Spoiler Alert - we win.
It’s been 20 years since the original Independence Day. It was released Fourth of July weekend in 1996, and became a huge summer hit. It told the story of a random group of people brought together during an alien attack. Simple enough – but insanely watchable due to the amazing effects and great cast who were just charming enough to really make the audience care about the characters and get wrapped up into the story.
This movie picks up 20 years later. Similarly to the first movie, the beginning is loosely connected stories to introduce the characters as they prepare for a huge celebration to commemorate the victory 20 years ago. Dissimilarly to the first movie – there are way too many characters here, and several of them are unnecessary.
Humanity is almost completely united, a bit overconfident, and has spent the last 20 years readying for the aliens to return. Area 51 has become a huge base with an alien prison. After all, when all their ships crashed in 96 after we destroyed the mothership, we had to put the prisoners somewhere. From what I could tell, they’ve basically been comatose for the last 20 years. The President is prepping her speech. Pilot Jake Morrison is working on installing a huge cannon on the moon that will help defend us, should the enemy return. Jake is important to the story because he’s engaged to Patricia Whitmore, daughter of former president Whitmore (who seems to be going a little crazy) and now aide to current President Lanford. Dylan Hiller (son of Capt. Steven Hiller – the hero of the first movie), is leading the ‘legacy’ squadron of fighter pilots and they are preparing to head up to the moon base to fly the flags of the united countries for the ceremony. Choppily added in to this is a backstory that involves Hiller being angry at Morrison for almost getting him killed during a training mission – something Hiller is particularly sensitive about, as it is stated that his father was killed on a test flight training mission.
On top of that, David Levinson (the other hero from 96) is traveling to Africa to meet the warlord who has been leading his people in a ground battle with the aliens for the last 20 years, since one of their ships actually landed there prior to the mothership being destroyed years ago. Floyd Rosenberg (no idea what his job is – some sort of federal paper pusher?) and Catherine Marceaux (psychologist) are there as well, and Dikembe Umbutu – the warlord, tells them they’ve been able to win the ground battle by realizing you have to kill the aliens from behind – as the foot soldiers are still in their larger, tentacled bio-mechanical exo-suits. Levinson and crew head inside the ship and realize it sent out a distress signal. At the same time – the prisoners suddenly wake up and start screaming.
Just as you’re still trying to wrap your head around all the character development from the beginning (wait, who was that one guy? Why are we paying attention to him?), the moon base gets contact from something coming towards it. Paranoid, and not listening to Levinson – they shoot it down, even though Whitmore and Levinson state it was not from the same species they are at war with. Morrison uses his ship to pick up an item that was in the ship, and then go pick up Levinson. As a huge ship shows up – large enough to have its own gravity. It is zooming past Saturn, totally messing up its rings. It has a big time shield, so it destroys all the weapons we had in place both on the moon and around the earth. During this rampant destruction – all kinds of obvious landmarks are destroyed, people get wiped out – and the president and other big-time execs are all wiped out – so suddenly General Adams (who seems to be in control at Area 51) becomes president. Hiller and his squad head down to earth. The ship – about the size of a continent – settles over the earth, and starts to drill, because of course – they want our core to power their ships.
Everyone reconvenes at Area 51 and attempts to come up with a plan while Dr. Okun (who has been in a coma since the alien used him as a communication method in the first movie) wakes up and starts to go a little crazy. None of the plans are particularly good, but basically they figure out that they won the first time when they destroyed the mothership, they killed the ‘Harvester Queen’. Since these aliens are more insect-like, they figure that there is a queen in the mining ship clinging to earth, and if they can kill her – they can wipe out all the other aliens. Great plan, but the queen realizes that the thing they got from the first ship that approached the moon is a sphere from another race, and she’s all about getting to that, so she comes after them.
Okun gets the sphere loose, and Floyd accidentally opens it – and it starts telling everyone how it is a species that has evolved to really only be computers – and its running a ‘refugee planet’ for other species that have been displaced by these ‘harvesters’ wiping out their planets. The sphere is convinced it’s too late, once the queen gets a hold of it – all hope is lost. To prevent that, Morrison, Hiller and squad fly into her ship to try to destroy her, but of course; that was a trap – so they crash and have to steal some alien ships to fly out. Levinson and Okun and all decide to replicate the signal the sphere makes and lure the queen out onto the salt flats so they can take her out. A good enough plan, but the queen is surrounding herself with a swirling vortex of her ships – including Hiller and Morrison. Eventually, they get her – rescuing the sphere, and cause all the other ships to crash. Oh – and rescue David’s father Julius as he’s driving a school bus full of kids (worst forced storyline ever). The sphere then decides humans are pretty great after all and asks them to come help train all the other refugees so that they can wipe the Harvesters out of the galaxy. Get ready for the next movie.
Like the first one, this is directed by master-of-disaster Roland Emmerich (Stargate, Universal Soldier, Godzilla, 2012, Day After Tomorrow), and produced by Dean Devlin. It’s not nearly as strong as the first one, the setup is more choppy – and the new characters are not nearly as charming as the previous round. It’s got potential – and it feels like it just comes up short of what I wanted, but does deliver here and there.
The movie looks great, but honestly, the worldwide CGI disaster has gotten so old at this point that my brain just checks out at those scenes “Oh, London is getting destroyed again”. In the first movie, it was still new – now, we’ve seen it in almost every summer movie since then. When the destruction is so large scale and so animated, you really write it off, and don’t become invested. It is clearly an attempt to top the first movie, but in doing that – it just ends up distancing the audience, whereas in the first movie, it pulled the audience in. Honestly, I could have done with tighter action and less worldwide destruction. The story in the first movie also was strong and brought the audience in – here, it’s so overwhelming that it doesn’t really have the same intimacy the first one did. The strongest part of the movie is once again the cast. I personally missed Will Smith a whole bunch, I think the movie desperately needed his charisma – but hey, he was finishing up Concussion and starting Suicide Squad, so it didn’t really fit his schedule. Did he make the right call? That remains to be seen (no, no he did not). That charisma is lacking here, several of the new characters feel under-committed and tepid. What the original had going for it was that most of the actors were over-the-top enough to match the story/onscreen destruction.
- Liam Hemsworth plays Jake Morrison – he’s a pilot who is on some sort of punishment detail on the moon after his theatrics in trying to get the lead position for the legacy squadron, during which he almost killed Dylan. We know the aliens killed his parents the first time around, and we know that he’s Patricia Whitmore’s fiancé. But aside from that, he’s flat and uninteresting.
- Jessie T. Usher plays Dylan Hiller – now, why they didn’t use Ross Bagley who played Dylan in the first movie and is still acting, is a little beyond me, but hey – whatever. Usher is a little more charismatic, but really has nothing to work with in terms of story aside from a hatred of Morrison. He doesn’t seem to have any issues with attempting to live up to his father’s legend, which could have been interesting.
- Maika Monroe plays Patricia Whitmore – again, why didn’t they use Mae Whitman who played her in the first movie? She used to be a fighter pilot like her father, and flew in the legacy squadron, but she’s working for the current president now, trying to convince Morrison to be good while waiting out his stint on the moon. She actually was interesting – apparently she gave up flying to help take care of her father, who is slightly insane after having the aliens poke around in his head. Honestly, if Hemsworth’s character wasn’t in the movie, and she was given a slightly larger role – I think the movie would have been stronger.
- Angelababy plays Rain Lao – a member of the legacy squadron whose uncle runs the moon base. Again – nothing really given to her in terms of story or character, and just having Morrison’s partner lust after her doesn’t count.
- Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Catherine Marceaux; a French psychologist who beats Levinson to Africa to continue to study the effects on the minds of those who have been in close contact with the aliens, who communicate mostly by telepathy. It tends to really mess up humans, and then they have lingering after effects and telepathic headaches when more aliens show up. They are also all drawing the same symbol, so she’s all about finding out what that means. The backstory of a previous romantic encounter with Levinson was useless and unnecessary.
- Sela Ward plays President Lanford, and she’s all tough all the time and decides to shoot at the sphere despite warnings from several people that it was not from the same race and could be on our side. She does pay for that decision – but not without a tough one-liner.
- William Fichtner plays General Adams, and he’s pretty great, just like he is in everything. I wish he had a little more to do here than just listen to everyone and make decisions.
- British actor Deobia Oparei plays Dikembe Umbutu, and he really stole every scene he was in. What would be a fascinating spin-off idea is to see the 20 years or so when he and his people were fighting that ground war against the aliens while they were mining in Africa. He’s started to translate their language, he can sometimes hear them in his head, he knows how to kill them, he took over after his father did a poor job of leading…this dude has the best backstory, and is easily one of the most interesting characters played with just the right mix of seriousness and over-the-top-ness by Oparei. I’m still upset he got killed on GOT, but hey – at least he’s got other stuff happening.
- Nicolas Wright plays Floyd Rosenberg, and he’s almost the opposite of Umbutu’s character – made all the more obvious since they are pretty much paired together for the movie. His backstory is so uninteresting that I have legitimately forgotten what his job was and why he was with Levinson in Africa. He gets slightly more interesting as the movie goes on, but only because he continues to try to prove that he’s useful, and mostly fails.
- Judd Hirsch plays Julius Levinson, and while he was humorous in the first movie, and helped to ground and personalize David’s character, here, he feels completely useless. He’s totally shoehorned into the plot – reading and selling his memoir at a senior home, then fishing on his boat when the mothership lands, then joining up with a bunch of kids whose parents are dead – resulting in him being in the school bus for the final fight. He just wasn’t used well, and honestly could have been removed from the movie without losing anything.
- Vivica Fox basically cameos as her character from the first movie – Jasmine Hiller – who is now a doctor. Which is great, since she was unnecessarily a stripper in the first movie. She’s there to worry about her son when he goes on training missions.
- Bill Pullman plays Former President Whitmore, and does a great job of being totally insane and worried for the front half of the movie. He’s convinced they are coming back, and does give a short speech in this one that is not nearly as good as the previous one, and then a big time beard-shaving triumphant moment as he gets ready to get back in a plane.
- Brent Spiner plays Dr. Brackish Okun, and again – lightens up the movie tremendously with his exuberance. He’s been in a coma for the last 20 years, since the alien used him as a talking-device. Suddenly, when the mother ship shows back up, he wakes up – and helps analyze and work with the sphere.
- Jeff Goldblum is the very best part of this movie and basically carries the majority of it. He once again plays David Levinson, and is still the smartest dude around, and is working on understanding the aliens to be better prepared for their inevitable return. Connie is nowhere to be found in this movie, despite them finishing the last movie together, and instead it is implied he had a previous relationship with Catherine.
Overall, I’m honestly not sure what I thought about it. I simultaneously loved it and hated it. There are parts that are great (most of them Jeff Goldblum), and parts that are terrible. I was happy that there was some inclusion of hand to hand ground combat with the aliens, in the first movie – it was mostly aerial dogfights. The story wasn’t bad, and I’m interested to see what the sphere has in store for the future. It could have been tightened up, cut out some of the useless parts and characters (Hemsworth, Hirsch, Fox, Wright and Gainsbourg could have all been removed) and strengthened some of the action – and actually made the action tighter, and I would have loved it. Also –Will Smith – it really needed Will Smith.
6 out of 10 – not terrible, but not great. We’ll see what comes next. I did like the alien queen, she was pretty nifty – but again, would have been even more impressive if she had not been ruined for me by the trailers. Get it together, Hollywood marketing people.
Bonus – 1997's Starship Troopers bugs – because if you’re going to battle alien bugs…have them be big time practical effects.