The Pitch: Independence Day 2: Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the White House…
The Review: Remember 1996? It feels like a more innocent time now, when a director could blow up the White House without making the audience feel slightly uncomfortable. The events of September 11, 2001 not only had a profound effect on the world at large but also on the world of action cinema, and the excesses of action cinema of the previous two decades being replaced with the more forceful, intimate approach of the likes of the Taken movies. One other media event that 9/11 undoubtedly had a significant impact on was the TV series 24, which started less than two months after the Twin Towers fell. It also epitomised that more brutal manner, even as began more and more to embrace old school excess in its later seasons. A memorable series of episodes in season 7 saw terrorists from an imagined African nation take over the White House in an effort to further their cause; it seemed a concept ripe for a big screen makeover, and in 2013 we’ll get not one, but two, groups of terrorists taking down the White House.
Part of the reason 24 felt the need to invent African terrorists was the lack of real world threats, as sadly there are no longer convenient superpowers likely to invade at a moment’s notice. Bad guys of choice these days, in a topical move which will hopefully date this film in decades to come, are the North Koreans, and there’s a Korean flavour to the threat placed on the President’s home address. President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) is playing host to a delegation from the south of the peninsula when his residence comes under threat, and with the vice-president also at the talks, the taking of hostages leaves the Speaker Of The House (Morgan Freeman) in charge and quoting the standard non-negotiation speeches. Their only hope appears to be a Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), removed from the President’s personal detail after an earlier tragedy but who just happens to be in the right place… at the wrong time.
Olympus is a curious mix: the first act, including the titular falling, has very much the po-faced seriousness and thumping aggression of Noughties action films. The terrorists themselves have a fairly foolproof plan to get in (i.e. brute force), and don’t skimp on the bullets in their way through the front door. Once there, what they find is almost a relic of the Cold War; this relic, however, is of the Schwarzenegger or Stallone brand, that spouts one liners and deflects bullets by sheer weight of charisma. I believe that Gerard Butler has proven, beyond any reasonable doubt, that he’s capable of making some fairly dreadful romantic comedies; it seems he’s better at making moderate action movies, but certainly this one would have been more enjoyable if it had taken his lead and followed a lighter tone. Consequently it feels as if Butler’s in a different film to everyone else for long stretches, but you’d much rather be watching the one he’s in than the one you end up with.
Apart from Butler, the other thing that seems to be left over from the Nineties is the effects work, as anything in the sky or in broad daylight looks like stock footage from an almost pre-CG era. Much of the rest of Olympus is an exercise in how to assemble a top quality cast and then absolutely waste them, an exercise conducted with almost military efficiency. In addition to Freeman and Echhart, everyone from Oscar nominated talent including Melissa Leo and Angela Bassett to Golden Globe winner Dylan McDermott and even twice Fangoria Chainsaw Award nominated Radha Mitchell get nothing to do, and each and every one conducts themselves with the enthusiasm of someone being forced to work to pay their overdue gas bill. Increasingly Training Day looks like an aberration on Antoine Fuqua’s CV, with the tension and drama of Olympus more in line with his other works such as Shooter or King Arthur. Based on this evidence, it would be worth someone taking a punt on Gerard Butler if you’ve got a cheesy Nineties action movie burning a hole in your desk draw, so long as you invest it – and the supporting cast – with more energy than this managed.
Why see it at the cinema: If you can overlook the early shoddy CGI, then there’s a reasonable amount of spectacle, and Butler’s performance is likely to elicit a good deal of laughs or groans for you to share.
What about the rating: Rated 15 for strong bloody violence and strong language. It’s reasonably sweary and quite stabby, and more satisfying in that sense than the 12A action movie that seems to have become de rigeur these days.
My cinema experience: A reasonably full house at the Cineworld in Bury St. Edmunds. A fairly standard amount of trailers and adverts, no sound or projection issues to speak of, and the audience by and large seemed to enjoy themselves.
The Score: 5/10
The Review: Ever since War Of The Worlds became the seminal work on the subject 100 years ago, science fiction writers and movie makers have been fascinated with the idea of alien invasion. It’s been a rich feeding ground for active imaginations, but ever since special effects became affordable (even if you had to spend eight figure sums on them) it’s been more about the biggest bang for the buck, as the allegorical and satirical traditions of writers get lost in favour of giant spectacle. I like Voltaire and Swift as much as the next man – actually, if you were in the audience for this I’d hazard a guess that I like them much more than the next man there, no offence – but just once in a while it’s nice to let off steam and watch big things get blown up or people shoot other people or things without recourse to character or heavy moralisation.
Yes, the ‘c’ word, character – in the rush to see things go boom-boom that’s typically the one to suffer. Yet war movies have always thrived on strong, well defined characters, and Battle: Los Angeles is essentially a war movie with alien trappings. Aaron Eckhart has drawn the short straw as the leader of a platoon of soldiers caught up on the front line, but at least he has the benefit of a handful of sketchily written scenes with which to compile something. Battle: Los Angeles marks a new low in the annals of characterisation in film – the rest of our protagonists get one scene, in many cases one line, with which to make an impact, but they should count themselves lucky, for when Michelle Rodriguez arrives later with reinforcements, the character scenes are done and they end up simply reading lines from the script.
You wouldn’t feel quite as bad for them if those lines were in any way memorable, or managed to dodge the worst kind of war movie cliche, but criminally there’ not only a lack of any dialogue that’s good, but only two lines that are so-bad-they’re-good that they will linger for more than ten seconds after you’ve left the cinema. There are other familiar names in the cast, including Michael Pena, but I just hope they’re at home sleeping on a mattress made of dollar bills for what they’ve had to endure here. With an almost complete lack of recognisable individuals and dialogue that would make the phone book look like a good read, the only hope would be that you manage to come up with some form of spectacle that’s either regularly visually appealing or at least has some good solid action scenes. Because that’s what we’re here for – right?
If you can guess where this is going, then you’ve already put in more thought than the writers. (Well done, you.) There are two shots, neither any more than a few seconds, that haven’t been seen in another alien or war movie – most of the action, if I can call it that without the use of irony, consists of people in camouflage running around on a brown background, shooting at other things lost in the brown murk. For variety, later they run around at night or in sewers, but never will your pulse quicken even slightly. The worst offender is a sequence on a freeway with a bus; what should be an opportunity for some solid action or thrills, or at least even a microgram of tension or spectacle, is so devoid of interest or excitement that it beggars belief.
About an hour in, you’ll start recalling all of the other alien invasion movies you’ve seen, not only the various Wars of the Worlds but everything from Aliens to Independence Day, from Starship Troopers to District 9, and then listing war movies should give you something to do should you sit through the rest of this turgid monstrosity. The scary thing is not how many movies are better than this, it’s by how much every single one is better. Notably, most of the great movies you’ll recall have plot, character, dialogue and often a sense of purpose in spades; even Independence Day can be seen as a love letter to colonialism and the American Way. About all Battle: Los Angeles can do is come across as an attempt to justify the US treatment of prisoners in its care – we should expect a galactic Geneva convention prior to any actual invasions if they’ve seen this. Slightly offensive in its intent, but earth-shatteringly offensive in its complete and total lack of anything even vaguely worthwhile to do or say, if this is the best the human race can manage now, I suggest we don’t put up a fight when the alien invasion comes.
Why see it at the cinema: If you hate your eyeballs that much, or have a few stubborn brain cells that just won’t die, then be my guest. Otherwise, avoid at all costs.
The Score: 1/10