Warning: spoilers abound for Independence Day, which you’ll have watched by now if you were ever going to, and Battle: Los Angeles, which you’ll not watch if you have any sense. Which apparently, I don’t.
I’ve been watching films at an increasingly insane rate for the past sixteen years, and in that time styles and fashions have changed. Cutting edge directors push the boundaries of what’s possible on film, dramas get more intense and big explodey films get bigger and explodier. But over that time, it feels as if the quality of the smaller films has maintained and, if anything, improved, but somehow the biggest films, with the occasional Inception-shaped exception, seem to have been declining in quality. This left me doing something on Sunday that I’d never thought possible: pining for a big invasion movie of the quality of Independence Day.
Yes, apparently the giant cheesefest that is “aliens get defeated by a Big Willie and The Fly” is a work of unparalleled mastery. So how did it come to this? I went to watch Battle: Los Angeles, almost despite my better instincts, and was absolutely mortified by the quality of what was served up. If you’ve any sense, you don’t go into films like this with high expectations, but I was completely unprepared for the joyless, emotionless drivel that was the excitement free zone of B:LA(h), ultimately about as enjoyable as having my teeth pulled out. Through my arse. By a blind man with a rusty pair of pliers.
The comparisons with Independence Day are natural, mainly because the plot of both is identical. Here it is.
The Plot of Independence Day / Battle: Los Angeles (delete as appropriate)
Aliens arrive on Earth, having not made a prior appointment
Aliens start ripping shit up big style
A brown dog appears, and then encounters mild peril
The Earth types fight back a bit
Initially it doesn’t work
A man gives a speech about how we should all just get on with it
A weakness is found, and the aliens are defeated. Huzzah!
I’m not attacking B:LA on the grounds of a lack of originality, for Independence Day itself is just another spin on all of the alien invasion stories that have been around since War Of The Worlds and before. But if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, no matter how many times you’ve done it, and Independence Day turns out to be a shining example of how to do it right. Battle: Los Angeles, on the other hand, is a guidebook for how to make your audience feel like it’s been slightly and unpleasantly violated through its eyes.
1. The marketing campaign was a work of genius
If you want to make an eye-catching trailer, then you can do worse than blowing up the White House during the Super Bowl. The teaser campaign was perfect, amping up anticipation for months, and then the full trailer thankfully didn’t give anything away – if only trailers these days kept as much of the surprises to themselves. But if giant alien nasties blowing things into tiny pieces is your thing, then the marketing certainly promised that.
Where B:LA got it wrong: A film that couldn’t even make up its mind as to what it was called for long stretches (is it World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles? Battle: LA? Close Encounters Of The Blurred Kind?), the trailer is actually a sliced up synopsis of the film, playing out every single thing that happens, but in two and a half brown, blurry minutes. (Track back, and the teaser trailer was just the smaller version of that, and the Super Bowl trailer was the 30 second version. It’s like the Russian doll of giant brown alien tedium.)
2. The characters actually have, you know, character
We don’t ever get life stories about most or all of the characters, but they are clearly defined, from the most prominent to the least. It’s a clear demonstration of how little work you sometimes need to sketch out supporting characters, but the main cast, which still runs to 20 to 30 parts, all get a decent part to play, making this feel a well populated blockbuster. The typical disaster movie template is followed, with the characters starting off separated and gradually making their way together, but each gets just the right amount of on screen back story.
Where B:LA got it wrong: Pictured above is Erick Avari from Independence Day. He has roughly two lines at the start of the film, one of which raises a mild chuckle. He gets more character development than anyone in Battle: Los Angeles. Crucially, we are only introduced to one of the groups of people at the start, who get literally one line each in an attempt to make them interesting (spoiler: it doesn’t work), and then a second group of soldiers turn up who we haven’t met at all, so they actually get zero development.
3. The actors may not all be good, but they are at least interesting
Yes, we’re looking at you, Randy Quaid. And possibly also you, James Rebhorn. But mainly you, Randy Quaid. But with close to 100 speaking parts, if there’s one you don’t like, don’t worry, there’ll be another along in a minute. Independence Day follows the disaster movie template pretty well, but that means its near two and a half hour running time covers plenty of ground with character arcs-a-plenty.
Where B:LA got it wrong: Maybe it was an attempt to streamline and keep things efficient, but the only person with any real development is Aaron Eckhart’s character, and he did or didn’t do something in Iraq which means some people died and some other people in the film have a grudge against him, then they think they’re right to have a grudge, then he shows them his true colours. Bridget Moynahan’s character arc consists of being a veterinarian, Michael Pena’s arc consists of dying – slowly – and Michelle Rodriguez does nothing but advance the plot when she arrives. Criminally, all of other character set-ups at the beginning, limited as they are to one scene, or in most cases one line, are completely forgotten about when the aliens arrive – in other words, about ten minutes in.
4. There is a story, and it has a proper structure on which to build – and then destroy!
The mark of a well constructed movie is when all of the component parts come together successfully. Independence Day does very well in creating a three act structure, marked out by the three daily title cards of “July 2” to “July 4”. This allows for a July 2 where everyone goes about their business, then gawps at the giant flying saucers for a bit, a July 3 where everyone comes together and gawps at each other for a bit, then a July 4 where they collectively kick some alien ass, and everyone who’s satisfied by giant spectacle goes home happy.
Where B:LA got it wrong: It’s amazing how you can take what’s basically the same story structure and screw it up so completely and utterly. Battle: Los Angeles tries to cut straight to the action by cutting down the first act to about ten minutes – all this means are much longer stretches of interminable people running around in uniforms and shouting at each other, then firing guns ineffectively. A lot. You’ll be delighted to hear, I’m sure, that the rest of the film consists of this and precious little else.
5. If you’re going to make your dialogue cheesy, at least make it memorable
Independence Day does a pretty good job of being an ominous alien invasion thriller with a hint of camp for the first 50 minutes. Then Will Smith gets in a plane, takes out an alien, and the tone of the movie
subtly shifts suddenly lurches into a much brighter, breezier blockbuster, where we feel it’s OK to kill aliens while spouting one liners chiselled out of finest Gorgonzola. “Now that’s what I call a close encounter!” is still memorable fifteen years on, and plenty of the dialogue gets your attention, even if it has to be pure cheese to do it.
Where B:LA got it wrong: If you’re going to pack your movie with clichés, then at least make then funny. Or dramatic. Or at least memorable. There are a few hoary lines trotted out about marines never quitting, and Bridget “I’m a veterinarian” Moynahan making her entrance, but I defy anyone to remember more than two lines of dialogue a day after seeing the film. Great movies make you want to quote them; great trashy movies actually have a similar effect. Pretty much all of the dialogue here is just trashy.
6. The designer goods on show are fabulous, darling
Take a bow, Patrick Tatopoulos, who designed the look of the alien creatures, creating two designs so effective that director Roland Emmerich decided to use both. The film has a grand and epic sweep and, no matter what else it’s doing, always manages to look good.
Where B:LA got it wrong: Not only do the designs look and feel staggeringly unoriginal, the fact that Los Angeles appears to be made of dust, so every time one of them kicks off they get so shrouded in the stuff that you can’t really see them anyway. The final alien ship had the staggering achievement of not only reminding me of The Matrix Resolutions, but also making me wish I was watching that instead.
7. The effects put the special into special effects. Special.
One of the last movies to be made extensively with models (in fact, holding records for the amount of model work which will likely never be broken now), Independence Day created a giant spectacle, but like any great showman wanted you to be in awe of what it was creating. So shots are well framed and structured and the aliens feel genuinely big and threatening (at least until the camp kicks in).
Where B:LA got it wrong: In an attempt to give the feel of immersion of being in with the troops, all of the invasion footage is shown on TV rather than being seen for real. Consequently it looks grainy and poorly shot. We then get one panoramic shot of Los Angeles in flames anyway, which means we might as well have seen the rest for ourselves. Everything else is shot in brown, in close up, and fails in every possible sense to look interesting. Even the marines look alike most of the time; given that two are black and one’s a woman, that’s also some going.
8. The sound of music is crucial to the overall ambience (no, not that one)
Independence Day had a cracking score by David Arnold, who made the most of the alien invasion moments and beefed up the attacks with a superb orchestral score. He’s since gone on to do top British work including five Bond movies, homegrown movies from Hot Fuzz to Made In Dagenham and themes for Little Britain and Sherlock. It wouldn’t be the same movie without his score, which is as enjoyable on its own as it is being the soundtrack for the film, always the mark of a good score.
Where B:LA got it wrong: Brian Tyler churns out a workmanlike score, which you could replace with the sound of your own humming and it couldn’t fail to be more interesting. His CV now has three Faster and Furiouser films on it, as well as two Final Destinations and The Expendables, each more forgettable than the last. Who is he again?
9. It deals with its aliens the right way – with bullets and missiles, but they had it coming
Independence Day is cheesy, but wears this with pride. It does manage to make its alien threat credible, not only in the giant invasion scenes, but in the one on one scene where it uses Commander Data from Star Trek to tell everyone what he’s up to. Quite rightly, when the alien then starts picking on President Bill Pullman, the army chaps whip out their guns, and take him down. If these aliens had moustaches, they would be set to automatic twirl.
Where B:LA got it wrong: They capture an alien, then try to understand its weaknesses by taking bits out and punching them until they find which bit needs stabbing to kill it, effectively torturing it to death. Probably standard practice by some rogue elements of the US Army, but it does actually make you sympathise with the alien, especially given that the marines spend the rest of the movie shooting indiscriminately at anything that passes by and failing to have learned from this in any way.
10. It’s easy to see why it was so popular – because it was easy to see
Given the massive scenes of destruction, and massive plane vs alien combat scenes, this whole movie could have been a mess, but Independence Day is keen that you keep following the action at all times, so it’s always completely clear who’s shooting who, and who’s where, at all times. The number of action movies in the past ten years that haven’t learned that lesson is quite frightening.
Where B:LA got it wrong: It’s almost impossible to discern at most points what’s actually going on, and never does it quicken the pulse at any point. Imaging watching someone else play a video game which simply consists of running about, shooting and shouting. Then imaging watching it really close up but through a thick gauze while your eyes are half open, and you can approximate what it’s like to watch this.
11. Who knew the end of the world could be so exciting?
Independence Day certainly knows how to go for a finish, wringing tension out of each set-up until the last second, and repeatedly putting its lead characters back into peril just when they’ve got out of it. You do get value for money, though, with over a dozen such sequences across the running time, and this is one movie that’s never dull.
Where B:LA got it wrong: It’s always dull. But more than that, it makes poor choices at every turn, missing opportunities for big set pieces, the one which might be interesting (getting a bus along a freeway, then having to abandon it and descend to the next road down) making Speed 2 seem interesting by comparison. Not content with that, B:LA goes a stage further and puts kids into the mix of what’s basically a war movie, so they spend almost their entire time on screen screaming in terror. Dull, but nonetheless extremely uncomfortable.
12. It wouldn’t be possible without a little help from Johnny Foreigner
Independence Day does pick off the major landmarks with astonishing regularity, and manages to showcase a worldwide range of both things being blown up and also plucky supporters getting involved to help, including the British chaps helping out in Iraq. What ho!
Where B:LA got it wrong: If you weren’t told the film was set in Los Angeles, you probably wouldn’t know. Or care. The final ignominy for this absolute turkey is that it’s so anonymous, it could have been shot in a field in Louisiana. (Which, of course, it was.) And the less said about the fact, as seen on a news report, that the aliens blow up London Bridge the better…