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Movie Review: Independence Day: Resurgence

Make it stop.

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Independence Day
20th Century Fox

It's hard to say what's worse about this movie: its shoddiness, which is abundant, or its cynicism, which is no real surprise in a "sequel" slapped together 20 years after the picture whose enduring popularity it seeks to exploit. Hard to say, and hard to sit through.

Problem number one with Independence Day: Resurgence is Will Smith. He's not here. Smith's fighter pilot Steven Hiller was the heart of the original film, but the actor took a pass on returning for another paycheck, presumably in order to make the upcoming Suicide Squad—a movie whose trailer is more entertaining than anything in this bloated spectacle.

A number of other actors in the original film were happy to reenlist. Jeff Goldblum's nerdy science guy David Levinson is on hand to sense something weird going on out in space again. Judd Hirsch is back as David's bumbling father, Julius, now mainly an annoyance. Bill Pullman's Thomas Whitmore, the former U.S. president, currently residing in an old-age home, is here to also sense that something new is up, alien-wise; and so is Brent Spiner's long-haired Area 51 science guy, Dr. Brakish Okun, who's just snapped out of a 20-year coma and is ready to let rip with some ferocious overacting.

A key cog in the movie's shameless market calculation is Vivica A. Fox, who played Steven Hiller's girlfriend in the original film and is now the widowed mother of his heroic stepson, Dylan (Jessie T. Usher), a fighter pilot just like his dad. This allows the introduction of a raft of other young stars, chief among them fellow pilots Liam Hemsworth (of the Hunger Games movies), Travis Tope, Nicolas Wright, the appealing Maika Monroe (whose character is also Whitmore's daughter), and Hong Kong actress Angelababy (of whom we might have been happy to see a bit more).

It's clear what's going on here. The vintage stars have been roped in as a lifeline to a beloved old movie; the new kids are present to signal the launch of a long-delayed Independence Day franchise. (Roland Emmerich, who directed both the first movie and this one, is already talking it up.) Unfortunately, the new actors aren't especially compelling—their characters are generic, and they're boxed in by the sprawling plot, in which too much stuff is happening to too many people in too many places, and very little of it is interesting.

It's hard to imagine that Emmerich and his four co-writers spent more than a couple of afternoons coming up with the story here. Briefly: the aliens are back. But they're different aliens, bigger, badder. The movie traffics boldly in sci-fi cliché, and so these aliens are galactic marauders, plundering the natural resources of one planet after another and then moving along. They also have a queen onboard (a bit of a lift from Aliens).

Down below, Earthlings are growing increasingly alarmed. There are "power surges" at an international moon base; and at Area 51, out in the Nevada desert, the captive aliens who've been hibernating there for the past two decades have suddenly sprung back to life, sensing impending rescue. ("They're celebrating!" says one human.)

Meanwhile, in Africa, a rebel leader named Umbutu (Deobia Oparei) is dropping some mad science on Goldblum's David Levinson: Umbutu is a survivor of the 1996 invasion, and he has learned how to decipher the aliens' language. Very handy. There's also a boat filled with drunken salvage merchants out on the high seas, but you don't really need to know what they're up to.

After directing the original Independence Day, Emmerich inflated his reputation as a master of CGI destruction with films like Godzilla, 2012, and The Day After Tomorrow. Here he does what he always does all over again, but really, the thrill is gone. Skyscrapers topple, tidal waves heave and roll, and whole populations are sucked up into the sky. When in doubt, Emmerich gives us mighty explosions, raging fires, choking smoke, more explosions, more fire, etc. Once upon a time this sort of thing was pretty exciting. Now it's just sci-fi S.O.P. And Emmerich is no longer getting better at it, either: some of the visual effects in this movie are woefully shopworn.

I think we can pass over the film's dialogue, which is strictly utilitarian. Some of it, though, cries out to be quoted:

"It's gonna crack the planet in half!"

"They're after our molten core!"

"Make them pay!"  

Independence Day: Resurgence opened with midnight screenings on Thursday night. I saw it in a theater in Times Square. There were about 25 other people in attendance. The movie will surely do big business in its maiden weekend, but nostalgia will only carry it so far. And word-of-mouth isn't likely to help.