When will we learn to leave well enough alone?
In 1996, Roland Emmerich rolled out a rousing action film in which mankind unites to fight back against a merciless alien invasion. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of "Independence Day," the filmmaker who suffered a string of flops with "Godzilla," "White House Down" and "Stonewall" attempts to rally with "Independence Day: Resurgence," a sequel I'm not sure anyone asked for.
A certified blockbuster that helped propel Will Smith to movie stardom, "Independence Day" has become polarizing in more recent years. But while some viewers smugly snark over its corny dialogue and earnest optimism, others -- this critic included -- still relish every time it comes on television, and tear up when Bill Pullman unleashes his inspiring call to arms.
With "Resurgence," Emmerich seemed to have thought that, if at first you do succeed, do it again, but bigger. Bigger cast, bigger alien, bigger stakes (interstellar instead of global). But this movie proves bigger doesn't necessarily mean better.
The sequel picks up 20 years after that first alien encounter, which united the planet and spurred advanced technology and weaponry. But when a strange spaceship approaches Earth, mankind must once more strap in for battle -- which is bad news for anyone who wanted happy endings for the heroes of the original film. Most return either to be killed off or to witness their remaining family destroyed. Be warned: "Independence Day: Resurgence" is not the escapist fantasy that moviegoers might be craving this summer.
In a blatant effort to make this follow-up freshly alluring, much of the plot revolves around a squad of young hotshot pilots. Maika Monroe, who scored notice with the indie horror hit "It Follows," brings pouting and sullen eyebrows to the role of former First Daughter/White House aide/Lieutenant Patricia Whitmore. Playing her fiancé, and arrogant and reckless ace, "The Hunger Games" star Liam Hemsworth auditions for the Young Han Solo movie, with smirks, swagger and more charm than I've ever seen him muster. Jessie T. Usher gets to look handsome and be respectable as the surviving son of Smith's hero pilot, whom offhand dialogue informs us died years before in a test flight. Chinese star Angelababy helps to secure overseas box-office success as a pilot whose main purpose appears to serve as love interest for Hemsworth's irritating, pickup line-spitting sidekick, played by Travis Trope.
Together, these young actors generate all the excitement of a laundry spin cycle. Thank God for Jeff Goldblum.
He's not the only "Independence Day" star to return, however: Pullman is back with a depression beard and severe PTSD; Judd Hirsch hyucks it up with a literal busload of puppy-eyed children (in rabbit-eared hats, no less!); Vivica A. Fox, who's been promoted from exotic dancer to doctor, pops by for a brief and bleak sequence; and Brent Spiner's strangled scientist Dr. Okun is revived to deliver some much-needed humor and energy to this scattershot story, which leaps from location to location and character to character at such a frantic pace, it's exhausting. But Goldblum is the real star.
Wedged into every scene the fleet of screenwriters could manage, he delivers classic Goldblum with his flowing fingers, wiggling eyebrows and panoply of distinctive exclamation sounds. New to the franchise, art-house icon Charlotte Gainsbourg drops in to play his pugnacious love interest. The two have a sophisticated yet sultry chemistry, whether bickering over alien symbols or interrogating an African warlord with unique alien insight. (Just go with it.) But all that Goldblum goodness is subsumed amid a mundane mishmash of thinly sketched threads, one-dimensional characters and egregiously exposition-heavy dialogue like "You've been in a coma 7,300 days!"
On top of all of that, the plot spits out that the true mastermind of the decades-old attack is an alien from the same species as the first wave of extraterrestrials, only way bigger. How big? Well, that's unclear for much of the movie, as numerous shots of this epic extraterrestrial include no sense of scale. In the finale, she's very big in deed. If you manage to keep your enthusiasm up through waves of bland battle scenes that are direct retreads of the first go 'round, sloppy subplots about selfish sailors, lost children, and a pencil-pusher turned gun-toting alien slayer, then your reward is a prolonged finale with many special effects but little dramatic impact.
The final minutes of "Independence Day: Resurgence" are a desperate rush to tie off all those dangling threads with kisses, promises and motivational speeches -- all in time to set up a send-off line that threatens another sequel. But the thrill is gone.
In one scene, where a crashing spaceship trudges up to the White House only to tilt its flapping flag, you get the sense that even Emmerich doesn't want to be here. Tromping back through his iconic images and sequences, and killing off beloved characters with so little attention that their deaths may not even register, it's time he realizes enough is enough.
"Independence Day: Resurgence" is now in theaters.