Monday, December 26, 2011

Thoughts on the film: Battle Los Angeles; How this film could have been great

I've spoken many times to anyone who will listen about how much I love Pitch Black. The reason I love Pitch Black so much is that you think you're going to watch a silly B horror movie about some people fighting off monsters on another planet, but what you get is a philosophical treatise on what it means to be human and the nature of sacrifice. I love when a film surprises me by being way better than it needs to be.

Most horror movies are about the scare, and Pitch Black had some scary moments, but the story was a delivery system for an intelligent conversation, not just scares.

So flash forward a number of years and here I am, on Christmas Eve Day, watching Battle Los Angeles. This looks like it will be a pretty generic action movie, mostly about effects. The majority of action movies released these days seem to be delivery systems for explosions.

And this one was no different. It paid some lip service to character development. (The black guy is not a stereotype because he wears glasses! And his nickname is Specs!) It tried to get me to care, but it didn't take advantage of opportunities to elevate the material into something to make me think.

Minor Spoilers Ahead.

There's a scene on a roof top where that hot redneck from True Blood tells another soldier how he wonders if these aliens get scared. What if they're just like us? Then Aaron Eckhart observed that the aliens have their weapons welded onto their bodies or something, as if they are 24/7 soldiers. Okay, we're getting somewhere. We can run with that. We're fighting these creatures, but we're just like them. Could we become them? Were they like us once? Is there a way we can get to them and talk this out?

No, they didn't really go that way.

There's your now cliche scene where the humans find an alien and drag him into the base to examine him so we can learn how to fight the enemy. They decide to stab it in lots of places to find out what kills it.

Now, here's what I was thinking. Hey, aren't they basically torturing that thing? And nobody there has a problem with it?

There's a veterinarian in the room. She offers to help by staring at them enthusiastically as they stab the creature with various pointy tools. It would have been neat if she had spoken up. Maybe, instead of torturing it, we can find a way to communicate with it? I'm not saying she'd be right, but she'd be on theme. There would have been some interpersonal conflict. There would have been a moment for our characters to argue about strategy, about what defines us, separates us from the enemy. They're the bad guys, but we're torturing a prisoner. Is that okay?

I'd love to have had that conversation with this film, but that's not what happened. They stabbed the thing until they finally found its weakness, then went on blowing shit up, restricting the interpersonal conflict to cliched gripes about who's in command. Michelle Rodriguez is tough. The black guy wears his glasses. The guy with the pregnant wife.... well just that, there's a guy with a pregnant wife. Have you ever seen a movie about a bunch of soldiers at war and one of them DIDN'T have a pregnant wife?

I guess this was supposed to be about Eckhart's journey as a leader, but then the rest of the movie should have been about the nature of leadership or something. Let's see the aliens have chain of command issues. Let's see the civilians question the leadership decisions. Maybe Eckhart's character questions the decisions of the higher ups.

The film really did give us some character arcs, but the main reason Eckhart's didn't work for me is because I didn't buy it. This guy's men think he's a douchebag, that he left some guys behind and is a horrible leader. From the second he steps onscreen, I know that isn't true. So I don't feel any real conflict, just a misunderstanding that will get cleared up eventually.

But I digress.

The point is, the script needed to pick a thesis and stick to it.

I tell the kids all the time: Once you pick your thesis, the entire essay revolves around it. So if you say a hero is someone who  likes to wear purple underwear, then every paragraph needs to go back to that purple underwear. It doesn't need to veer off and talk about spikey hair, it needs to be about purple fucking underwear. Your theme is your thesis. If your thesis is the nature of humanity, then by god, every choice you make in your story should reflect that theme.

That's how you go from just okay to great. Don't let your script be nothing more than a delivery system for explosions/scares/sex/laughs. Let those elements help your story be a delivery system for a question we can think about when we leave at the end.


  1. Anonymous8:21 AM

    A member of a previous writing group always stressed that each scene, no matter how short, should always move the plot ahead, develop the character(s) and show the theme in action.

    It ain't easy, but I try to do that.

  2. My other beef with the movie - SPOILERS - is that the soldiers figure out how to defeat the alien invasion. The movie was marketed as a grunt's-eye view of an alien invasion - no grand strategy scenes, no generals, no presidents, no scientists, just some random everyday soldiers slugging it out street to street with no idea what's really going on. A World War II movie except with aliens. And then they just can't resist having these be the guys who stop the invasion. I mean, most WWII movies didn't end with the soldiers capping Hitler (until Tarantino, anyway). So I felt like they set up this really great, original premise, and then punked out on carrying it through for the traditional Hollywood ending.

  3. Great advice about one's thesis. Gotta say, though, I liked Battle LA. Not sure why, really. Just do.

  4. TNT's Falling Skies took a much more nuanced and interesting approach - similar to the path you suggested - in dealing with their captured alien. They had the advantage of having many more hours to work with, but could have easily fallen back on the same tired torture/experiment route.

    Instead, they were able to explore more about each of the human characters by showing them the choices they made and the way they came to feel the way they did about trying to communicate or just trying to figure out how best to kill the invaders.

    It's not a great show, but it's far more thoughtful than most big-budget explosion fests.

  5. Allow me to rant on J. Edgar which was so fucking bad it's a crime.

    Okay so you have a closeted homo cross dresser, egomaniac who may have been involved in MLKs death and John Lennon's and so many other amazing thing and you don't use ANY of that until 1:45 into it? And then it's weak. Say what?

    Instead we get a whole lot of annoying VO expo in throwaway non conflict scenes, no developed homosexuality in an unfocused narrative about the least interesting part of this man's life. I can't believe Leo did the movie. An hour in at the Arclight, three people in my row were snoring. And it was ALL the scripts fault. For shame writer. Worst movie ever.

    This all boils down to where/how you start your story.

    Shoose later, earlier or any place other than the weakest, most expected starting point. It's crucial.

    Battle LA. Start with the captured alien. And I do like your ET suggestion. Save the alien is nothing new but it would've helped.

  6. Your first paragraph is gold.


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