Some time around 7am, July 3rd, 1996: and I struggled back to consciousness after what was probably the heaviest night of my life, falling-down-water-wise. Not normally greeting the world until well after nine in the morning, seeing this time of day was a bit of a novelty, regardless of my debilitated condition, and so I popped on the TV just to see what sort of things got shown while I was asleep. The big entertainment news was of a film opening in the USA – big, grinning crowds emerging, vast queues forming. A young boy was asked what he was hoping to see in the new movie. 'Lots of blowing up,' he said excitedly.
The movie, needless to say, was Roland Emmerich's Independence Day, which I had never heard of prior to that moment. Still, a big SF movie with lots of blowing up was definitely my sort of thing, and my interest was particularly piqued by a UK-specific radio prequel in which Nicky Campbell, Sir Patrick Moore, Toyah Wilcox and Colin Baker did their bit to repel the alien hordes. I loved Independence Day from the first time I saw it and eventually ended up going back to see it at least three more times. At the back of my mind I was aware that any film which ends up making $800m is more likely than not going to be assessed for sequel potential, but at the same time I honestly couldn't see how the trick could be turned in this case.
Well, it's taken an unusually long time – I've been racking my brains trying to think of another instance of it taking 20 years for a film to get a direct sequel – but here it is, Independence Day: Resurgence, directed as before by Roland Emmerich. Which, needless to say, also features lots of blowing up.
In this latest instalment... um... well... more aliens arrive and have another go at taking over the world. Pretending there's much more to the actual story than that is fairly pointless, but then I suppose you could say something quite similar about the original film. All right: united by their struggle in the original film (explicitly dated to 1996, which is moderately curious if you’re as retentive as me, but never mind), the nations of the world have spent the last two decades preparing for a fresh wave of alien attackers. President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is now a cranky old man paranoid about the coming menace. David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) is now top boffin in charge of defending the Earth. Steve Hiller (Will Smith) has managed to get himself excused sequel duties by dying in a plane crash, in what may be a rare recent instance of Smith making a smart career move. However, his stepson is still around, along with a bunch of other young characters: one consequence of the failed alien invasion appears to be that everyone under 30 now looks like a model.
Well, anyway: there are worrying signals from deep space, people who came into psychic contact with the invaders get rather agitated, and the alien POWs being held in Area 51 also start exhibiting strange behaviour. Sure enough, another whopping alien craft turns up, its occupants intent on interplanetary gittery, and it's up to our heroes to try and save the human race before the visual effects budget runs out...
When you think of Independence Day, what springs to mind? Well, if you’re anything like me, it’s huge, iconic, arresting images – the White House blown to pieces, a vast alien ship appearing out of a wall of fire above New York City – engaging performances from the ensemble cast, a truly magnificent score by David Arnold, and an infectious sense of exhilaration and fun – that of a couple of fairly little-known film-makers discovering one of the great old stories (for Independence Day is essentially The War of the Worlds with the details only somewhat tweaked) and having a whale of a time telling it to a new audience.
It’s partly that sense of originality and fun which I thought any sequel would struggle to recapture, but above all I was dubious about the very premise. Watching the world as we know it get blown to hell is one of those things which people never seem to get tired of watching, it’s the dark impulse which has kept horror stories and disaster movies lucrative propositions all these years. It’s central to the plot of Resurgence that this is very much not the world as we know it, and, perhaps as a result, the film backs off from blowing it to hell with quite as much gusto. Instead we have a story where some people are expecting aliens to arrive and give them a hard time. Aliens duly arrive and give them a hard time before the conclusion.
The writers attempt to give the film some interest by raising the stakes to a slightly absurd degree: or perhaps I mean increasing the scale. Ships the size of cities are replaced by ships the size of continents, weapons capable of vaporising buildings are replaced by ones able to drill out the core of the planet, and so on. It certainly allows for the CGI wizards to do their stuff at length, but it doesn’t actually make for a more interesting story – perhaps the opposite, as the effect is mainly to dehumanise the plot.
It doesn’t really help that most of the new characters are a dull and one-dimensional bunch, even the ones who appeared as children in the original movie. It’s also painfully clear that one of them, a hot female Chinese pilot, is a cipher who has only been inserted on the orders of the marketing department to make it easier to sell the movie in Asia. The deal given to the returning characters isn’t necessary better – at least one of them gets killed off after very little more than a cameo, others get shuffled about the place quite perfunctorily. The only real beneficiary is Brent Spiner (yes, it’s him, though he is quite difficult to recognise), who gets much more to do this time around than he did in the first film.
Oddly, I didn’t find myself missing Will Smith at all, but then I always thought the other two leads were more interesting characters, and had he come back Smith might even have been able to inject a little vitality into what too often feels like a laborious and mechanical succession of set pieces. The contributor I really did miss was David Arnold: elements of the original soundtrack are used, but the new music is rather drab and forgettable compared to the themes from the first movie.
There’s a strange way in which most of Independence Day: Resurgence feels like it was only made as a contractual obligation, even though I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the case – but it would be remiss of me to suggest I took no pleasure from it whatsoever. The towering, grandiose absurdity of the whole thing did make me laugh towards the end, together with the preposterousness of some of the plotting – Judd Hirsch spends most of the movie on what looks like a pointless road-trip across devastated America with some orphans, and then you realise it has only been orchestrated so the film can get away with having a bus full of children in jeopardy during its climax. It is as brazen and silly as that, and this is before we even get to the bit when it starts turning into a very peculiar Japanese kaiju movie, not a genre Emmerich and Devlin have exactly distinguished themselves with in the past.
The key thing, though, is that during the original film I was having such a good time all the way through that I was quite happy to laugh along with its cheesy jokes and tongue-in-cheek jingoism. This time around the jokes are nowhere near as good, the characters are nowhere near as engaging, the plot is highly forgettable, and I spent the climax laughing at the film rather than with it. The conclusion makes it very clear that this movie is not so much continuing a story as setting down a marker to extend a brand, with future episodes clearly planned. Nothing is allowed to be special, unique, its own thing anymore, it seems. I went along to Independence Day: Resurgence with very strictly limited expectations, but even so I was shocked by how little of the old magic it managed to retain. A major disappointment.