Lots of fireworks, little flare

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By BRIAN BOHNERT
SENIOR STAFF WRITER

Twenty years ago, “Independence Day” re-established the science-fiction genre as a force to be reckoned with at the box office.

The image of a massive alien warship leveling the White House in a single blow rendered audiences speechless, and remains one of the most iconic scenes in film history.

With “Independence Day: Resurgence,” the sequel to Roland Emmerich’s 1996 epic, we’re given a convoluted, cluttered sequel that only manages to tiptoe in the shadow of its predecessor rather than break any new ground of its own.

The film takes place a whopping two decades after the great war between humanity and a race of alien invaders. When it begins, the world’s governments have finally achieved peace — there hasn’t been an armed conflict since 1996, and the human race has even managed to harness alien technology to strengthen Earth’s defenses.

But as the film’s tagline states, “We had 20 years to prepare … so did they.”

Sure enough, as the Fourth of July nears — the 20th anniversary of the first attack — the aliens return. This time, however, the extraterrestrial intruders descend upon Earth aboard a 3,000-mile-wide mothership unlike anything the world was prepared to face.

And when the aliens unleash an attack of unprecedented proportions, humanity’s best and bravest are again called to take down the nearly-unconquerable threat.

The first film’s hero, Will Smith’s brash and charismatic fighter pilot Steven Hiller, has passed away. He’s replaced by a younger, less-magnetic stand-in cast as his son, fighter pilot Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher).

Former first daughter Patricia Whitmore (now played by Maika Monroe) is also an accomplished pilot, following in the footsteps of her father, President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman), who also returns as a bearded loon haunted by visions of the impending attack.

Rounding out the cast of fresh-faces is Liam Hemsworth as renegade fighter pilot Jake Morrison. While not a relative of an established character, Jake is a rebellious troublemaker who was orphaned in the 1996 attack.

While it’s clear Hemsworth is being groomed as the man to lead future “Independence Day” sequels, it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to truly stand out on screen. For all his irresponsible and lovable Captain Kirk-esque heroics, the character isn’t much more than a stereotypical template of what Hollywood feels an action hero should be.

A key component of storytelling is giving an audience characters they can relate to, so when something potentially bad happens to them, we care. The five writers credited with penning this flick failed to do that as much of the younger cast falls flat.

In fact, the filmmakers treat some seemingly important characters as disposable set pieces who could be written off at any moment — just for the sake of doing so.

Much of the returning cast manages to recapture some of their magic. The always-charming Jeff Goldblum, who returns as David Levinson, uses his quick wit and quirky behavior to save the film from obscurity. Brent Spiner, who reprises his role as Dr. Brakish Okun, is another stand out.

After spending much of the movie sputtering out nonsense, Pullman’s Thomas Whitmore eventually returns to Earth, so to speak, and attempts to deliver an updated take on his iconic speech from the first film.

Despite lackluster storytelling, “Independence Day: Resurgence” does solidify Emmerich as the king of big-budget popcorn fare. As with much of his work, the film is certainly a sensory experience. The devastation is on a much larger scale, and the aliens are bigger and meaner — much bigger and much meaner.

In one scene, the mothership passes over a heavily-populated section of China and uses its gravitational pull to suck everyone and everything into the air. Moments later, millions of helpless people and hundreds of towering buildings come crashing back down to Earth.

It’s hard to argue against how great the movie would be in 3-D, as many of the climactic action sequences feature thunderous explosions and lightning-fast air-acrobatic shots of pilots peppering the alien queen with heavy artillery.

On top of that, the third act does take an interesting detour to the predictable, paint-by-numbers ending by introducing a new element to the “Independence Day” mythos that leaves the series open for a potential third installment.

Ultimately though, the film’s fireworks aren’t enough to save it. “Independence Day: Resurgence” is hobbled by both its lackluster writing and the noticeable absence of the first film’s biggest star.

If you want state-of-the-art effects and large, creepy aliens, you’ll get them. If you want all that, plus A+ storytelling and characters you care about, it might be best to rent this from the “new releases” bin in a few months.

Verdict: 2.5 stars

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