Why science fiction action movies need a little comic relief
(www.io9.com) Comedy does have a very particular purpose in sci-fi and action movies. It's a safety valve, a way for the movie to help soothe the audience's suspension of disbelief. The Marines vs. aliens war story that is Battle: Los Angeles may not be a modern classic, but it does do one thing that's unusual (even admirable) for action movies, particularly scifi action movies: it takes its premise absolutely seriously.
Now, make no mistake: Battle: Los Angeles is not a great movie. But the movie's basic idea — that this is a realistic depiction of what would happen if aliens invaded — is a strong one, and a lot of what goes into this movie actually supports that conceit. Jonathan Liebesman's direction captures the aesthetic of embedded footage from an actual war zone, there's plenty of technical and strategic discussion about how to hold Los Angeles from the invasion, the aliens and other effects mesh well with the real actors and locations, and none of the performances are showy or over-the-top. Basically, the whole thing feels realistic, at least to a viewer like me who isn't a military expert.
Battle: LA is played completely straight, and that means the Marines don't drop badass quips as they kill the aliens, they don't make any knowing wisecracks about how even an alien invasion can't remove LA's traffic jams, they don't trade witty banter during their downtime, and certainly not during combat…the movie completely eschews any comic relief whatsoever. This is a big ridiculous action movie without any jokes, and that immediately makes it feel different from the rest of the genre. And, insofar as it helps establish the movie's gritty, realistic tone and sense that this is how it could all really happen, the absence of comic relief works brilliantly.
Battle: LA might want to be realistic, but on the most fundamental of levels, it isn't. Aliens aren't going to launch a massive invasion any time soon, and such an event is so completely beyond our comprehension that, frankly, there's no way we can actually judge if Battle: LA is a realistic depiction of something we can't even really imagine.
After all, if this was a completely realistic depiction of a war between humanity and a space-faring (and presumably interstellar) race, then there wouldn't be a movie, just our complete and total destruction. Any intelligence that has the technology to travel between stars should be able to wipe out humanity without much trouble, as Stephen Hawking suggested in his famous comparison of aliens to Christopher Columbus. But that doesn't fit with the requirements of making an entertaining action movie, and as Jonathan Liebesman explained to us, this required substantially powering down the alien army to give humanity a fighting chance.
The point is, there's a fundamental tension here between Battle: LA's realistic aesthetic, the need to craft a satisfying action movie, and the very real chance of annihilation if an actual alien invasion ever happened. That's where even a little comic relief would go a long way, just to give us some sense that Liebesman and screenwriter Chris Bertolini aren't taking this premise completely seriously, that they don't actually think this movie is a sober depiction of an actual alien invasion. Science fiction is the most reliant of all genres on the audience's suspension of disbelief, and Battle: Los Angeles demands we buy into the movie's premise completely.
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