Roland Emmerich is the preeminent film auteur of exploding landmarks. A partial list of popular monuments detonated under his watch would include the White House, Statue of Liberty, the Chrysler Building, the White House, the Hollywood sign, the Vatican, the complete works of William Shakespeare, and the White House, again. On some level, it seems like these sites have always been exploding or about to explode; merely to look at them is to imagine them exploding. But it was Emmerich who consummated our will to combustion, beginning with Independence Day, a film named for America's premier explosion-based holiday.
Now, with Independence Day: Resurgence, the object being exploded is the prior movie and, in retrospect, the fact that it has been allowed to stand intact for 20 years feels like an oversight. Most recent reboots and sequels of beloved franchises (Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World) are less continuations of an existing story than reaffirmations of our nostalgia, proof that we can continue to exist as adults in the fantasies we participated in as children. (They are also, of course, often licenses to print money.) But this isn't Emmerich's method, for every second of Resurgence is dedicated to a sacrificial bonfire in which the foundational tenants of the 1990s—lightness, optimism, brazen commercialism—are soon subsumed. All must be destroyed.
Our failure to move on is initially personified by ex-President Bill Pullman who, bearded and visibly unwell, is haunted by premonitions of an alien apocalypse and, in the tradition of classic science fiction, ignored by a complacent populace. We soon grasp that Independence Day: Resurgence is set not in the recognizable present, but in a world where the events of the first movie lead to a technological renaissance in which we established moon bases, spaceships, and laser guns improvised from the invaders' leavings, resulting in an extended 90s wherein we prospered instead of crashing, unified rather than dissected, and where, in fine Emmerichian tradition, the rest of the world is treated as a collection of less-fortunate Americas (witness DeObia Oparei as a plucky African warlord in a beret who fights the aliens with twin machetes).
Our viewer analogue in this brave old world is Brent Spiner—Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation—as a crazy scientist who wakes from a 20-year coma and proves excellent company for the rest of the film, diving into exposition with the gusto of an actor unexpectedly released from suspended animation. Not so lucky is Will Smith, whose character perished in a flight test off-screen. Gone with him is any modicum of levity or joy Resurgence might have hoped to tap into. Smith's replacement is his character's son, hotshot pilot Dylan Dubrow-Hiller, played by Jessie Usher.
Along with Liam Hemsworth, Usher represents the franchise's "new generation," a clutch completed by Nicolas Wright as that most gratuitous of reboot stock characters, the ironic nerd who has apparently seen the first movie. Meanwhile, the older folks aren't given a whole lot to do. Jeff Goldblum gamely performs his trademark gesture, checking his rearview mirror; Judd Hirsch drives a bus through a desert uttering Hebraisms; and Charlotte Gainsbourg's French scientist is cruelly relegated to background love-interest status.
The film's sexlessness is notable because one of Emmerich's key innovations has always been getting marital strife and familial estrangement to dovetail with global catastrophe. As the world slips into carnage, the hero loses his sexual potency; as he saves it, so too are all personal rifts mended and the schmo is reborn as mustang. Here, Usher and Hemsworth have an old military-academy grudge to bury, Bill Pullman must prove himself in his daughter's eyes, and Goldblum has to work up the courage to introduce Gainsbourg to his father; pretty small potatoes as far as stakes go, unless you count, you know, saving the world from annihilation.
As the aliens mount their inevitable reprisal, and the movie slides into exhausted autopilot, it becomes increasingly hard to ignore all the grim reminders of how much our world has changed while the world of Independence Day has supposedly stayed the same. Instead of welcoming the new emissary of intelligent life (in this case, a talking spherical spaceship) as we frequently did to our peril throughout the 90s, the new administration's first impulse is to take a shot at it. Bill Pullman's stirring ode to American bro-ism has been replaced by need-to-know military protocol delivered by a lizard-like William Fichtner as a US general who only seems like the movie's villain. And, of course, we are no longer invited to celebrate the once-novel obliteration of buildings, only asked to watch them drift upward in tractor beams, as free from gravity as the first movie was from consequence.
But the impossibility of going back to the golden age of Sprite commercials and Fresh Prince crops up every time Emmerich tries. There's talk of kicking alien ass, but the levity of Smith and Goldblum's buddy routine is beyond Usher and Hemsworth. The macho heroics feel haloed with quotation marks, and an inadvertent heaviness undercuts the mayhem.
But more than anything, as the real-world UK celebrates its own "independence day" and the GOP runs a proudly xenophobic American isolationist for president, the original's dumb appeal to a unifying nationalism—its sense that the whole world is in some sense America—is an embarrassing relic.
As a result, the movie is reduced to the broad race comedy that typified the 90s, from the original Independence Day to the likes of Bulworth. Here the movie fulfills those hoary tropes by getting Hirsch to kvetch at Goldblum, Pullman to swagger with Caucasian hubris, Vivica A. Fox to sass. The only update here is the inclusion of a gay couple whose chiding back-and-forth is played comic relief before the movie dutifully denies them any fate but martyrdom. It makes sense that the last thing Emmerich destroys is the foundation of the disaster picture itself: As the movie lays the groundwork for a sequel, we are given to understand that earth is done being victimized by the unknown, as the survivors vow to go the preemptive route and invade the invaders, striking at their homeworld before any more memorials can be laid to waste. We are the aliens now.
Recent work by J. W. McCormack appears in Conjunctions, BOMB, and the New Republic. Read his other writing on VICE here.