It’s easy to forget that when it first hoved into view over the planet’s multiplexes 20 years ago Independence Day was the surprise hit of the summer. Now-defunct movie magazine Premiere hadn’t even mentioned it in its annual list of the 10 Blockbusters to Watch for that year. But a masterly publicity campaign, with its iconic Super Bowl trailer featuring an exploding White House, together with a public hunger for old-fashioned aliens who, unlike ET, wanted to melt us with lasers rather than intergalactic adorableness, transformed it into what was then one of the biggest box-office hits of all time.
And it was a career-maker both for its then-unknown director, German-born Roland Emmerich, and for Will Smith, who cemented his place among the decade’s biggest stars as sass-spouting, cigar-chomping hero du jour Captain Steve Hiller.
With Hollywood’s current mania for ancient blockbuster revivalism showing no signs of abating, it was probably inevitable that at some point our interstellar neighbours would pay a return visit. But for every Jurassic World (unstoppable franchise-reviving hit), there’s a Terminator: Genisys (massive, cyborg-terminating flop). And, sadly, despite some neat ideas and thrilling visuals, Independence Day: Resurgence (hobbled out of the gate with a title that sounds like something your doctor might sadly inform you has happened to your nasty rash) falls more into the latter category than the former.
Set two decades after Earth’s triumph against the alien invaders, it finds the scientist hero of the original, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), now promoted to head of Earth Space Defence, nervously scanning the skies for the alien interlopers’ inevitable return visit. Will Smith bailed on the reboot at the last minute, so the action heroics fall to Liam Hemsworth (the latest in Australia’s apparently inexhaustible supply of toothily handsome Hemsworths) and newcomer Jessie T Usher (playing Smith’s son), as a pair of fighter-pilot jocks with a thinly sketched grudge against each other.
In the opening, spectacularly destructive invasion sequences, Emmerich, by now Hollywood’s acknowledged master of computerised mayhem, reliably delivers. Giant Doha skyscrapers are upended and dropped like matchsticks on an unfortunate London (“They do love to get the landmarks,” mutters Goldblum, in an only partially successful attempt to create a vague sense of unease at thrilling to the destruction, and presumably loss of life, on an IMAX scale).
And amidst the CG mayhem there are some genuinely arresting images and ideas: a 3,000 mile-wide invading mothership attaches itself to earth, glomming onto the planet like some ghastly space wart. Two billion people, we are informed, died in the original attack, leaving a strange, tragic world populated mostly by orphans.
But these promising threads are left unfollowed, and after the initial excitement the story rapidly runs out of steam. And what promising plot threads there are quickly peter out. A neat, Predator-ish idea about a warlord fighting a pocket of original invaders in Central Africa using not much more than Bowie knives is thrown away. Poor Judd Hirsch, reprising the role of Goldblum’s crotchety dad, whose parental clucking around his son did so much to humanise the original, is separated from him for the majority of the film. He inexplicably spends most of his time on board a school bus full of obviously vulnerable children, to whom precisely nothing of interest happens.
It’s an uncharacteristic disappointment from the normally reliable Emmerich, and it leaves the final moments of the film, which point to a second sequel this time set in space, sounding more like a plaintive request than a promise. And with a movie as strangely uneven as this, Earth might be safe from interplanetary molestation – for a while, at least.
Independence Day: Resurgence is in cinemas Thursday 23 June