometer of the film’s general level of curiosity.) He spent a decade fighting a ground war against invaders stranded on the surface after ’96 — a backstory that’s dispensed with in a few lines of dialogue, despite being more interesting than at least half of what’s actually onscreen.
That few critics were invited to see Resurgence before it opened may be a factor in why it’s received such brutal notices. It’s no masterpiece, or even a top-tier Emmerich disasterpiece, but it’s certainly no dumber than Independence Day was. Mathematically speaking, it is exactly as dumb as Independence Day was. The blockbuster marketplace is simply more crowded and competitive than it was 20 years ago, when major studios still made other kinds of movies.
For all that, Resurgence has a few fun, even spoilable moves that caught me off guard, something its precursor never did. Its hasty tee-up of yet another sequel — one presumably meant to hatch before 2036 — is artless and lame, but hey: You skipped White House Down. You didn’t show up for Anonymous, Emmerich’s 2011 conspiracy thriller about Shakespeare’s ghostwriter. You avoided Stonewall, his widely panned historical drama about the 1969 gay-rights riots in Greenwich Village. This is what you get, Earthlings.