'Independence Day: Resurgence': Film Review

Utterly ridiculous but also rollicking good fun.

The gang's all back (minus Will Smith) as Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman and friends join Liam Hemsworth and other new recruits in a fight against space invaders.

It's been 20 years since Independence Day blew up the White House and blazed new trails with blockbuster records. Now, the franchise is back with the instructively if somewhat literal-mindedly titled Independence Day: Resurgence. Obviously, audiences will not be asking if it is bigger, louder or a better showcase than its predecessor for state-of-the-art visual effects. No one really wants to know if most of the old cast that could be persuaded to come back have signed on again, and whether they are joined by a younger, sequel-ready generation of actors. And surely only a fool would query whether the new entry is full of ludicrous science, jokes that demonstrate it doesn't take itself seriously and world monuments being turned to sand-grain-fine rubble and toxic waste. Because the answer to all those questions is, duh, of course.

Surely, the only real questions anyone wants to know at this stage are just how many squillions will it end up making worldwide and is there a scene where a dog is saved at the last minute from immolation and flying debris. The answer to that last question is also, duh, of course (a cute little terrier-like pup this time, in place of the original's golden retriever).

But when it comes to box-office prospects, this could be a tricky one to call. Jurassic World recently proved that reboots of 1990s-era properties can draw big numbers with the right kind of retro-fitting. But then again, as many a busted flush has shown recently, brand-name recognition and massive marketing campaigns aren’t enough to guarantee returns. In the endless rinse-and-repeat cycles of contemporary sci-fi-inflected action movies, set-pieces that ID4 helped popularize in the first place, and which its sequel reprises, look a little stale here because they have already been ripped off and rejigged countless times. Monument destruction, for example, is taken to heroic new heights in Resurgence as Malaysia's Petronas towers are carried halfway around the world to send London's Tower Bridge falling down, like the first round in some kind of architectural destruction tournament.

The main thing filmgoers will be looking for from Resurgence is bang-for-buck entertainment, and that it delivers reasonably successfully. Although the pic's 120-minute running time sometimes feels draggier than its predecessor’s 145-minute sprawl, returning writer-director-producer Roland Emmerich's knack for the pomp of vast-scaled destruction, fist-pumping moments of triumph and cornpone jocularity remains undiminished. This sort of entertainment is his happy place. It’s noble of him to want to try and give something back to the gay community with a low-budget misfire like last year’s LGBT history lesson Stonewall. But Resurgence arguably will do more to promote positive images of gay men by featuring Brent Spiner and John Storey as a pair of devoted lovers willing to die for each other and humanity.

Huge, leggy insectoid queens — and no, we’re not talking about drag superstars — are at the center of the sequel. It’s 20 years on from the events of the first film, and on an alternative version of Earth there are hover planes using some kind of anti-gravity gizmo, observatories and defense systems on the moon, while a Hillary Clinton-like woman serves as U.S. president (Sela Ward).

Even though the upside of the last alien invasion is apparently that we've had 20 years of peaceful coexistence and no war, it would seem that America is still top dog because it's Madam President who gets the deciding vote as to whether to shoot the crap out of a new alien spacecraft when it appears on the horizon. At least she gives the order with a heavy heart, even though chief alien detection expert David Levinson (a returning Jeff Goldblum) advises against destroying the newcomer because it doesn’t look like it was made by the same alien race. Turns out he's right: There is a third set of ETs floating about, which take the form of shiny white levitating orbs. They look like Eve in Pixar's WALL-E crossed with a giant volleyball, but with the voice of a teenage girl and a not dissimilar attitude. (She calls our civilization "primitive" because we still have bodies.)

Many screenwriting hands — Dean Devlin, Nicolas Wright, James A. Woods, James Vanderbilt and Emmerich himself — have made surprisingly light work of meshing together a plot thick with incident and characters new and old. The action toggles regularly back and forth between various locales in inner and outer space. Along with Goldblum's Levinson, returning characters include now former President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), who's suffering from Alien Residual Condition, a kind of post-traumatic syndrome but with telepathic torment thrown in for good measure.

Like others who had close encounters with the invaders the first time around — Spiner’s long-haired boffin Brakish Okun, African warlord Dikembe (Deobia Oparei) — Whitmore has dreams and visions of a symbol (it looks like a circle with a half dash through it, surely the universal icon for the power-on switch?) as the aliens approach. According to his ESP early warning system, this time around the returning aliens are bringing their queen. And she's pissed.

Ready to take her on is a new generation of feisty, trigger-happy young'uns, including war orphan turned hotshot pilot Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), who's engaged to Whitmore's all-grown-up daughter Patricia (the compelling Maika Monroe, from It Follows), a soldier in her own right. Both are friends with Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher), the son of Will Smith's character from ID4. He apparently perished in a test flight years before, which heroically covers up Smith’s absence from the cast, although he’s hardly missed with such a crowded roster.

There’s barely time to work in Dylan’s mother (Vivica A. Fox) before she must suffer a fate like so many others on the planet. But at least she got to be a doctor, an improvement over her stripper job in the first film. The female characters get slightly better positions and plotlines this time round, what with the female president, lady fighter pilots — not just Patricia but also Angelababy’s top girl gun Rain from China; and Charlotte Gainsbourg is on hand as a psychiatrist love interest for Goldblum’s Levinson. (No one bats an eye over the 20-year age gap between them, so some things are pretty much the same in this alternative universe.)

In any case, few will come seeking a politically correct representation of a utopian future. The whole point of this franchise is watching a lot of alien butt get kicked, and their slimy scrawny tushes are well and truly whopped here in gloriously rendered, hyper-realistic detail. Emmerich and his visual effects teams pull out all the stops, and there's a glorious abysmal beauty in never-ending shots of continent-wide spaceships landing and mayhem being wreaked. But for all that massy weightiness, it is to the film's credit that it always takes time to reassure us of the safety of a little dog.

Distributor-production company: Fox
Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Liam Hemsworth, Maika Monroe, Jessie T. Usher, William Fichtner, Brent Spiner, John Storey, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Vivica A. Fox, Joey King, Angelababy, Sela Ward, Judd Hirsch, Grace Huang, Ryan Cartwright, Deobia Oparei, Chin Han, McKenna Grace, Nicholas Wright, Travis Tope, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Grizelda Quintana
Director: Roland Emmerich
Screenwriters: Dean Devlin, Nicolas Wright, James A. Woods, Roland Emmerich, James Vanderbilt, based on a story by Devlin, Wright, Woods and Emmerich and characters by Devlin and Emmerich
Producers: Roland Emmerich, Dean Devlin, Harald Kloser
Executive producers: Ute Emmerich, Larry J. Franco, Carsten H. W. Lorenz
Director of photography: Markus Foederer
Production designer: Barry Chusid
Costume designer: Lisy Christl
Editor: Adam Wolfe
Music: Harald Kloser, Thomas Wanker
Visual effects supervisors: Matt Aitken, Ed Bruce, Olivier Cauwet, Eric D. Christensen,  Martyn 'Moose' Culpitt, Volker Engel, Paul Graff, Nicholas Murphy, Sue Rowe, Greg Strasz, Marc Weigert
Casting: John Papsidera

Rated PG-13, 120 minutes