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Old Enemies

Twenty years ago, in “Independence Day,” an alien attack was repelled by David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), a scientist so brilliant that he even knew how to send a virus from his laptop. Assistance was provided by his grumpy father (Judd Hirsch), a Marine Corps pilot (Will Smith), and Tom Whitmore (Bill Pullman), who was the leader of the free world and of the airborne defense. So noble was their effort, apparently, that it ushered in two decades of universal peace: armed conflict among nations has subsided, and the world, in line with John Lennon’s instructions, has lived as one.

Needless to say, this dreary state of affairs cannot be allowed to persist, and the bracing news brought by the sequel, “Independence Day: Resurgence,” is that the aliens have returned, to harvest Earth’s molten core. Who will stop them this time around? Whitmore is now a shaggy ruin with a walking stick and a supply of meds; the current President (Sela Ward) seems decisive, but the film confines her to the fringes of the action. Meanwhile, Smith’s character has died, either because Smith’s agent considered the financial package insufficiently galactic or, more likely, because Smith read the script. The pilot’s son, Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher), is now in the hot seat, though sadly he lacks the firepower of his father’s personality. Rivalry flares between Hiller and Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), a fellow sky jockey, but it peters out after a single punch in the canteen.

In short, it’s up to Goldblum to save the film. (The world, by comparison, is easily saved. It always is.) I will watch him in anything; that stop-start delivery, all ums and hums, combines with his smile—so winning, yet so quick to die—and his buggy eyes to suggest a soul both hyper and hazed-over. You never know quite how he will respond to any predicament, nor, you sometimes feel, does he. The main reason for the success of “Independence Day” was the mashing together of Goldblum and Smith. They were a genuine odd couple—the wonkish ruminant sharing a cockpit with Mr. Congeniality, whose days flew by without a flutter of self-doubt. No surprise, then, that Goldblum seems a little lonely and marooned in the latest venture, which suffers from a nagging case of Smithlessness. There’s nothing here to compare with the eruption of joy, back in 1996, when our heroes hurtled free of the enemy stronghold by the merest squeak, eliciting, from Smith, the triumphal roar “Elvis has left the building.”

The director, now as then, is Roland Emmerich, who, like a constant lover, refuses to tame his devotion; and what he loves is enormity. The incoming mother ship, this time, is round and flat and three thousand miles in diameter, as if the aliens’ deepest ambition were not to exterminate us but to make paella for everyone on the planet. And, if you dig the ship, check out the mother—the queen of the meanies, who rolls up late in the show, gambolling across salt flats toward a school bus full of innocent children. In a way, Emmerich is more fearless than any of his characters, boldly embracing clichés from which other directors would shrink and flee, and unabashed by his old-school craving to astound. Witness the gravitational field exerted by the ship, which can suck buses, cars, and bridges out of a city and whoosh them upward. As a spectacle, that is outdone only by the spooky sight of Judd Hirsch, who hasn’t aged a minute since the last film.

The first “Independence Day” had the gratifying slap of good pop cinema, harmless and weightless; the follow-up is twice as big and half as fun. Even the special effects begin to pale, and some of them, in the closing scenes, feel sketchy and unfinished. Either Fox ran out of time or cash or Emmerich, taking his cue from Schubert, simply threw up his hands and said, “Screw it. That’ll have to do.” In truth, the film doesn’t really end, let alone draw to a cathartic conclusion; it just stops. If you must see it, then at least try to do so, as I did, in IMAX and 3-D. This is known as immersive moviegoing, and what it means in practice is that, rather than watching London being destroyed before your very eyes, you are left with the distinct impression that London is being destroyed midway between your eyeballs. Everything quakes. For the price of a single ticket, I got to experience a two-hour sci-fi extravaganza and had my sinuses drained at the same time. You can’t argue with value like that.

Source:, July 4, 2016 issue

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