Back in the spring of 1996, I was a junior in high school, and I was intrigued by a very short but extremely effective movie trailer: July 2nd, they arrive. July 3rd, they attack. July 4th is…Independence Day. And a lot of things blowing up. It was as simple a concept as you could have, and yet it was all I needed to be absolutely stoked to see what “Independence Day” had to offer.
Back then, there was really no internet (although I was a frequent patron of America On-Line and its chat rooms), and even though you could watch entertainment access shows to get a glimpse into a movie you were into seeing, you mostly had to wait until it came out and see it for yourself before you really knew all about it. When I went with a group of friends on opening night, I didn’t even know who was in it.
That film experience to this day ranks as one of the best I had ever had. I wasn’t born yet for the first “Star Wars”, and I was very little for “Return of the Jedi” (which I still loved dearly, even at my young age). Throughout my childhood, I certainly had great movie experiences. But for some reason, “Independence Day” stuck with me. 1996 was a great year for geeks, during a period of time when geekdom wasn’t a thing. No one catered to us. We didn’t have numerous conventions that we could attend and make like-minded friends or have “nerdgasms”. But we did have “The X-Files”, which had just switched to mainstream Sunday nights and became popular, a “Dr. Who” TV movie (no matter how hard I try, Eric Roberts cannot be wiped from memory as the Master), and “Mystery Science Theater 3000” released a full length feature film in theaters.
So in the middle of the summer comes “Independence Day”, surely a retread of sci-fi yarns we’ve seen before. But the audience I saw it with lapped it up like popcorn butter, and all of us were cheering like crazy by the end. It was patriotic, bombastic, and a feel good action film. What more could you want? Well, it was fleeced by critics, and maybe your parents too–but it made a killing at the box office, and everyone I knew loved it. Myself, I saw it 3 times in the theater and even bought a tee shirt of it.
20 years later, we have a sequel. A long time coming, or far too late? Well, I never really thought the first one needed a sequel. It wrapped everything up and let us celebrate the victory against the aliens. It was satisfying. But after 20 years, you get nostalgic. And that’s what I wanted from the sequel. Just nostalgia. Doesn’t need to be great, doesn’t need to be better than the original or blow my mind. After all, the first movie was released during one of my most cynical periods of life–and yet I still loved it. So I couldn’t be that let down by this, right?
Well, let’s get into the plot first: 20 years after ID4, the earth, and America, is thriving again. It looks like we’re using the alien technology for vehicles and space related engineering, and we’ve picked up the pieces and are right back on track–and maybe in an even better position than we were. There are a few casualties: former president Whitmore (a disheveled Bill Pullman) looks to be suffering from an early onset of dementia. Captain Hiller (Will Smith) is dead, killed in a test exercise. And Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner) is in a coma–wait, wasn’t he dead? Yes, he was clearly killed by the alien who took over his brain back in the original film.
OK, so now he’s in a coma and actually survived. Then, he wakes up, and starts having visions again. Whitmore experiences the same thing, along with an African warlord (Deobia Oparei) who had close encounters of his own when the first alien attack happened.
Apparently, these aliens are coming back with a vengeance. But it looks at first as if they send a homing device to a space station. Two pilots, Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) and Dylan Dubrow-Hiller (Jessie Usher) are stationed there and when the device is seemingly destroyed, it sets off the aliens to come back to earth. Unsure of what the significance of the device, Madam President Lanford (Sela Ward), asks David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) who is now in charge of Area 51 to come back and help stop the incoming invasion. But Levinson wants to check out this device, which could be a key into why the aliens are attacking us again.
Meanwhile, the aliens do attack–sending a giant mothership crash landing into our planet along with a queen and many, many soldiers.
From there, the film is a real spectacle, with whizzing lasers and explosions. The plot itself gets a bit muddled, and there are so many characters to keep track of, we get lost in the shuffle, trying to remember whether we should care or not what happens to them.
David’s father Julius (Judd Hirsch) makes a triumphant return, now an “author” of a book called “How I Saved the World”. Judging by his book tour headlining at a nursing home, it doesn’t look to be that much of a best seller (so who published it?). His plot includes saving a group of kids and ending up on a school bus getting chased by the space invaders. I think this may be the first time I’ve seen Judd Hirsch in a car chase. Even though it’s a bus.
There are things to like in the film: the chemistry between Hemsworth and his buddy Charlie (Travis Tope, who grows on you) is cute, and better than the chemistry between Hemsworth and Usher, who should have been reminiscent of David/Steven from the first film. Unfortunately they don’t share enough screen time without those pesky aliens interrupting everything to enjoy each other’s company. That and there’s a dubious subplot involving Hemsworth’s character Jake accidentally almost killing the young Hiller–which could’ve been scrapped and probably made for a smoother transition into these characters liking each other. That would’ve helped the narrative a little. I did like seeing Goldblum and Hirsch reunited, and it’s always great to see Brent Spiner. Jake also has a love interest, Patricia, Whitmore’s daughter (Maika Monroe), who is also a pilot. Their story also leaves something to be desired.
Overall, the film is overstuffed and almost claustrophobic in how much it tries to pack into its two hour running time. If I were a 16 year old seeing this now, I’d probably be disappointed and deflated from sensory overload. Then again, that’s probably what a thirtysomething would’ve said about the first film, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Maybe it just depends on which part of your life cycle you end up on in whether you can enjoy a movie like this. Of course this is a sequel–but it’s not like the original film was all that original.
It is an experience. But it’s one that you already had 20 years ago, maybe better, and maybe you don’t need to try and recreate it. That’s probably what I would’ve told the filmmakers on this one.