We always knew they were coming back. Using recovered alien technology, the nations of Earth have collaborated on an immense defense program to protect the planet. But nothing can prepare us for the aliens’ advanced and unprecedented force. Only the ingenuity of a few brave men and women can bring our world back from the brink of extinction.
It is twenty years since the aliens attacked our planet and were defeated by a cunning combination of Jeff Goldblum, a heroic pilot and the invaders’ dazzling inability naivety about the basic concept of a computer firewall. It turns out that a distress call was sent out into deep space and now they’re back, presumably having fully assimilated the sacred text “PC Security for Dummies”. The human race has been busy in the interim. Earth’s cities have been fully rebuilt in just two decades, which means that they must have used different builders from the ones we see in west London. Scientists have also salvaged some alien technology so now we have laser guns and assorted new technology to fend off any further pesky alien invaders. There is a female US president and a defence base on the moon, and we still have Jeff Goldblum.
However the alien ship that is coming for us this times is bigger and scarier: “it is projected to land over the Atlantic. Which part? Er, all of it”, which sadly may be the best line in the movie. This being a summer action film, no cliché is overlooked. There are cute kids in peril, along with the inevitable plucky dog. Will Smith didn’t make it to the sequel (maybe he read the script) but we have his son, now a fighter pilot. There is even a pretty Chinese fighter pilot in a nod to the vast potential market for the film in China. Brent Spiner’s eccentric scientist puts in an appearance, as does Judd Hirsch. It is all very familiar, too much so in fact.
Roland Emmerich’s 1996 film worked well, and in fact at one time was the second highest grossing movie ever, so why did this sequel feel disappointing? It is not as if we are expecting subtle plot twists: we know from the trailer that aliens attack the earth, there will be some destruction and heroics, and we have a pretty shrewd idea that mankind will somehow pull through (this is Emmerich direction, not Ingmar Bergman). The difference between the two is that the first film spent the time to develop the characters so that we cared about them, at least a little, when they were put in danger. The sequel jumps straight from establishing shots to battle and resolution, essentially missing out the “second act” in the three-act structure that so many movies follow. The action scenes are fine, and there are a few corny lines to keep the audience smiling while mayhem erupts, but the plot has some holes as gaping as the hole the alien ship’s laser beam makes. However it is mostly the lack of character development that reduces this to mere cartoon-level action. Bring some popcorn, as you will need something to occupy your time.