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Style v substance in the contemporary War of the Worlds

By Peter Chen - posted Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Battle: Los Angles delivers what it promises. If you like films in which embattled human soldiers hand merciless and technologically-superior alien invaders a big ol can of whup ass packed with C4, then this one's for you. A classic example of McLuhan's high impact/low cognitive load "hot" media, the film orients you immediately to the situation and what is at stake. Aliens have launched a surprise attack, and the "world is at war" over a battle for our precious, precious water.

A little interlude "before the war" is provided as a proforma in which we humanise and get to know the marines that the story follows, but not in any serious or meaningful way: they're a bunch of top blokes, family men, and wounded heroes. B:LA is definably a film where the US Department of Defence advisors got top dollar for the advice and support they provided to the film makers.

If this story sounds familiar, of course it is. One part H.G. Welles's War of the Worlds (1898) and nine parts Independence Day (1996) the film is unmistakably an updated version of the latter. Both share the same DNA: the Pearl Harbour style assault from the sky, the synecdoche of a global conflict told through the story of one part of the battle, the role of a small group of military professionals in solving the riddle of the invaders weakness, rousing speeches, and the "stepping up" of a civilian into the fray.


The narrative and stylistic differences are minor, but suit the current zeitgeist: rather than Independence Day's post Gulf War focus on air power, the post-Iraq invasion B:LA embeddes the camera in the midst of a group of marines attempting to battle an illusive enemy within a claustrophobic maze Los Angles's suburbs. In a more ethnically diverse cast, the typecast Michelle Rodriguez appears as yet another tough-as-any-man Air Force officer. While these casting choices re reflect the changing nature of front-line US military personnel, the films feminist credentials are questionable as Rodriguez gets to be a prop for a crude oral sex joke.

Initial Fallujah-esque confusion aside, like in Independence Day. we know that, in the end it will be this group of salt-of-the-Earth grunts who'll show the world the way to victory. The films are essentially identical in their regards: the marines need only work out how to crush the head of the snake, and the invasion will be repelled once the aliens unfair advantage is overcome.

In the end, however, we have two nearly identical films that present completely opposite messages. B:LA is what Independence Day was accused of being: a mindless piece of pro-military propaganda that doesn't even attempt to conceal its institutional bias towards the status quo. Its use of clichés and genre conventions serve only to reinforce dominant American values and militarism.

Independence Day, however, was the opposite: an incredibly subversive film wrapped in the appearance of low-grade jingoism. The slower pacing of the first film and its emphasis on establishing the environmental fervour of the civilian protagonist (Jeff Goldblum) are significant in flagging the contrariwise political nature of the film. Writer and Director Roland Emmerich went on to make his political views more explicit in placing a Dick Cheney like figure as key bad guy in his 2004 environmental blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow.

Thus, while B:LA's metal-clad aliens are only after our water for its hydrogen content, this conflict is clearly a zero sum game. For Emmerich the rapacious parasites that move from one planet to another sucking their resources dry at the cost of the indigenous inhabitants are not aliens, they are us. The perspective of the film is that of the global south in resisting a dominant culture that believes in the alien notion that the economy can grow indefinitely.

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About the Author

Dr Peter John Chen is a lecturer in politics and public policy at the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.

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