Back in 2003, I interviewed director Peter Weir on the occasion of his newest film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. That was, all in all, a good action/adventure movie. Based on a well-regarded Patrick O’Brian novel about British Royal Navy life and set on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars, it was rooted in history, had an excitingly palpable sense of oceanic journey, was free of excessively gratuitous mayhem and had involving, complex characters played by such good actors as Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany.
Best of all, it didn’t ask viewers to suspend their intelligence in order to get some thrills — it appealed to something other than the latent human desire to see things explode and humans shot up on the big screen. In other words, it wasn’t Independence Day, Armageddon, Con Air, Godzilla, Deep Impact, Twister, Lethal Weapon and Die Hard sequels, True Lies, et al ad nauseam.
Weir explained to me how he managed to make such an unfashionable film. He and John Collee had spent a full year working on the script, beginning in August 2000.
“Then everything was put on hold because of the tragedy of Sept. 11 (2001),” he said. “It wasn’t until later in September that we kind of staggered back to work that they decided to go ahead. I think they had canceled all the movies about terrorists but were looking for an action/adventure thing, so suddenly this became a plum.”
We tend to forget now that Hollywood’s 9/11 guilt — the Onion famously compared the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon to a “bad Jerry Bruckheimer movie” — produced a cease-fire on using CGI to churn out $100 million-plus films depicting mass urban destruction. Even Bruckheimer, the chief culprit of such films, decided to turn to more benign movie fantasies like Pirates of the Caribbean (and crime series for TV).
Alas, while hardly a flop, Master and Commander didn’t earn the kind of money domestically ($94 million) to make Hollywood clamor for more.
And, slowly but steadily, with time we’ve been seeing a return to the pre-9/11 urban-destruction extravaganzas. The new Battle: Los Angeles is a prime example.
Many of these movies have been disguised as comic-book fantasies (Dark Knight) to avoid being pegged as exploitation of history; Day After Tomorrow and 2012 by Roland Emmerich (the pre-9/11 Independence Day) have been floated as ecological cautionary tales. (A low-budget 2006 indie film called Right at Your Door imagined a terrorist attack on L.A., and barely got released for going there.)
In Battle: Los Angeles, Aaron Eckhart leads a small contingent of badly outnumbered Marines through one ear-blasting, gritty firefight after another with aliens who have wiped out Santa Monica and are moving eastward toward downtown L.A., killing all humans in their way. We follow them on their interminable journey to survive and, maybe, save America.
The story is kept barebones to heighten the action — the movie aims to put you in the middle of a war, rather that to be about a war. The upside of that, I suppose, is it heightens the ultra-realism, as do all the shaky camera movements and terse, minimalist dialogue. The downside is that it drains the film of any ideas.
There are some real-world touches. The Marines are combat veterans of Iraq/Afghanistan; the aliens use drone planes for air attacks. This had me wondering for awhile if the film’s director, Jonathan Liebesman, and writer, Christopher Bertolini, meant it as metaphor for civilian casualties in our overseas wars — see how it feels when it happens to you! But, if so, it’s way unarticulated (as opposed to a “realistic” 2009 film about aliens amongst us that pronouncedly read as a commentary on immigration and apartheid, the South African District 9).
By the way, there’s an honorable tradition of science fiction trying to scare us with end-of-the-world scenarios. Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds — presented as news bulletins — tapped our fears about the Depression and European war threats. A whole slew of 1950s monster movies got at our fear of nuclear war or, in the great Invasion of the Body Snatchers, post-war domestic conformity. To some extent, Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation of War of the Worlds was an attempt to respond to post-9/11 anxieties, although he overdid it with the mayhem and succumbed to melodrama.
Battle: Los Angeles isn’t bad because of its science-fiction element — that’s what’s good about it. It’s bad because it emulates two recent war films that, while praised at the time (by me, among others), in retrospect can be seen to have had a detrimental influence on the art of cinema: 2001’s Black Hawk Down and Spielberg’s 1998 Saving Private Ryan.
While Saving Private Ryan realistically shows the D-Day invasion no-holds-barred (“blood” splatters on the camera lens), Spielberg then goes on to recreate another horrific battle, as if he can’t get enough. Black Hawk Down, produced by Bruckheimer and directed by Ridley Scott, strips away all the complex background of U.S. involvement in Somalia and focuses solely on the struggle by U.S. soldiers to survive an attack.
If these films’ rationale was to make us civilians feel the hell of what our soldiers actually went through, they also allowed us to get off on it by indulging in excess. They created a formula. These films seemed to enjoy staging battles for battles’ sake.And so we have Battle: Los Angeles. It led the box office last weekend with $36 million. I can’t imagine it will do well for very long — it’s arduously repetitive in a Black Hawk Down way, without even the benefit of truth as an excuse. Moreover, current events have quickly overtaken it — watching the misery and horror produced by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan takes the pleasure out of viewing something similar in the name of entertainment.