The knockabout science-fiction adventure Independence Day could never be mistaken for a classic. But while it lacked the satirical bite of other late-1990s alien invasion comedies such as Mars Attacks! and Starship Troopers, it had a buoyant sense of B-movie fun to temper its pomposity about protecting the American way of life.
That didn’t seem like much at the time. But it represents an embarrassment of riches next to the sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence.
All the most interesting ideas in the new film are squeezed into the first few minutes. In the 20 years since the events of the original, there have been no wars or conflicts on our planet. The magnitude of the battle against the aliens has left civilisation so humbled, so grateful for its hard-won peace, that we have been more or else inoculated against strife. That means no IS, no Al-Qaeda, no Israeli-Palestinian conflict and presumably no industrial tribunals or marital disputes either.
What’s more, mankind has absorbed the technological innovations of the aliens it subdued. But there is trouble on the horizon. An unidentified presence has been detected near the moon and all the signs are that it isn’t sightseeing.
The original film’s President (Bill Pullman) is now retired and has taken to waking up babbling, drawing a mysterious shape repeatedly on his bedside jotter: a circle bisected by a straight line. It looks rather like the Transport for London logo, which is bad news for him, since that’s already been invented.
The shape is appearing in other places too. The scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) finds it scrawled all over a settlement in “Central Africa”, where he also encounters his old flame Dr Catherine Marceaux, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg – an actor who most definitely counts as an alien life form in the hothouse of the Hollywood blockbuster. There is a greater sense of wonder at Gainsbourg’s appearance than at the unveiling of any of the film’s aliens, or the inevitable scenes of mass destruction when battle commences.
But then audiences can’t be blamed for feeling jaded at the sight of the planet being destroyed. We’ve seen it so many times on screen that the natural reaction is to say: “It’s not the end of the world.” Even when it is.
The first Independence Day had a nice triple-thronged selection of heroes who played an equal part in victory – one was cool (Pullman), one had brains (Goldblum), one brawn (Will Smith, whose character does not reappear here).
The new film seems at first to be even more varied, more Benetton, in its composition. There is a female president (Sela Ward), a female Chinese starfighter (Angelababy), a fearsome African warlord (Deobia Oparei) and the African-American son (Jessie T Usher) of the pilot played in the first film by Smith.
What this means in practice is simply that the gobsmacked but wordless reaction shots have to be shared out between a greater and more ethnically diverse number of people than usual. It doesn’t translate into thrilling cinema.
This is a film that thinks characterisation means having someone gaze sorrowfully at an old family photograph. Five writers (including the director Roland Emmerich) are credited with the screenplay but none of them has come up with any memorable lines. Not to worry. At least Goldblum proves, as ever, that it’s not what you say but how you say it. No amount of data or research on the subject could ever predict accurately how one of his line readings will turn out.
A key revelation in the plot involve cores: it turns out that the aliens want our molten one, and will stop at nothing to get it. That’s ironic because the main problem here is that the film itself has no centre. The plotlines and characters are too numerous and disorganised; the action feels diffuse, and we can never be certain what is happening in which part of the world, or how Group A got to Location D so speedily when they seemed to be many hundreds of miles away and all the intervening roads were destroyed in an alien attack.
If the filmmakers don’t care to explain themselves, they shouldn’t be surprised if the audience begins to share their complacency. Pour all the money you like into snazzy effects – and the movie has those in spades – but the devil is in the detail, and Independence Day: Resurgence doesn’t have any.
It would be unfair to blame a film for the sins of its press notes, but it seems only fitting that the publicity for this slapdash production boasts of a scene in which “London’s Ferris Wheel is sent crashing into the Thames”. Ah, London’s Ferris Wheel, only a stone’s throw from Large Ben and the Parliamentary House.
Observers of up-and-coming actors will be pleased to see the splendid, sleepy-eyed Maika Monroe (so good in The Guest and It Follows) and the vivid, sharp-boned Travis Tope (as a twitchy pilot who seems to swoon over his colleague, a bland hunk played by Liam Hemsworth) but less delighted to see both wasted in threadbare parts. Then again, what other sort of parts are there here?
The film’s closing moments make it abundantly clear that the direst threat to humanity comes not from an alien race at all but from the prospect of further instalments in the Independence Day series.
Independence Day: Resurgence is on release from 23 June.