Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: after twenty years, Independence Day: Resurgence is upon us. Because why wouldn't it be.

To begin with, it really was a great ad campaign. One of the all-time best in the history of summer movies. My younger readers - those born after 1989 or 1990, say - perhaps can't recall what a discernible shift there was that summer, in the kind of movies that were made and the way they were sold. And the shift can be dated specifically, to 28 January, 1996. That was the day of the Super Bowl, and that's when the commercial aired: a simple, blunt affair that laid out the essential ingredients (aliens have come to Earth in giant threatening space ships) and climaxed in the money shot of money shots, with the White House exploding in a slow-motion fireball. Happy Independence Day, everybody!

From that moment till the film's release five months later, the 20th Century Fox marketing team had no choice but to sell the sizzle in the near-complete absence of steak; but they did it supremely well. The summer of 1996 was the season when the purely effects-driven movie came into its own: it was the year of Twister and Dragonheart, among other movies which were sold almost exclusively on the basis of their cutting-edge VFX. Among that class, Independence Day was the undisputed king, dominating the worldwide box office, and winning the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in what I can only imagine was a blow-out. The exploding White House image was everywhere that summer (possibly doubling as a dog whistle: the white-hot purity of the hate that conservatives had for the Bill Clinton administration between 1994 and 1998 was like nothing else in modern U.S. politics, and I suppose that a certain spirit of Schadenfreude drove some of the enthusiasm for Independence Day's central image), and it was clear long before it opened that this would be the film above all films, the one that would define the state of popular culture in 1996 forever after.

It was also clear that the movie was going to be no damn good. And I was 14 years old at the time, precisely in the age window that this sort of movie is designed to appeal to more than any other, and if I could tell that the reason they were only selling the holy batshit crazy amazing special effects was because they had not a single other thing to sell, then I have to presume that other people did as well. And that, above all other things, is the legacy that Independence Day begat to the world: the discovery that you could market a film without even trying to pretend that it was anything other than mindless shit, but if it was mindless shit that looked cooler than anything else out there, you had a giant hit on your hands.

Independence Day was the brainchild of director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin, who were for a short span of the 1990s Michael Bay before Michael Bay came into his own. This was their fourth collaboration: Devlin acted in Emmerich's Moon 44 before either man was remotely prominent, and then wrote the script for Universal Soldier, Emmerich's first high-profile work as a director. The success of this film in 1992 led to their first film as a producer-director-cowriters team, and still by far the best project either of them have been involved with, 1994's Stargate, an action-heavy iteration of the ludicrous theories from Chariots of the Gods, with James Spader out to sea as a neutered movie scientist, and a command of the science of physics than an eighth-grader could outthink. "By far" their best collaboration I said, and I stand by it - it has, at least, fun sets, spooky Egyptian alien designs, and Kurt Russell bringing some heart and soul to his icy military man, as far as he's able. It was thanks to this film's success that Devlin and Emmerich were able to go bigger, more ambitious, and much, much dumber for their follow-up.

Said follow-up is an alien invasion thriller. A really, really simple one: the aliens swoop in on the second day of July, in a year that can be surmised to be in the general vicinity of 2001 or 2002, given that the very young President of the United States, Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman), rose to prominence as a fighter pilot in the Iraq war of 1990. They hover over major world cities, in their 15-mile-wide flying saucers. They use giant blue laser cannons to destroy all of those cities in one shot. The next day, various survivors from the New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. blasts all work their way to the Nevada desert, where the U.S. military has been studying alien technology ever since 1947. From here, the humans devise a plan to stop the aliens before they wipe out every sign of terrestrial life, and on the Fourth of July, that plan is put into practice. In the beats it hits, this is 100% boilerplate, cribbing from God knows how many movies in the 1950s: the most obvious touchstone, if only because of the pride of place given to "Washington, D.C. is destroyed in a cutting-edge effects showpiece" in the scenario, is Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, the 1956 movie with Ray Harryhausen special effects, but I've always found myself drawing the comparison instead to The Giant Claw, a movie about a monstrous bird the size of a battleship in which a scientist keeps pulling cunning ideas out of his ass, and also the whole thing is sort of awful.

Something that Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and The Giant Claw both share, as well as so many similarly-structured '50s genre pictures: a running time well south of 90 minutes. Independence Day, in contrast, is 145 minutes long (and there was a version on home video that was nine minutes longer, which I will never watch for any reason). This is not precisely the source of all its woes, but it's pretty easy to explain why that running time murdered the film: because it is filled up with strangulating scenes of godawful character drama starring unspeakably dull stock character, & not so much with scenes of alien destruction of humans or vice-versa. In fact, what Devlin & Emmerich hit upon was the unholy marriage of the '50s-style sci-fi thriller structure with the bells & whistles of an Irwin Allen disaster movie from the '70s. I had never thought about this before, but having now seen the films in the span of less than a month, I'm gobsmacked by how much Independence Day specifically resembles The Swarm, which is on top of everything the Irwin Allen film you'd least want to copy. Having made so much money by shitting out this monstrous hybrid, Devlin & Emmerich copied it almost note-for-note with their next big film, the legendary box-office misfire Godzilla from 1998, and after splitting from his producing partner, Emmerich has continued to rely on the same basic model time in and time out: The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 are basically just Independence Day wearing different costumes, and the things I've heard about his notorious gay pride botch Stonewall suggest that it might actually be the same.

And hey, once you've hauled up the carcass of Godzilla to compare it to, Independence Day even looks pretty great. But that's a low enough bar for a sick garter snake to make it over. On its own terms, Independence Day is bereft of any but the most rudimentary interest in its characters or the storylines that are woven around the alien invasion. It is, in fact, perhaps even worse than the usual Allen-style "disaster interrupts melodrama" formula, since there really isn't a plot other than fighting the aliens, it's just distended and bogged down by the human beings plugged into the various roles in that fight. In roughly the order that the movie introduces them, our main heroes include New Yorker David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), a satellite technician who discovers the aliens' secret communication methods, and his dad Julius (Judd Hirsch), an acerbic old man who is apparently trying out for the role of Fanny Brice in an all-male Funny Girl, he makes so much with the corny Yiddish humor already; President Whitmore, under fire from the media for his lack of experience and initiative, which is why his wife Marilyn (Mary McDonnell) is in Los Angeles buttering up donors; Whitmore's communications director Constance Spano (Margaret Colin), who is also David's ex-wife, which is why he reaches out to her to share his discoveries; and L.A.-based U.S. Marine pilot Capt. Steven Hiller (Will Smith), currently on the verge of proposing to his stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold girlfriend Jasmine Dubrow (Vivica A. Fox). Secondary figures of limited importance include Gen. Grey (Robert Loggia), the president's expert on space battles; Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), a crop duster who is convinced he was abducted by these same aliens ten years ago; Albert Nimzicki (James Rebhorn), the slimy Secretary of Defense, who wants to use nukes every single time any plan is offered; David's co-worker Marty (Harvey Fierstein), who provides comic relief and dies; and Area 51 scientist Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner) who provides comic relief and dies and is retconned back to life for the sequel.

A lot of people to keep track of, almost none of them interesting on their written merits (Devlin & Emmerich appear to have used up all the character traits they knew after fleshing out David as "science nerd" and "bossy pedant about using recycling bins" AND "still loves his ex-wife"), and only a very few of them spiced up by their actors: the only true standout is Will Smith, in the movie that launched him from "the Fresh Prince, whom most people sort of know by name" to "America's last true AAA iconic movie star", and even he relies on his whole cocky, quippy, always-the-coolest Will Smithisms a bit too much in the film's central hour, while completely blowing his character's one meaningfully big Emotional Scene. I'm also pretty fond of Spiner's attempt to draw something out of his nothing character, playing Okun as overly prone to giddy enthusiasm, the kind of introverted nerd who tries to compensate for it by being unpleasantly eager and smiley. Nobody else is up to much that's interesting, though Goldblum at least avoids embarrassing himself by pitching David as a version of Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park (including, shamelessly, the "must go faster" gag lifted straight out of that movie) whose self-confidence was shaken instead of bolstered by his divorce.

Everybody else is some variety of terrible, though the mixture of bad performance styles is impressive, in its way. We have everything from McDonnell's beaming vacuity as she apparently seeks to charge through a tiny role that serves as a prop in two different other characters' stories (the president's and the stripper's), to Colin's peevish overplaying of everything harsh and unlikable with her character to the detriment of those things which make her "heroic" (it doesn't help that Colin is the one "no-name" actor in the bunch, resembling the version of Geena Davis you get when you have just pocket change left over from paying out for the fiery magic that is Bill Pullman) , to Quaid's cartoon squawking. I have mentioned already Hirsch's fearlessly oversized comic performance, but I think it is worth mentioning again. And then there is the special matter of Pullman, offering a stunningly mirthless turn with no ability to modulate anything in his vocal delivery or squinting facial expressions. He's hard, cold, and crabby, not remotely heroic. As inherently terrible as the film's iconic Big Monologue is - the one that's so myopically Rah Rah America First-ish in the most comically haranguing way that it seems utterly impossible that the director responsible for committing it to celluloid was born in Germany - Pullman makes it worse by delivering it with a snarl in the back of his throat, adding no sense of momentousness to a sequence that's already curiously muted thanks to the blocking.

All of that is on one side of the scale. Oh, wait! I forgot something: the film's crushing lightweight tone. Not only is it rotten to the core with comic side characters - Julius, Russell, and Marty exist solely to provide comedy, Okun mostly to provide comedy, and David and Steven both drift pretty heavily in that direction, more due to Goldblum and Smith's native playing style than to anything else - there's an overriding sense of irrelevance, like Emmerich refuses to take any of this very seriously at all, as though the death of millions of people is an afterthought to everybody who didn't see his wife die in his arms. It is a flippant movie, thick with the '90s tendency towards casual sarcasm, and devoid of a sense of stakes. Okay, so that's one side of the scale. On the other side are the effects, and it's not much, but it's definitely something. The best moments in Independence Day hold up incredibly well, as well as any other effects-heavy movie of its generation: the destruction of the White House has lost none of its impact (nor has the added-in helicopter explosion, seen in the movie but not the original advertisements, lost its ability to distract and annoy), and the Empire State Building explosion is hardly less impressive, though I am no fan of the amped-up slow motion in that sequence. The space effects are, frankly, even better: the first shot of the alien ships in space looks note-perfect. There are some poor composite shots here or there, and generally speaking, when the film switches to pure CGI from some combination of models, matte paintings, and computer-generated effects, its age shines through: sadly, the very last shot of the film is among the most tangibly bad-looking.

But that destruction sequence, it's great stuff, as securely a landmark in the history of popcorn movies now as it seemed like it would be in 1996. Too damn bad that Independence Day makes top-notch action something like its third or fourth priority, far behind the tedious grinding of characters with no brains or souls spitting words at each other. If one desires to put everything on a film's action sequences, it matters that those action sequences dominate it: but after Jasmine barely manages to avoid death by fireball by stepping out of its way, and the film slams to a title card reading "JULY 3", there's really nothing left to be impressed by. That happens 50 minutes into the movie, meaning that the final hour and a half of a movie that exists solely as a vending machine for never-before-seen effects runs out of its only product. Oh, there's a couple of action scenes left, one that mostly demonstrates that Emmerich has seen Star Wars, and another that demonstrates he's seen Return of the Jedi. They're even competently executed, but they come at the far end of a lot of deep down boredom.

In sum, Independence Day is a bloated morass of dismal characters, crappy jokes, subplots and scenes stretched out for minutes on end for no discernible reason, amazingly bad science (I have not brought up the infamous "hacking the aliens with a Mac" scene, because what's left to say? But do also not forget the film's complete lack of the vaguest realism concerning the effect of objects so massive as those alien ships, moving at those speeds, that close to the planet's surface – truly, this is the filmmaking team that decided that Godzilla could walk up behind you like a cat on tiptoes), flavored at far too infrequent intervals with very handsomely-executed action effects which, at their best, cannot claim more than that they do a great job of appealing to the vestigial lizard parts of the brain. It is a garbage movie that might have been mercilessly edited down to a garbage movie that was nevertheless fun to watch - but this is emphatically not fun. It's an utter slog, and there's nothing worse to say about a movie whose entire, solitary purpose in life is to provide mindless, violent escapism.