Roland Emmerich’s hotly-anticipated sequel to his iconic 1996 alien invasion movie arrives like a moon-sized mothership ploughing into our planet, and the result is exactly what you’d expect – one hell of a mess.
The above scenario –moon-sized spaceship churning up planet Earth– actually features in Independence Day: Resurgence. It’s preceded by a one-liner from Jeff Goldblum’s ace scientist, David Levinson, who marvels at the sheer size of the alien construction: “That is definitely bigger than the last one.” It articulates what seems to have been Emmerich’s only goal here. Everything must be bigger. Much, much bigger.
And bigger, for Emmerich, is better. More is more. Thus every shot in his sequel is crammed with as much epic detail as is humanly conceivable, across vistas of literally thousands of miles. And that, in essence, is the movie. From its first moment to its last, it pummels us with (CGI) spectacle to the extent that it nullifies itself. It numbs us visually, but, worse, it is entirely devoid of entertainment value in its storytelling.
I won’t waste your time here with a detailed plot summary. If you’ve seen the trailer, you get the picture, which essentially is this: the alien invasion force that was defeated by America in 1996 returns to strike again in our present day. Only this time the US military is better equipped, using reverse-engineered ET technologies to repel their interstellar aggressors. Our heroes are top gun fighter pilots, Jake (Liam Hemsworth), Dylan (Jessie T. Usher), and Patricia (the over-qualified Maika Monroe looking like she’s stumbled onto the wrong film set). The new President here is also female (wink wink, Hillary). With the support of the mighty Earth Space Defense organisation (headquartered at Area 51), Jeff Goldblum’s lanky brain, David, and a retired, battle-scared President Whitmore (a squinty, beardy Bill Pullman), our young warriors do battle with the alien hive and its towering Queen.
For all of Emmerich’s problems as a director, he usually delivers when it comes to classical storytelling, and he has been successful in creating some genuinely memorable characters and iconic set pieces over the years. Not so with Independence Day: Resurgence. No single character or moment achieves definition against the backdrop of non-stop apocalypse. The death toll here is in the billions, but there’s no dwelling on that, barely even a reference to it. Despite the horrors unfolding around them, the main characters –most of them military or political figures– barely break a sweat. And why would they? They know they’re going to win. Problem is, we as viewers shouldn’t know they’re going to win in every single moment of the film, in every casual line delivered with a swagger and a smile. Such conventions have a rightful place in any great American blockbuster, but with no real characterization or human intimacy underpinning these flourishes, there’s no drama, and Emmerich’s film serves as a vacuum for feeling and emotion.
It’s also insultingly moronic on every level. It’s hard to pick a standout example from such a wealth of stupid, but I particularly appreciated the scene in which (SPOILER ALERT) Brent Spiner’s Dr. Brakish Okun suddenly regains consciousness after 20 years of being in a coma. I was pleased to see he emotionally adapted to his radically new situation in a matter of seconds, and just moments later was on his feet, running through the corridors as if his two-decades-worth of muscular wastage was no big thing. A short while later (still in his hospital gown), he’s brandishing heavy weapons and blowing away aliens in a fashion that would put Ellen Ripley to shame. People in Hollywood actually looked at this stuff on paper before it got filmed and said, “Yep, good.” Think about that.
I have to acknowledge one fleeting moment of effective levity. A scene which makes reference to the most ludicrous moment in the first movie where Will Smith’s dog, Boomer, miraculously survives an alien napalm attack in a freeway tunnel. You know the one. Emmerich nods to Boomer in his sequel in a moment that will please all those dog-lovers out there who haven’t already fallen asleep or left the theater by this point.
Now to the propaganda. Emmerich’s first Independence Day was an uber-patriotic, even jingoistic celebration of American military might. So it was particularly surprising when the US Department of Defense (DoD) declined the filmmakers’ request for support on the 1996 production. The DoD backed away on the grounds that the film’s plot dealt explicitly with Area 51 and made references to the Roswell Incident, in which a flying saucer is alleged to have crashed on a remote ranch in New Mexico in 1947. The DoD had always sought to distance itself from the flying saucer controversy and, for the most part, had been denying its support to UFO-themed movies and TV shows since the early 1950s. In addition to being tarred with the alien brush, the DoD also had concerns that the first movie was, well, really dumb from a military perspective and could not lend its name to a product that projected a grossly inaccurate picture of how the armed services actually operate at a logistical level.
The DoD’s historical concerns along these lines have long since gone out the window. The Pentagon has collaborated with filmmakers on numerous UFO-and-alien-themed productions from the late-1990s through to present day, including the Stargate TV show, the Transformers franchise, Battle: Los Angeles, and Battleship, among others. While the DoD had no direct involvement in the production of the Independence Day sequel, it did see fit to work closely with 20th Century Fox on the film’s militaristic marketing campaign.
Fox approached the Army Marketing and Research Group late last year, floating the idea that a viral partnership could be mutually beneficial to both parties: ‘We’ll promote you, if you promote us.’ The DoD was only too keen to exploit what its spokeperson referred to as “the patriotic season” between May and July. The resulting adverts, produced jointly by Fox and the Pentagon, focused on military enlistment to defend Earth from aliens, and the Army set up its own website for the campaign.
It’s not hard to see why the DoD would want to associate itself with Independence Day: Resurgence. Putting aside its multi-layered idiocy, there’s much on offer here from a propagandist perspective. The movie depicts a powerful American military once again leading the world to victory against a seemingly undefeatable foe. Even before the new wave of aliens arrives, we’re told humanity has been united by America’s militarism, the world made safer and more peaceful. The film also champions the role of artificial intelligence for Defense applications (a new frontier in American warfare), and, in line with most Pentagon-backed UFO productions since the first Independence Day (which the DoD recognized as a missed opportunity to help shape the UFOlogical narrative and belief system), the sequel fully embraces the modern conspiracy theories surrounding Area 51, reverse-engineered alien technologies, and (without giving too much away) treaties between the US military and supremely powerful alien intelligences. The message to observant enemy foreign powers is as subtly clear as ever: "Don’t mess with us!"
Sadly, Emmerich is set to assault us with a third Independence Day movie a few years from now. It’s enough to make one pray for a real alien invasion. Don’t worry, though, your dogs will be fine.
Robbie Graham is the author of Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood's UFO Movies.