BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC One of the most memorable moments in Super Bowl commercial history came in 1996, when we watched a spaceship blow up the White House in an ad for the forthcoming summer blockbuster, Independence Day. The commercial caused quite a stir; we had imagined an impregnable wall around the U.S. and it was deeply shocking to see that wall breached. That was 15 years ago, and although we are engaged in at least two wars, the only sustained attack on the U.S. we can imagine is the fantasy scenario that monsters could come from outer space unleash mayhem on our shores. Battle: Los Angeles is a humorless war film that deeply feels the tragedy of living under siege, but for all its fearsome death-from-above drama, it never acknowledges the fact that this is the kind of “shock and awe” the U.S. has been exporting regularly for at least a decade now.
Preparing for a meteor shower, the U.S. is caught off-guard when the falling bodies turn out to be an alien invasion, with the marauding spacemen waging war against the citizens of earth from a giant battalion of metallic motherships. As Los Angeles is getting pummeled it is up to the green 2nd Lt. William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) to help evacuate Santa Monica before our military vaporizes the whole area. Martinez is unsteady in his command but he is bolstered by Sgt. Michael Nantz (the always reliable Aaron Eckhart), who has been wracked by guilt for losing his battalion in Iraq. Dropped into the battlezone, they find only five civilians whom they attempt extract before the U.S. bombs are dropped.
What’s surprising about this highly derivative film is that it’s much more of war film than a sci-fi adventure. Using Black Hawk Down as a model, most of the time the aliens are nearly unseen, attacking from a distance, with our heroes barking out order to “Run!” and “Move!” while the camera shakes and zooms in constant disorientation. The film’s design work resembles that seen in District 9, with the aliens looking buggy and the ships sporting a jagged, junkyard look. The men occasionally confront the machines themselves but it comes off more like “man against tank” then an imaginative Sci-Fi scenario. In fact, the films is so busy with its wartime heroism that it barely supplies much info on the aliens at all, making it feel like an big-budget pilot for a prospective TV series.
Instead, Battle: Los Angeles is satisfied with merely being a video game “thrill-ride,” an ambition it succeeds at only occasionally. Even though the film has a few provocative moments — as when someone describes the aliens plans to colonize earth, saying that “in order to extract the resources one must exterminate the population” — it never dares to examine the parallel between the aliens and our own offensive wars to protect “American interests.” While Battle: Los Angeles’ aggressive mindlessness could be mistaken as being apolitical, its distinctly modern brand of Sci-Fi plays its political hand by seeking to constrain our imaginations as to what its war might actually mean: that we have met the enemy and it is us.
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When I first saw TV Carnage: Casual Fridays I thought it wold be the perfect document to show my kid someday, serving as the definitive explanation on why he grew up without cable. An absurd, hysterical and disturbing montage of TVs pathetic moments, the DVD collects infomercials, talk show madness, exploitive news stories and absurd musical interludes into a truly mesmerizing document that seemed to state its hypothesis that television’s strongest mind-control weapon is large helpings of unbridled stupidity.
Anyone could dig up idiotic clips while browsing through YouTube, but Pinky Carnage a/k/a Derrick Beckles brings his experience as a TV editor and music video director to bear as he overlaps and intercuts these clips, making them a brilliant commentary on idiocy. He will be appearing live tonight at the International House to present the latest TV Carnage collection, Let’s Work It Out, a preposterous tour of the fitness phenomenon of the 1980s and ’90s when home video workout tapes were a regular career stop for all sorts of minor celebrities. The cavalcade of stars seen here is huge, including a jovial O.J. Simpson, a camel-toe afflicted Tracy Lords, and slang-slinging Marky Mark Wahlberg, who seems bent on speaking like he’s the true voice of hip-hop.
Like many of the TV Carnage collections, the fashions, synth-y music and cheesy video effects of the 1980s get a vigorous workout as well, daring us to believe that lived through a time where these were ubiquitous cultural styles. TV Carnage collections have spent a decade being the life of many parties, seeing this with the International House crowd is sure to evoke more shocked belly-laughs than a year of TV watching. It’s the only program in town that is sure to please both the audience that loves TV and the audience that hates it.
TV Carnage Live: Let’s Work It Out!, 7:00 PM tonight, International House, 3701 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA., $5.00 – $8.00, more info @ www.ihousephilly.org.