‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ sorely misses Will Smith (Review)

July 23, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — In 1996, Roland Emmerich cast a budding Will Smith, a sarcastic Jeff Goldblum and an inspirational Bill Pullman in “Independence Day,” creating a new standard for disaster movies with the highest grossing movie of the year and one of the most thrilling summer blockbusters ever made.

Now, 20 years later, Emmerich returns with the sci-fi sequel “Independence Day: Resurgence.”

I wish I could tell you it’s as much fun as the alien-ass-kicking original: “Welcome to Earth!”

I wish I could tell you the script was half as charming: “I’ve got to get me one of these!”

I wish I could tell you it’s at least half as inspiring: “We won’t go quietly into the night!”

Hell, I’d settle for something so awesomely bad that it’s ridiculously entertaining.

But on all these counts, we can only quote Smith’s shrug to Goldblum: “Oops.”

I suppose this isn’t all that surprising having seen the bombastic CGI trailers, or considering the fact that 20th Century Fox canceled advanced critic screenings for a “cold open.” That’s usually a sign the studio is trying to limit negative press. After seeing the flick, you’ll understand why.

We pick up in a futuristic Washington D.C., where mankind has rebuilt the White House and National Mall after the previous alien invasion. There’s a new president in town, presumably the first female president, President Lanford (Sela Ward), while the retired commander in chief, a shaggy President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), begins to experience bizarre alien premonitions.

Soon, a series of circular patterns begin appearing across the globe, signaling the arrival of another alien presence. General Adams (William Fichtner) recruits a team of young astronaut fighter pilots to stop them, including Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) and Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher), the son of the late Steven Hiller (Will Smith), who’s dead before the movie begins. His brainiac buddy, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), is once again mankind’s only hope.

There’s a telling scene where Hemsworth urinates on an alien ship. It’s supposed to be a joke within the context of the story, but I can’t think of a better analogy for what this sequel has done to the original’s legacy. “Resurgence” drops its drawers and pisses all over the “ID4” brand.

First of all, it lacks the guts to open on Fourth of July weekend. What a waste of a perfectly good marketing ploy for “Independence Day” movie posters. Oh, you didn’t want to compete with David Yates’ “Tarzan” and Steven Spielberg’s “BFG?” Suck it up. Instead, the film is released in June, which just happens to be National Turkey Lovers Month, fitting for this movie turkey.

Release strategy aside, the big letdown here is that the film’s biggest star isn’t even in the movie. That is to say, Will Smith is sorely missed. It would be like making a “Top Gun” sequel without Tom Cruise or a “Men in Black” sequel without, well, without Will Smith. “Fresh Prince” may have launched Smith’s TV career, but “Independence Day” proved he could be a movie star.

Without Smith, this sequel should have been a “no go.” Or, maybe Smith simply read the script and realized he didn’t want another flop after M. Night Shyamlan’s epic sci-fi bomb “After Earth.” Either way, it’s the big elephant in the room. Fire at will! Fire at will! Oh wait, we can’t.

In his absence, the film struggles to juggle the old faces with the new young characters. J.J. Abrams found the perfect balance in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015), introducing Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Bodega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac), while giving the old crop a proper send off (Han Solo), sage wisdom (Princess Leia) and a mythic final moment (Luke Skywalker).

I suppose it’s amusing to see Goldblum back making his signature wisecracks, and Pullman back giving motivational speeches. Judd Hirsch is mildly entertaining as David’s proud father. Vivica A. Fox makes a brief cameo. Best of all, the film offers a small tribute to the late Robert Loggia.

But aside from those minor nostalgic pleasures, the sequel does little to make us care for its characters. Act One barely asks us to invest in the characters before the invasion starts, meaning we have little sympathy built up for the cast when the buildings begin blowing up.

In 1996, it was thrilling to watch movies where New York skyscrapers and D.C. government buildings came crumbling down. Pre-9/11 was the cultural moment for cinema’s destruction of U.S. landmarks. But all that changed on 9/11; in fact, many stunned citizens told reporters that day that it was “like something out of a movie,” recalling images of “Independence Day.”

Today, in a post-9/11 world, the devastation should be handled with more seriousness, not less. Yet “Resurgence” makes it cartoonish, as entire cities are practically sucked into the sky. At one point, the devastation goes sliding across the ground like volcanic lava, coming dangerously close to wiping out a major landmark, but stops just in the nick of time. It’s all quite cheesy.

The ridiculousness doesn’t stop there. Remember that great Area 51 scene in the first movie where a supposedly dead alien suddenly wrapped a tentacle around the throat of Dr. Brakish Okun (Brent Spiner), using his vocal chords to communicate with the humans? Well, we get that moment again, except the manner in which it happens — and who it happens to — defies logic.

We also get a repeat of Randy Quaid’s courageous sacrifice, only here it proves very anti-climatic, as the film rages on for at least another half-hour. This decision totally undermines the significance of the aforementioned sacrifice, turning what could have been an important, selfless, tearjerking moment into a throwaway scene that sacrifices a character for nothing.

We sigh instead of cry.

From here, the relentless climax is the definition of insufferable. You may nod off like Dr. Okun in his coma, snapping, “How long was I out?” “7,300 days.” Even if you stay awake, you’ll check your watch and grumble, “We’ve waited 20 years for a sequel, and this is the best we get?”

If Ridley Scott taught us anything in “Alien” (1979), it’s that the less we see of the alien, the better. While “Independence Day” revived H.R. Giger’s vision of a biomechanical alien design, “Resurgence” makes an over-the-top mockery of anything even remotely spine-tingling.

Remember the “Men in Black” finale where giant aliens shoot marbles with our galaxy? Well, combine that with the school-bus chase at the end of “Dirty Harry” and you get the end of “Resurgence.” By the time the stop sign gets ripped off the bus, you’ll yell “STOP” at the screen.

Which brings us back to the end of the original film and the brilliant buddy comedy that is lacking here. You’ll recall that Smith and Goldblum made a pact to smoke cigars “when the fat lady sings” after delivering a computer virus to the mother ship. When an anxious Goldblum cut right to the chase, Smith memorably quipped, “I ain’t heard no fat lady,” to which Goldblum replied in perfect Goldblum form, “Forget, the fat lady. You’re obsessed with the fat lady.”

And just like that, Goldblum unknowingly foreshadowed the flaw of the 2016 sequel.

With its overstuffed, queen-bee climax, “Resurgence” is obsessed with the fat lady.

The final scene even teases a third installment, but this franchise is barely limping along.

“Yes, yes, next time, without the oops.”

To steal a phrase, it doesn’t go quietly into the night, but in this case, we wish it would.


Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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