Saturday, March 19, 2011

Taking on Rodger Ebert

I normally try and stick with people I know when picking an honest-to-God fight, especially over something
as subjective as movies. But to say that I was “angered” by Roger Ebert’s review of Battle: Los Angeles wouldn’t do justice to my emotions. Now, to be clear, I’m not actually going to argue that he is wrong, his review is largely based on his own subjective opinion, as I will freely admit is right and proper. Every time I re-read his review, it sounded more and more like he went into the theater looking for a reason to hate it, and he found them, even if some of them might only exist between his ears. The effort that this man put into shooting down Battle: LA is so far beyond what I consider “journalism” that I figured silence was no longer an option.

So here you go Roger, I know I’m just another two-cent opinion being thrown your way, but for the
one-in-a-million chance at being part of a movement to teach you some manors, I’ll tilt at every windmill between here and Hollywood on principle alone.

The Facts:

Opened: March
11th, 2011

Production costs (approx):  

(as of March 18th):

(As of March 20th)

Rotten Tomatoes score 

“top Critics” : 22%,  
“Audience”: 65%  

Metacritic score:  
35/100 (3/18/2011)

The Critic:

Movie Critic for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967 

The Rebuttal

Ebert gets kicked off with a shot right to the heart of the matter, "Battle: Los Angeles is noisy, violent, ugly and stupid.” So we know he didn’t like it, at least he got that out of the way up front. Even as someone who loved the film, I will gladly concede the first three points. This is a war film, and for all the pop, glitz and flash with which we have tried to paint combat in the past, modern war films have systematically started to embrace the physical realities of combat, including the fundamental fact that war is an ugly business. I’m honestly sorry that he felt these things detracted from the viewing experience, but that is his opinion, and he’s welcome to it.

Moving on, one of his later sentences is a real humdinger; “Here's a science-fiction film that's an insult to the words ‘science’ and ‘fiction,’ and the hyphen in between them.” Wow, Roger, that’s a tall order there. You mean the move was so bad that it actually managed to insult the dash mark on a piece of paper? Sarcasm aside, I am going to pick this fight because of how stupid I think this statement is.

The science in this film isn’t bad, in my opinion. A lot of what is explained makes sense, and what isn’t explained doesn’t stretch the imagination too far. (minor spoiler warning) the aliens don’t use ray guns, blasters or even rail guns. We see flashes, we hear bangs, and we see stuff getting “tor up” as red streaks fly at us. Call it what you want, but the implication is that they are using something that is fundamentally a firearm. This is important because actual firearms technology is hardly at its pinnacle. Even a casual reader like myself can quickly find out that there are new technologies being researched and developed that can make the battle-proven M-16 or AK-47 look like bb guns. Battle: LA strongly hints as such things, but for some of us who actually enjoy thinking about stuff like that, tickling the imagination is often times better than outright explaining what is on the screen.

As for other sciences, we see alien aircraft using thrusters to hover, infantry that actually fight with a semblance of what we might call modern combat techniques, (as opposed to lining up Napoleonic style, a la Star Wars: Ep I) and communication techniques that don’t fall under ESP, and aren’t something some TV repair guy can decrypt. There is one scene where we see what might be called anti-gravity, but the capabilities of this supposed AG drive are hardly awe-inspiring. The point here is that we are not into the type of “science” where the enemy has impregnable force fields, and engines whose capabilities can’t even be fully explained by modern science. It’s one thing to call them advanced, but films like the famed Star Wars series and even ID 4 borrow more from comic book science than reality. I would submit that Battle: LA is a lot more grounded.

I am sure that practicing and degreed physicists will point out a million things that are wrong (and right) with this film’s science, and that's fine. I freely admit that this is entertainment and not a college class. However, I really think that accusing this movie of insulting the very concept of science is just over-the-top. I will even go out on a limb and say that that this film might just follow in the footsteps of some of the science-fiction greats, and serve as the catalyst that sparks the human imagination, leading to real scientific breakthroughs.

And as for ‘fiction’, again I say ‘wow’. Seriously Roger, you mean to tell me that this film was so bad that it insulted the concept of fiction across the board? When you reviewed the Movie “North”, you said “I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it.”, but yet it still wasn’t an insult to ‘fiction’. As hard to define as ‘fiction’ is for this article, let’s suffice it to say that Battle: LA at least makes a good effort to help us suspend disbelief, and doesn’t have any glaring plot-holes that stop us mid-movie and make us want to walk out. I honestly believe that it does a lot more, and better, but I’m trying to be objective here with this point.

The whole second paragraph of his review is a plot summary that spends about as much time sniping at (and misrepresenting) the facts of the story as it does telling us about them. There is even a cheap shot at Ireland (at least that’s how I read it), that just left me going “huh?”. I had a particular problem with one sentence; “They're helicoptered into Santa Monica and apparently defeat the aliens.” In point of fact, they don’t defeat the aliens. They do win a major engagement, and they do pick a hell of a fight, but to hear Roger tell it (or to be fair, imply) this twenty-man platoon saves the world (or at least California) by itself, and that is almost exactly the type of story this film doesn’t tell. Another prize-winner was “…it's not entirely clear how the Santa Monica action is crucial, but apparently it is.” This one got me really mad. There was a whole scene-and numerous reminders-explaining why the platoon was sent into Santa Monica. They were on a rescue mission, trying to pull civilians out ahead of an Air Force bombing raid that was going to level a lot of the city outright. I point that out here because it was the driving force behind the first two thirds of the movie, and to hear him tell it, they just go in "guns blazing" for no reason. If Roger didn’t like the movie’s explanation, he’s more than welcome to say so, but I honestly believe this summary borders on dishonest.

The next three paragraphs go on to praise Aaron Ekhart, deride the director and writer, bash the visual design, and label all of the supporting characters as nothing more than placeholders. I don’t like his tone, or his dismissive attitude throughout, but I will concede that character development in this film is minimal. This is an unapologetic action flick, and while Ekhart’s power as an actor does help elevate his role, the fact of the matter is that the script has as much gunfire in it as it does spoken words. Ebert spends the better part of a paragraph bashing the design of the aliens and their ships. What can I say? That’s entirely stylistic. I happen to like them, but he obviously didn’t. Life goes on.

I do, however want to pick a fight on his next point. To be fair, I consider this little more than a failure of imagination on his part, but again Ebert seems to go out of his way to pose the question in the most derisive way he can. Speaking about one large alien ship seen underground, “How, you may ask, did it tunnel for 10 or 12 blocks under Santa Monica to the battle lines at Lincoln Boulevard?” This question just irked me to no end because to someone who hasn’t seen the film, he gives the impression that this is some sort of gaping plot hole the director overlooked. (minor spoiler) The ship he’s talking about is large (medium sized sports arena, or there-about), and it is located underground. Neither the visuals nor the characters say that the thing tunneled there. In point of fact, they never say anything about how it got there; everyone’s kind of preoccupied with killing it!

I don’t know how it got there. But I do know this; larger military assets are frequently capable of being broken down for ease of transport, and can then be reassembled in a protected location. Also, critical resources like fuel bunkers and communications arrays (spoiler: the ship in question is a communication’s hub) can be buried underground, both for concealment, and protection. In point of fact, erecting an Eiffel-tower scale transmitter within enemy range is widely considered an artillery magnet. Modern armies even have teams whose job is specifically to track down enemy communication hubs, and plot their location for artillery or air strikes. Judging by what we see of the aliens in this movie, I would not put such lessons beyond them.

Now, does this definitively answer the question of where it came from? No. But I will submit that it beats the  knee-jerk reactionary logic (and implication) of "its underground... they must have tunneled...but you can't really tunnel that far, this is so unrealistic...this movie stinks".


Yet again, moving on.

Getting down to the end of Ebert’s work I found the crown jewel of short sightedness and narrow mindedness. After bashing the editing, especially how the firefights are handled (he calls it lazy, I’m sure the editors would take issue with that), he goes on to say; “In a good movie, we understand where the heroes are, and where their opponents are, and why, and when they fire on each other, we understand the geometry. In a mess like this, the frame is filled with flashes and explosions and shots so brief that nothing makes sense.”

The first step in accepting this bit of diatribe (for me at least), was to remind myself that “good” can be a subjective term. Even after getting to that point however, I still wanted to crawl through the computer screen and slap the man.

So, to use your logic, Mr. Ebert, a director shouldn’t try and submerge his audience into his vision of the split second insanity of a shootout. In order to make a “good” movie, we have to understand all of the elements of a firefight, even if our heroes don’t? The audience must be given a god-like (or near-god-like) perspective of the situation, even if none of the characters is so lucky? So I guess the lesson here, as per Mr. Ebert, is that a good story has to explain itself in detail that would probably never actually exist within its own reality.

Besides, it is fairly clear that within the film, the audience is supposed to be subjected to the same type of chaos and confusion that our marines are put through as they continue to encounter an enemy they know nothing about. When I say “nothing”, that’s almost an absolute. The marines don’t know what the aliens look like, what their weapons are capable of, or how many of them there are. The one thing you do know from the start is that these things are shooting any human they see, no questions asked. A good part of what makes this story work (for me, anyway) is that damned near anything is possible, and you feel sorry for these poor guys as they go into action, not even sure if their rifles will do them any good. I wanted to get a lot more snide and ugly with this part, but my better side won out, and I decided not to follow the example Mr. Ebert sets in his parting words.

“Young men: If you attend this crap with friends who admire it, tactfully inform them they are idiots.

Young women: If your date likes this movie, tell him you've been thinking it over, and you think you should consider spending some time apart.”

Let me go ahead and make this absolutely plain so there is minimal room for misunderstanding. I don’t take well to questions of intelligence (mine or others), and I am exceptionally short with people who use irrelevant information on the subject. Questioning the intelligence of someone who likes a movie you don’t smacks of elementary school politics, elitism, and narrow-mindedness. It conjures images of the spoiled brat throwing a tantrum because he can’t get his way. And lastly, it invokes overtures of times past when people’s thoughts and private beliefs were subject to the opinion, review (and possibly scorn) of the powerful, when one opinion  mattered more than others.

You may be talking to the youth of your readership, Mr. Ebert, but be assured that is it you who might want to consider growing up, and actually learning the art of civil discourse. You are not the authority on movies, and yours is not the opinion that movies are made or broken by. The one thing that I am immensely grateful for is that before the internet, the nature of media prevented you from dominating the movie op-ed scene, and now, that same technology lets you get lost in the slush of countless professional movie reviews. To quote Phil Donahue (whom I don’t even really like, ironically) “Loud doesn’t make you right.” And to be honest, thankfully neither does being rude.

What I want to see in a review is opinion, but also fact. Tell me what you didn’t like about it, but admit that someone else might. Tell us this isn’t your cup of tea, but point out that it might be a good soda & popcorn “flick”, for example. Objectively speaking, “Bad” movies are when the sound and the scene don’t sink up, or critical bits of dialog can’t be heard for no good reason. A “bad” movie might be a movie where the acting is wooden enough to make a high school drama class wince. “Lazy editing” is when what the director wanted and shot doesn’t make it to the screen. Just because you don’t like it, sir, doesn’t make it a “bad” movie. You’re allowed to hate it. Tell us you hate it, shout it from the rooftops if you want. But if you’re going to watch a movie, at least do it the justice of actually paying attention to what’s actually provided for you on the screen, and to stop sounding like yours is the only opinion that counts. There are plenty of movies I hate with a passion, but I will gladly acknowledge the quality of their production, and can even recommend them to others I know whom I think might enjoy them. 

So, does this mean Battle: LA is a great film?

I don’t know. That’s up to you to decide. It’s no secret that I loved it, and intend to purchase a copy when it comes out on DVD.  But that shouldn't blind me to reasonable critical observations or opinions. If you want to know something about the film, I’ll answer your questions as objectively or subjectively as you like. And if you have something to say, I'll listen to you. 

When it's all said and done, I give my opinion with the same caveat Roger Ebert should try and remember; “My opinion is worth about two cents, not a penny more or less than anyone else’s.”

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