“Listen up: They’re going for our molten core,” a commander briefs his team of elite fighter pilots in Independence Day: Resurgence, Roland Emmerich’s two-decades-later sequel to his own 1996 summer smash hit. Later, another highly placed doomsayer warns that if the approaching megaspaceship continues at its current velocity, “It’s going to cut the planet in half.” Asked for the go-ahead to unleash the full power of the nation’s military might, Madame President (Sela Ward) issues a decisive yet cryptic command: “There will be no peace.” Does she mean that she refuses to back down until the invading alien force has been conquered or simply that henceforth denizens of Earth should look forward to living in a permanent state of unwinnable war?
Walking out of Independence Day: Resurgence after a raucous Thursday night showing (the movie was not screened in advance for critics)—hell, walking in—it felt as if those Cassandra-level prophecies had already been fulfilled and were becoming truer by the second. The Earth’s molten core—our gravitational center, our essence, the unseen point that holds us together—really is under siege. If the increasingly Manichean battles in global politics continue to escalate at the rate they have these past few months, we may indeed “cut the planet in half,” dividing it into irreconcilable and angry factions: the haves and the have-nots, the leavers and the stayers, those who struggle to adjust to a rapidly changing world and those who struggle to keep it from changing at all. As William Fichtner, playing a general far down the line of presidential succession who seems a bit too keen to get his mitts on that swearing-in Bible, puts it in a grave address to the listening world: “What we do in the next 12 minutes will either define the human race or end it.”*
It takes slightly longer than 12 minutes for the Earth’s population to address its alien-invasion issues in Independence Day: Resurgence. This is one of those summer blockbusters in which multiple endings succeed one another like newborn aliens emerging from their parent creature’s exoskeleton—a recurring image whose scariness has been blunted by countless post-Alien reimaginings of what seems to be a strangely unbiodiverse intergalactic ecosystem.
When you get right down to it, the Earth that Madame President and her equally steel-jawed underlings are trying to save is a simpler and happier, if considerably duller, place than our own. Twenty years after the near-annihilation of the planet—never, except perhaps in Emmerich’s apocalyptic fantasy 2012, have so many famous world monuments rammed into so many other famous world monuments—the advanced technology left behind by the invaders has been put to wise use in the service of humanity. The horror of that day—commemorated in an early shot of a huge granite pillar engraved with the names of the dead—has united the Earth’s population as cooperative denizens of a peaceful high-tech Utopia, with all nations coming together as one to share in the benefits wrought from what at first seemed an unmitigated tragedy. Must be nice.
President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman), who rallied the world to action with an inspiring speech and some fighter-pilot derring-do of his own in Independence Day, is now an enfeebled shell of himself, a gray-bearded shut-in subject to PTSD and panic attacks. His daughter (Maika Monroe) is also a crack pilot, but she’s given up that demanding career to care for her disturbed father (oh, and write major speeches for the current president, because that’s a job that totally allows flextime).
Since the attack, computer scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) has been attempting to create a defense system against any such future disaster. But when the aliens show up this time, it’s in a ship 3,000 miles wide. The brillianter-than-everyone David is stymied not only by the imminent arrival of a hurtling disc larger than North America, but by the unexpected presence of slinky bohemian scientist Catherine Marceaux (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a specialist in the runic symbols left behind by the aliens. David and Catherine, it seems, have knocked boots at many an alien technology conference over the years, so it’s clear there will be some sexual tension layered onto the already anxious planet-saving situation. Not content with just one romantic subplot, maximalist supreme Emmerich also throws in hunky ace pilot Jake (Liam Hemsworth), who’s engaged to Monroe’s fighter pilot–turned-speechwriter, and naïve, boyish Charlie (Travis Tope), Jake’s sidekick since childhood who falls hard for Rain Lao, a young Chinese pilot he barely knows. (Maybe he was seduced by the name of the woman who plays her, a lissome Hong Kong–based model and actress billed only as Angelababy.)
The subplots proliferate madly, with whole new groups of characters introduced half or even two-thirds of the way into this two-hour movie. Judd Hirsch once again plays Goldblum’s father, who for some reason carries a waterlogged copy of the book he wrote about the first invasion on a solo fishing trip. When his excursion is interrupted by marauding space warriors, he flees the impact zone with a carful of orphaned siblings he meets along the way. Eventually they also save a school bus full of children that, in a visually striking and utterly silly sequence, gets chased across the bright-white salt flats by an angry giant insect. A merchant ship full of sailors, whiling away their final moments on Earth by getting hammered, is unexpectedly summoned to action. A tentful of Middle Eastern nomads gather around a small TV to watch to the news, doing their part to represent the severely underpopulated-seeming world Pullman and company are busy saving.
There’s more! Will Smith, the charismatic star of the first Independence Day, is seen only in the form of a patriotic portrait on a White House wall, but his character’s stepson, Dylan (Jessie Usher), also a fighter pilot, has assumed his stepdad’s heroic mantle—even if Dylan’s main purpose seems to be trading putdowns and punches with Hemsworth’s Jake, a reckless daredevil whose hot-dogging antics once nearly cost Dylan his life. Brent Spiner, completely unrecognizable from his days as Star Trek: The Next Generation’s melancholy android, plays a survivor of the original attack who’s been in a coma ever since, tenderly cared for by his male partner in what may be the first normalized image of a long-term gay partnership in a mainstream blockbuster. It’s possible Emmerich threw this storyline in by way of doing penance for Stonewall, his 2015 picture that was slammed for its cisgendered insensitivity and obliviousness to the role of race in the movement. (Emmerich’s recent defense that “Stonewall was a white event” has done nothing to endear him to those who protested the movie, which at any rate sank quickly out of sight.) But that gay relationship, quickly sketched in though it was, provides some of the few dramatically engaging moments in a movie overburdened with sentimentality but short on recognizable human feelings.
The disaster sequences themselves—of which there are many, placed at regular intervals but disconnected from the story, like operatic arias—have a dreamlike and weirdly exhilarating quality that’s quite different from the plodding wham-bam destruction of the average action blockbuster. Sometimes the mayhem is deliberately comical, as when a moving moraine of alien-ship wreckage stops just short of rolling over the White House. (“They like to get the landmarks,” one character observes of the cloud of flying debris that was once London’s Tower Bridge.) But that wry, self-aware tone drops away in another set piece: As the massive 3,000-mile-wide spacecraft approaches, it pulls objects, buildings, and people off the surface of the Earth and into its own gravitational field. Rather than watching from the ground as the world above them collapses, the pilots from whose point of view this scene is shot look down from their windows and see the world falling up: a startlingly lyrical image of apocalypse that suggests not so much the end of days as the rapture. We should all be so lucky.
*Correction, June 30, 2016: This article originally misstated the position of William Fichtner’s character. He plays a general, not the vice president. (Return.)