Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Criticizing Critiques: Battle: LA edition

In my rather long review of Battle: Los Angeles, I asserted that most contemporary reviews are of dubious quality, merit, and rigor. I think that professional, dedicated reviewers can be the worst offenders in this field. Many of the review web sites, newspaper features, and tv spots that I watch on occasion fall into terrible review pattern of: summarize the piece; critique the piece; make a recommendation to see or not see the movie. While this may seem like a valid review format, it is inherently flawed because it assigns objective status to the reviewer's perception of the film, it assumes, but does not acknowledge, that the reviewer's audience is aligned with the reviewer himself, and--most arrogantly of all--it deigns to prescribe or proscribe movies without giving decent qualifications for those who have conflicting values with the reviewer.

I can understand how this could happen. Specifically, being tasked with watching a broad spectrum of movies could easily wear on good rigor for the review process. You're subjected to repeated bland, shrill, pointless, feckless, plain old bad movies. Movies that you resent prosper, and the gems that thrill you don't get a proportionate amount of attention. Of course at some point your reviews will become less objective and more about promoting movies you label 'good' and antagonizing the rest.

That said, I stand by my assertion that a good review should look something like my 'odor', 'beef', 'gravy', and 'cheese' format. Whenever you begin to publicly evaluate something, it's only fair to yourself and your audience to analyze your starting conditions, but few reviewers do it consistently. The distinction between 'gravy' and 'cheese' is also important, since it's all too easy to assume that your evaluation is or should be normative.

Science fiction is particularly susceptible to these faults of bad reviewing. It's a flashy genre with a long history of strongly influential works within its own genre of which those who don't consider themselves fans will not be cognizant. But because science-fiction in the post-Star Wars universe is generally identified by the popular media of making a superficial cash-cow, everyone and their fifty year-old mother presumes to understand science fiction without feeling the need to be informed on the genre or devote any particular analysis specific to the genre. And this is doubly true for Battle: Los Angeles. So, without further ado, here's my critique of the criticisms of Battle: LA.

Or, Eat Poop and Die, Ebert.

Most of the fixations of poor reviews of Battle: LA have been touched upon by Roger Ebert's review, so I'll refer to his review to structure the apologetics of this article. I won't link to it--like goose droppings during a spring walk, his stuff's easy to find, hard to avoid, and is best not worth pointing out.

First of all, let's look at Ebert's conclusion to his review. In no uncertain terms, he says that anyone who likes Battle: LA is an idiotic, undateable guy. Wow, Ebert just throws the 'cheese' out the window. Forget objectivity, forget self-aware full disclosure. Roger Ebert is here to save America's women from dating sci-fi fans, the raving douche-bag. As if intrinsic awkwardness wasn't enough of a hurdle for nerds, they also have to battle Ebert's sway over eligible bachelorettes' dating patterns. Oh wait, that's not much. Never mind.

So what concrete, evaluative things does Ebert have to say about this movie--this threat to American progenation? Well, apparently he doesn't like the alien design, the alien technology aesthetic, the camera work, the fact that it's a war movie, etc. I can almost hear him throwing in an addendum: "and it's too loud, now get off my web-page before I start rambling about how games can't be art, but I want gamers to care what I think anyways..."

So Ebert has a problem with the alien design of Battle: LA. Let me point out that Ebert has given good reviews to Star Wars and Independence Day in the past, both of which are responsible for some offensively stupid alien designs. Really, how stupidly precarious is the bio-mechanical suit design in Independence Day? It's clearly an example of a European artist going nuts making a Freudian super-phallus without pondering what utilitarian decisions might go into making a suit. And don't forget Mamow Nadon--the hammerhead, one of the more glaringly stupid aliens of Star Wars' almost offensive cantina scene. I mean, we get a sequence of like a dozen close-up shots, each of a different alien, all to show us, what? How bizarre this place is? How thoroughly amalgamated bar culture is on Tattooine? This isn't good story-telling. If we're supposed to get a sense that it's normal for all these characters to be gathered in one place, then we shouldn't be bombarded with conspicuous close-ups to establish that, and if it's supposed to show how weird and threatening they are to farmboy Luke, then we should see them doing some threatening things--not chortling on alien reefer and making hand puppets to each other. I mean, could that scene work with people in a movie set in Chicago? No.

Anyways, I've digressed too much. These are the depths of alien design that Ebert is willing to accept. However, being confronted with an alien soldier that has an implanted weapon, a bulbous head, and jaundiced-looking skin is too much for him. Never you mind that it is strongly implied by the movie that this alien may be genetically engineered or modified to be the twisted creature he is, thereby making it a powerful statement about the dehumanizing potential of technology--especially as applied to a military industrial complex. These sorts of issues are critical components to almost any post-golden age science-fiction, but they have received little attention in popular sci-fi tv shows and movies. But forget about all that. I mean, Roger Ebert thinks he looks ugly. Scrap that alien and give me a friggin' Ewok, man.

Similarly, Ebert thinks that the alien vehicles look clunky and cluttered. He thinks that alien reentry vehicles--which crash into a hostile planet, are then reassembled, and used to paste the squashy humans--should adhere to 1950s Chevy aesthetics. I mean, if one were to look at a 1950 Chevy 2 door classic and a military humvee or LAV, you'd clearly recognize that the Chevy is the superior piece of technology. Considering that the man begins his review lancing at Battle: LA by calling it an insult to 'science' and 'fiction', I think it's fair to expect a little rationale and/or creative imagination from him. But no. I mean, this guy insults the hyphen for a cheap punch-line. Har har har, good one, Roger. They insult the hyphen between science and fiction, because science-fiction is hyphenated.


He goes on to say that Battle: LA represents another in a long line of shaky camera war cinema that he doesn't understand and views as a digression from the pinnacle of action-movie cinematography: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The mere juxtaposition of the two films beg the conclusion that Ebert's cheese has slid off his cracker. Any of the movies in the Wyatt Earp genre design their action to fully realize a small, brief, and intense moment of conflict between less than a dozen men. There should be no realm of comparison between that and an army group-sized conflict across a city which represents one small theater in a global military campaign. When the characters are supposed to be confused, panicked, and ambushed at any given point in a movie, confusing cinematography is its own point and purpose. That's thematic, Ebert. Heck, it's so easily identified and registered by an open, un-constipated audience member that it shouldn't even register as being part of a normal person's higher-order reasoning. You get confusing perspective and hyper-kinetic action because everyone is confused and people die without warning. Hrm.

And Ebert has a problem with it being a war movie, in that the dialogue is terse and to-the-point, and that the characters are stereotypical soldiers. First, let me agree that the dialogue is overly-elegant. That's right, elegant. Meaning efficient to accomplishing the task in a few words.

English major time...

Elegance is one of the primary purposes of language. Most ideas we use language to communicate can be inferred by less precise means. 'I want food' can be communicated in other ways, but not necessarily in the second it takes to emit those three syllables. In the military, a lot of language becomes even more streamlined--more elegant--out of dire necessity. You might say 'you two look inside that room for any enemies and eliminate them', but a combat commander need only say 'two check door on the left'. When the frame of experience is reduced in scope--you don't need to communicate feelings or abstract thoughts, just concrete, tactical information--language can become very elegant within its intended field.

Now, if you're not invested in the mood of the movie, good military language can be jarring, boring, and uninspired. Battle: LA, being a well-researched distillation of military culture in a science-fiction setting, suffers at times from that effect--if you aren't tensely engaged in the moment, then watching Aaron Eckhart order his marines to check the rooms of the police station won't mean much to you. But that clumsiness--especially at several moments critically lampooned by reviewers--is often the point.

Light spoiler: Aaron Eckhart's character, Sergeant Nantz, is being gripped in a hug by a boy no more than ten years old whose father just died. Earlier in the movie, the boy showed a faint connection with Nantz, and now that he is in the midst of ultimate loss, he passes by two women--potential mother-figures--and latches onto the heroic man whom he best identifies as a father figure. Nantz, choked up and gruff-but-sensitive, tells the boy he needs to be 'his little marine'. That line has been chewed up as symptomatic of bad writing--but it elegantly elaborates on the character, for the industrious, actively engaged viewer. Nantz is unmarried, he has no kids, and he's served in the Marines for twenty years. This moment encapsulates the soft tragedy that this man--such a heroic inspiration in the realm of the film--is completely disarmed in a moment of familial intimacy. In a moment where comfort is necessary, the best he can tell the boy is that his emotions are valid, but he needs to be...the highest thing to which Nantz himself can aspire: to be a marine. In the next beat, Nantz confronts one of his soldiers with the fact that he does, in fact, feel remorse over the soldiers he had lost in a nebulously described mission prior to the movie. He unflinchingly admits that he'd rather have died, and that he'll never forget them in the florid sort of language that brothers-in-arms apply to one another. In that moment, it should be clear that Nantz identifies himself as a father to his soldiers, and that, like a good father, he tries to balance doing what's best for them and urging them to do what's right. It makes the moment with the boy a special realization for Nantz and the audience that he has already given his life for the cause in the most real sense of the term.

Now which is more elegant? The preceding paragraph or 'it's okay to cry, Hector, but right now I need you to be my little marine'?

End spoiler, but continue English major rant about literary analysis: Battle: LA is riddled with stereotypes, true. So is every single work by William Shakespeare or Victor Hugo. Stereotypes are a useful tool for story-telling. They allow the audience to draw more familiarity with a character than they would otherwise have given the page or screen time devoted to them. Merely identifying that something employs stereotypes says no more about its quality than saying that a dish has salt in it--the use of those stereotypes is critical. So, in Battle: LA, we have the academically proficient-but-untried new lieutenant, the guy planning for his wedding, the soldier with a chip on his shoulder about his brother's recent death, and the leader with a reputation for being a hazard to his men. You know what else has this exact same list of so-called stereotypes? Band of Brothers, you frakkin' uppies! And that, if you'll recall, is not only a critically acclaimed military drama, but also based on real stories of a real wartime military unit. There was Henry Jones--the naive West Pointer played by Colin Hanks. Lt. Welsh consistently talked about marrying Kitty when he got back home, even saving his parachute for her wedding dress. Bill Guarnere flouted orders and antagonized a superior officer while battle-grieving over his dead brother. And Ronald Speirs was rumored to have shot one of his own men, dozens of prisoners, and had a reckless battlefield philosophy.

These characters certainly work in Band of Brothers, but are openly assaulted as glaring faults in Battle: LA. Well, one of the issues is proximity, certainly. We're acquainted with the stereotypes in Battle: LA in a much shorter narrative span. That's a fair point, but I doubt that's the real issue for most critics. I think most critics expect stereotypes to always be turned on their head in some hackneyed third act twist that imperils the plot and/or the upright protagonist. Maybe if Battle: LA had Lockett try to kill Nantz halfway through the movie, suddenly turning an invasion movie into some kind of angst-ridden Moore story. Which would've sucked so bad as to strip the ruge off the story.

Oh, and Ebert dropped a strange comment about Aaron Eckhart's fine performance, saying that he made an especially handsome marine, but that his acting chops were irrelevant to the movie. The second part of that comment is totally baseless, as Eckhart really drove the subtle emotions of the movie as well as the overt ones. But the first part of that comment...I can't decide if that's Ebert being homo-phobic or homo-erotic, but either way I don't like it.

Ebert's long since decided that the best way to fight his nearly complete irrelevance to modern media is by becoming the lawn-chair codger yelling at kids to get off his lawn. The sad thing is that the senile old frakker is too demented to realize that his lawn is just an apartment terrace, and no one wants to go there anyways. But, he represents an influential standard of reviewing that has been propagated throughout the  media, much to the detriment of good, rigorous, and objective criticism.

Obviously, I loved Battle: LA. I don't think that limits the nature of my critical awareness, my education on media or aesthetics, or my right to reproduce. Despite Ebert's addle-pated ramblings. You can even dislike the movie, provided you give good, legitimate reasons that you don't withhold from worse movies, like Independence Day. It is entertainment, after all. Watch what you like, but watch why you like it, too.

So keep your eyes open for such one-sided, unthoughtful reviews. Remember that a good review will generally give someone enough honest information to decide for themselves whether a movie is right for them or not. The reviewer should not dictate the terms of your entertainment, and he shouldn't be blessed with your readership when he openly insults anyone with a contrary viewpoint.

Unless you don't like The Lord of the Rings. Then you should get junk-punched.


  1. I haven't seen Battle: L.A., so I won't comment on the film itself. This has got to be one of the funnier pieces of writing I have seen in a while, though, Ben - nice critique of Ebert as inordinately influential for his ignorance on scientific, military, and, to a real extent, literary aspects of films. It made me laugh. Also, "Watch what you like, but watch why you like it, too"...nice.

  2. Hey, thanks. Glad that my love affair with Battle: LA is providing some entertaining reading, even to those of you who haven't seen it (yet).

    And to be fair, it's not that Ebert is the only reviewer who has these lazy tendencies when it comes to reviewing--it's just that he's a convenient flagship-cum-train-wreck upon which to fixate. I spent many a year watching his reviews with Gene Siskel, and I learned long ago to put no stock in his personal opinions on movies and really just focus on the movie clips and sparse actionable details he lets slip through amidst the rhetoric.

    Two tangents I forgot to include in the post: first, I like aliens with heads that look like woks. Really. Secondly, not knowing exactly what happened to earn Nantz his infamous reputation in the movie is artfully deliberate--it's something which he describes as a lose-lose situation, where there was no right answer. To include a concrete description of the event would invite the audience to label his actions as either right or wrong in the situation and judge him in a course of action about which we're supposed to feel ambiguous or even dubious.