The best thing about Independence Day: Resurgence is its depiction, however limited, of life on Earth in 2016, 20 years after the devastating alien attack of 1996. Like in Star Trek, the realization of life (and grave threats) beyond Earth, coupled with advanced alien technology that has allowed humanity to solve so many technical challenges, has changed who we are as a people and put an end to war among ourselves.
Granted, this is a future much more like our present than Trek, but there's something to be said for continuing the story and seeing how people picked up the pieces after the credits rolled at the end of an ostensibly feel-good movie that featured the destruction of so many major cities. Despite the (bloodless PG-13) holocaust, humanity has prevailed and apparently figured things out. And they knew that our own challenges must be solved on Earth, because another invasion from above was probably inevitable.
There's something encouraging about that notion, even if you can argue that the creators of this film have cynically and hastily repaired the world merely so they can devastate it yet again. It took more than 10 years to rebuild the World Trade Center site after 9/11 (which itself looked like a horrific real-life version of Independence Day, at least on TV), so the idea here that Earth has healed so completely following the destruction of 1996 sits somewhere between bright optimism and convenient fantasy. (Although let's not also forget that the biggest reason for ground zero's protracted recovery was political. It took years before construction could even reach agreement and then begin — whereas the Pentagon, also attacked on 9/11, was largely repaired within a year. Perhaps in ID4's world, people were able to put matters of such disagreement aside.)
But I'm likely placing way too much importance on such thoughts, while trivializing the images of 9/11 in terms of a movie. The fact of the matter is that ID4 2 (ID5?) only passingly cares about such things, and exists mainly to rehash the first film, while trying to reboot the franchise for a new generation (though the reboot already seems a likely failure given the box-office performance). In that vein, this is not a million miles from Star Wars: The Force Awakens in its intentions. But TFA was able to replicate the magic of its predecessors, whereas Resurgence most definitely does not. Look, the first Independence Day wasn't a great film, but it was an effective and fun mix of summer popcorn sci-fi featuring a visceral (and at the time cinematically new) level of frighteningly realistic destruction.
The problem here, once you get over the initial gee-whiz aspects of life in 2016 (featuring moon bases, lots of futuristic flying crafts, and advanced Star Wars-like weaponry), is that this movie is relentlessly mechanical in a way that has come to typify many summer blockbusters in the wake of the original Independence Day. Boring characters living out movie-cliche storylines occupy a space foregrounded by a plot featuring destruction that has become all too routine.
Liam Hemsworth leads the cast of younger characters (again, following the sequel/reboot format that showcases a generational torch-passing), which also includes Jessie Usher (playing the son of the Will Smith and Vivica Fox characters) and Maika Monroe (as the daughter of Bill Pullman's character), among some others who are largely forgettable, generic archetypes. None of these characters does enough to invest you in their stories or the movie at large. Their presence provides nothing but empty placeholders to give the illusion that there are some people and (lame) stories here.
Most of the major characters also return from the original film to lend to the nostalgia factor, and they are probably the best parts of the movie for fans of the original. Jeff Goldblum does his Jeff Goldblum thing (and is fairly effectively used — until the final act where he's reduced to driving a school bus around a dusty field); Bill Pullman is tortured and crazy but can still rise to the moment and give a rousing speech and jump into an aircraft at precisely the right time; and Judd Hirsch, while even more annoying and superfluous here than in the first film, has somehow managed not to age a day in 20 years. Vivica Fox shows up, but to say the script does little with her is a profound understatement. Brent Spiner's crazy Dr. Okun turns up not dead after all (awaking from a 20-year coma) and has an expanded role that I liked more in theory than in practice.
Of course, there's the issue of Will Smith's glaring absence. Everyone knew going in that Smith wasn't along for this ride (having apparently turned it down after his salary demands weren't met), but what perhaps I didn't expect — and perhaps should have — was how much this film so desperately needed him to be in it. You could argue that the spark that's missing here is precisely the sort of spark that Smith provided in the original, simultaneously grounding and elevating the material. I don't know if Smith could've saved this movie, but after seeing it I do feel it was hamstrung without him.
The plot is serviceable. You might even call it more plot than you might have expected from this type of sequel. Then again, maybe not; I set a pretty low bar in my head. As a matter of necessity, ID4 2 is ready to venture full-on into sci-fi lite, revealing the evil attacking aliens as an intergalactic menace among other aliens that want to stop them. There are dogfights in the sky between our forces and the aliens; mysterious telepathic connections between some of the humans and aliens; some third-rate chess games between the heroes and the evil alien queen; an infantry venture into the mothership; and lots of scenes where it's made clear there's just no way to beat them, even with the tech we've gained from them. Naturally, the only way to beat them is through a specific Achilles' heel that has been inserted by the writers solely to be exploited by the characters — but which makes no sense if they're actually supposed to be an intelligence to be reckoned with. A force this unstoppable shouldn't be vulnerable because of such a loophole, but without the loophole there would be no way to resolve the movie (short of Earth's and humanity's certain destruction, yeah right).
As to the movie's need to go ever bigger in its scale, it's ultimately self-defeating. When the mothership arrives, it's reported as an absurd "3,000 miles in diameter" and it lands on Earth (covering the entire Atlantic Ocean) with a plan that doesn't involve the intentional but rather the incidental destruction of cities. I believe, if I heard it right, that Singapore is sucked into the air by the mothership's gravity and then subsequently deposited onto London. (Although, surely that can't be right, because the geography makes no sense.) The destruction is so widespread as to become indistinct, thus losing all its visceral impact. When the Empire State Building blew up in the first movie, it was like we had front-row seats to something huge and immediate; now we have an aerial view of the destruction of what might as well be an ant colony.
After years of seeing Roland Emmerich do this in his films — from Godzilla to The Day After Tomorrow to 2012 — not to mention all those Transformers and comic book movies over the past decade where cities have been leveled or severely damaged, it just becomes rote and the images blur together. I'm glad the mass destruction here is confined to only a few fairly short scenes, because I was surprised how little impact it actually had. There was something about it in 1996 that worked, but like this movie as a whole, the disaster porn has become gratuitous and redundant.
Oddly, Resurgence ends with the promise of a sequel — one that may never be made. Despite my tepid response to Resurgence, I have a certain passing curiosity in where another sequel could go — a big battle in space, presumably. But there I go again — revealing my susceptibility as a franchise sucker for an enterprise that is banking on my devotion to nostalgia in following it long after I should've outgrown it. I'm not above indulging my inner teenager, but in indulging it I should still hold out hope for a popcorn flick more satisfying than this.