The director Roland Emmerich used to be a master of grand, fiery nonsense. To this day, his destruction of the White House and the Empire State Building in Independence Day is the pinnacle of disaster cinema, a summit he tried to reach again and again with films like Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012. Those films at least made a solid effort to bring something original to the apocalypse, from a new ice age to colossal tidal waves engulfing the world’s highest mountains. Resurgence doesn’t want to repeat the national landmark-exploding tricks of its predecessor (there’s even a sight gag involving the White House getting spared from destruction), so it opts for a baffling mess of doom: an ocean-sized alien spaceship that somehow picks up Asia with its gravitational field and dumps it onto Europe. The scene is as confusing to behold as it is difficult to imagine.
But to back up: Resurgence is set 20 years after Independence Day, in a society vastly different from our own, augmented with alien technology harvested by the many city-sized motherships that crash-landed on Earth during the first invasion. It’s a suitably bonkers idea, and the some of the film’s early imagery can be fun to wrap your head around. There’s a rebuilt, antique-y White House and Capitol Building surrounded by flying cars and sci-fi skyscrapers; a moon base doing deep-space defense research and trying to keep the planet safe; and a gaudy oil painting of Will Smith in his U.S. Air Force jacket to serve as a reminder of just what the film’s missing this time around.
Steven Hiller, Smith’s character from the first film, is gone, having perished in a test flight (a frankly rude way to dispatch him), but his son Dylan (Jessie Usher) is there in his stead, as is the former First Daughter Patricia Whitmore (now played by Maika Monroe), along with her love interest Jake Morrison (the reliably bland Liam Hemsworth). Returning from their 1996 adventure are the former President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman), now bearded and plagued with visions of alien invasion; David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), now in charge of Earth’s extra-terrestrial defense; and his tetchy father Julius (Judd Hirsch), who in the intervening two decades has written a book and moved to a houseboat.
The performances range from bemused (Goldblum maintains a sarcastic air throughout) to barely there, particularly in the case of the film’s younger stars. There’s only a feeble effort to invest the latter with some backstory—Dylan is haunted by his father’s death, Jake is a hothead driven by the loss of his parents in the 1996 attacks, and Patricia is torn between a life of politics and piloting alien fighter jets. Smith’s performance in Independence Day was electric and marked the birth of the kind of movie star Hollywood is lucky to get once in a generation. (Just imagine someone else punching an alien, lighting a cigar, and triumphantly saying “Welcome to Earth.”) His replacements unfortunately don’t get anything like the same type of memorable material to work with.