There are so, so many things wrong with Independence Day: Resurgence. It's hard to decide where to start, but I think this is the one that pointlessly annoyed me the most: it is a massive waste of potential. Not, of course, the potential of being the 20-years-later sequel to Independence Day, one of the biggest, burliest popcorn movies of the 1990s, and also a dimwitted sack of crap. Of course the sequel to that movie would have everything stacked against it, quality-wise. But the concept beaten into shape by the five-man team of writers - including producer Dean Devlin and director Roland Emmerich, reuniting for the first time after their reign of terror ended in 2000 with the box office failure of The Patriot - has some actual meat on its bones.

The idea is that it's 20 years after Independence Day, believe it or not, which is now clarified to have definitely taken place in 1996. Which is awfully hard to square with the actual content of Independence Day, but let's not start down that path. The 2016 of Resurgence is not, however, our 2016: it is a very nearly unrecognisable 2016 that came into being as a result of salvaging the technology from the alien invaders of '96, and enjoying the international unity promised by then-President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman, one of many actors returning to the fold, with a giant beard). In fact, there has apparently not been a solitary human-on-human war in two decades, one of many details we're either told or permitted to glean visually in the early minutes of the new film. Other details of note: Washington, D.C. has been rebuilt as a city of magnificent skyscrapers dwarfing the rebuilt, replica White House (which, striking imagery notwithstanding, there's an actual reason the White House isn't surrounded by skyscrapers...), and the rebuilt Washington Monument, its every brick bearing the name of a victim who died in the '96 attacks. Africa was the only continent where the aliens hung on after the events of 4 July, 1996, with the rest of the world's powers apparently not giving a shit about what happened there (quelle surprise!), meaning that a powerful nation, the Republic of Umbutu, has risen out of the blood of alien-killers, and this nation is in possession of the world's only intact alien warship. An international coalition led by the U.S. and China has used the alien technology to build ships able to travel between the Earth and its moon as a relatively ordinary occurrence, and there's even a base on one of Saturn's moons, though so far the only apparent colonisation that has gone on is to build defensive weaponry and the support teams necessary to operate them.

To certain kind of sci-fi buff - you're reading a review written by such a creature, FYI - this is already enough to get one's salivary glands working double time. What kind of riches are there to explore in this world coequal with our own, only exposed to inordinately intense evolutionary pressure in the last generation, and brought to life with a very generous studio tentpole budget? How do they live, how do they think, and how much of a memory do the young people rising to adulthood possess of the ancient days of the early internet, grunge rock, Seinfeld, and cell phones as a luxury object, after an era-defining event like our own 9/11 scaled up a thousandfold? Independence Day: Resurgence opens with a beautiful tease of these questions, and that is the only thing it ever does. By the end of the first ten minutes, we've seen almost all of the world-building we're ever going to see, as Emmerich and friends immediately proceed to ram the film into the most safely generic action/sci-fi beats they can muster up. Resurgence doesn't copy the original ID4 all that much, to its credit - though the places where they overlap are glaring and shameless - but that's mostly because it's busy copying dozens of other films about Earth defense forces and so on and so forth.

But where it counts, anyway, the films are identical: once again, the world is purring along until a few erratic mishaps suggest to the people who notice them that something is amiss; something turns out to be a flying saucer of hilariously overwrought size. 3000 miles of saucer, this time, flying so close to the moon that it literally scalps the top off of it. But does this without knocking the moon horrifyingly out of orbit, or causing inconceivable disruptions to Earth's gravity, because 20 years might have taught Devlin and Emmerich a lot, but not enough for them to crack a goddamn physics textbook. At one point in fact, a character notes with horror that the 3000-mile-across metal object settling atop Eurasia "has its own gravity!" Yes. Yes, it fucking well does.

The aliens' mission this time is confusingly expressed: maybe it's a rescue mission, or maybe it's revenge, or possibly they're just doggedly finishing what they couldn't get to last time, draining the planet's molten core for fuel. At any rate, it involves one gigantic setpiece in which admirably realistic CGI cities are mushed up in a way that the film's narrative doesn't clarify even remotely: apparently east Asia is being rolled up by a giant alien ship like a pile-driver and then dumped on top of Europe, and this takes what appears to be three minute start to finish. Also, as we find towards the end, it manages to do this without dislodging the Eiffel Tower, which has now survived two city-destroying events.

It's so confusingly depicted that Resurgence can't even succeed at the one thing that its predecessor quite rousingly managed: detailed, exciting disaster porn. But this is, in faith, not much of a disaster movie; shockingly so, given Emmerich's career-spanning affection for the genre. It's much more of a military sci-fi adventure, awfully like Starship Troopers, only played without that movie's wit. This makes sense - what we see of the world suggests heightened militarism as a direct result of the events of '96. It does mean that all the new movie has to offer as far as spectacle goes is a bunch of dogfights with space-type fighter planes, none of it particularly compelling in terms of design or choreography, though I admire the general clarity of the editing, the pile-driver sequence aside. The film's climax, which I will not spoil, is finally pretty good, the one even modestly imaginative and new action concept that the filmmakers come up with, but they've done such a good job of squandering goodwill by that point that it's hard to enjoy.

Populating this world of aerial battles and deeply routine "how are we to science our way against the aliens?" narrative beats are a host of characters with almost nothing going for them except that in a few cases there's a kind of nostalgia for them that carries over - hell, when was the last time that Pullman had a proper role in a major movie, anyway? So we've got Whitmore, who is one of many humans to suffer some form of psychotic affliction or another as a result of lingering alien telepathic contamination; we've got David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), now the head of humanity's anti-alien research; sadly, we've also got David's father Julius (Judd Hirsch), toned down considerably and stuffed into the film primarily because there wasn't a reason to leave him out. There's a lot of that: the late Robert Loggia even got dragged in to film a one-shot, non-speaking cameo, which is almost better than poor Vivica A. Fox, who gets an actual part, but one that hasn't even the most glancing relationship to the plot, and who is dumped off a collapsing building to motivate another character. Fuck, they even brought back Brent Spiner's Dr. Okun, and he was dead last time we saw him. They also make him retroactively gay, which I think in the addled mind of Roland Emmerich is some kind of statement of equality, and compared to the director's Stonewall, maybe it even is. By the way, you know who doesn't come back is Will Smith, and that's a plot point and everything, and there's not a moment where you don't find yourself wishing that Resurgence had anybody half as charismatic and energetic as Smith. Because none of the returning cast can be bothered, and the newbies, well...

Top-billed is none other than Liam Hemsworth, one of our blandest "leading men" that the industry can't make happen, as the hotshot pilot Jake Morrison (there's always a hotshot pilot), who has a jagged sense of self-doubt; other fresh faces include Jessie T. Usher as Dylan Hiller, step-son of Smith's late Steven Hiller, and also the hotshot pilot who hasn't forgiven Jake for almost killing him at hotshot pilot school; standing in between them is Jake's fiancée, Dylan's dear friend, and Whitmore's daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe; I imagine the peals of derisive laughter Mae Whitman must have erupted into when they asked her to return to the role must have been a great delight [edit: EXCEPT THAT SHE WASN'T EVEN ASKED what savage motherfuckery was that, you repulsive assholes]). Jake as a best friend, Charlie (Travis Tope), who is the most abrasive twit in the universe, and who falls in love with sexy new pilot Rain Lao (Angelababy). David, meanwhile, gets to cross swords with an old flame, forensic psychologist Catherine Marceaux (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is investigating the psychic fallout of the aliens afflicting men like Whitmore and the newly-uncomatose Okun, while the film conveniently fails to acknowledge that David's entire arc in the last movie revolved around reuniting with his ex-wife, who was sadly not played by a famous person and so has not been invited back. There are a few others, I cannot be bothered to type them all out. Every last one of these people is terrible (even Gainsbourg, which breaks my heart completely), though Hemsworth is the biggest liability, owing the film's transparent, desperate need for him to step right into Smith's shoes. It is a task that no established actor in that age bracket could be counted on to do, but Hemsworth is uniquely unqualified for it, with his vanilla pudding features and screen presence.

All told, the human element in Resurgence is so excruciating that it's enough to make you crave the paint-by-numbers action scenes like a desert oasis. ID4 already had stock characters written indifferently and performed flatly, but at least they were generally played by actors who had interesting physical presences. Gainsbourg notwithstanding, the whole population of new leads - the backbone that the film wants to base its crudely-foreshadowed sequel upon - have the slick looks and dead eyes of underwear models wearing flight suits. It's bad enough that the action is forgettable and the story insipid and derivative; spending time around the new cast of characters is actively unpleasant more often than not, and the film containing them is accordingly grating and joyless, when it is not merely trivial. The net result is the worst movie Roland Emmerich has ever directed. And Roland Emmerich, I wish to remind you, directed the 1998 Godzilla.