‘Battle: LA’ raises question – why is the end of the world so much fun?

I’m not allowed to review “Battle: LA” yet.

Instead, let me ask a question that I asked myself as I drove home from the theater last night, through the landscape that I had just spent a couple of hours watching Hollywood destroy with gleeful abandon:  why do we enjoy watching the end of the world?

Not every disaster film works, of course.  I’ve seen plenty of terrible ones, and there’s little to enjoy when they don’t work because they’re rarely “good” films.  At their best, they are effective movies, movies that convey a visceral group experience to an audience.  And when you do it to an audience just right, they will not only tell friends to go see the movie, they’ll go back to see it again in the theater with them.  That’s when you know you’ve done something that is effective.  People respond almost compulsively, and they end up buying the film when it shows up on home video.  I am certainly not above my own OCD response to movies that cause me to have a visceral experience in theaters.  It’s one of the things I hope for when I sit down to certain films, and when I am met even halfway, I tend to enjoy the effort.

I’m not alone, certainly.  And it does seem to be a strange thing for us to reward in our entertainment, this wholesale carnage.  Just this week, Louis Leterrier announced he’s making a film for Universal called “G,” and /Film connected the dots to a project Pajiba wrote about last year called “Gravity,” in which the world slows down, causing gravity to go haywire, and against this backdrop, a father goes in search of his missing child.  “The Day After Tomorrow” meets “Taken,” as it was described originally by Borys Kit when he broke the story.

That high-concept idea, a world where gravity stops working, is really weird and crazy and could be quite horrific and, yes, beautiful in the hands of the right FX house.  And the less exposition a film like that has, the more interested I am.  Because it’s honest.  Don’t pretend you’re making “Persona.”  Give me a few people to root for, then get down to it, whatever it is.  There’s nothing worse than a long slow burn that never really pays off, and these days, if you’re going all in on one of these movies as a studio, and you’re investing $200 million, then go for it.  Show us scale we’ve never seen, or show us details that are flabbergasting.  Show us the truly awesome, not the abused-and-overused version of the word.

Right?  Isn’t that what you really want if you’re watching these films?  That vicarious thrill that makes you think “What if that happened?” while totally safe.  Is it as simple as “We like to face our fears in order to prove we are not controlled by them”?

It’s a little harder for me to take pleasure from mayhem when it’s based on real events, and a good example of doing it wrong would be Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor,” where we’re looking at something that is a national tragedy, and it’s played with the same over-the-top whiz bang abandon as every other bit of Bayhem.  That just strikes me as tone-deaf.  On the other hand, James Cameron’s “Titanic” took a disaster and used it as background for a drama that managed to work perfectly as point and counterpoint, and audiences thrilled to the way he staged the tragedy.

It seems like the easiest way to give the audience permission to have fun with disaster is by making it something that won’t happen, something we can enjoy as fantasy.  Watching people get terrorized by a T-Rex is intense, but enjoyable.  “Battle: LA” works very hard to make everything feel real, even it cuts loose with some of its weirdest moments, and by grounding the fantastic in the most mundane possible settings, the film expertly walks that fine line between reality and the outrageous.

Knowing just how potent that can be, Sony went one step further, and they’re celebrating an anniversary today of an incident I’d never heard of until this film, and it must delight Sony to be able to tie in something unexplained and real to this movie.  Check out this press release:

Today marks the 69th anniversary of The Battle of Los Angeles, which remains one of the strangest events of WWII and is still a mystery to this day.  The event took place during the night between February 24-25, 1942.  Never fully explained, these events remain shrouded in mystery and the subject of intense speculation.

Beginning shortly after 2 am on February 25, and throughout the night, unidentified objects were reported over Los Angeles and the threat was so unusual that air raid sirens were sounded, and a total blackout was ordered.   At 3:16 am, the 37th Coast Artillery Brigade began firing 12.8-pound antiaircraft shells at the objects – more than 1,400 shells were fired over the next 58 minutes as the objects moved south, from Santa Monica to Long Beach.

“The obvious thought was that these were Japanese bombers come to attack the United States,” says UFO expert Bill Birnes, publisher of UFO magazine.  “But it wasn”t.  They were flying too high.  And the astounding thing was, not one artillery shell could hit the craft – out of all the hundreds of shells that were fired.  People outside that night swore that it was neither a plane nor a balloon – it was a UFO.  It floated, it glided.  And to this day, nobody can explain what that craft was, why our anti-aircraft guns couldn”t hit it – it”s a mystery that”s never been resolved.”

Descriptions of the UFOs varied widely.  General George C. Marshall, in his initial memo to President Roosevelt regarding the event, wrote that the “unidentified airplanes… [traveled at speeds ranging from] ‘very slow” to as much as 200 mph and from elevations of 9000 to 18,000 feet.” (The memo may be viewed at https://www.militarymuseum.org/BattleofLA.html.)  The number of craft reported by observers ranged from 9 to 15 to 25.

At first, officials offered a very vague explanation. According to the Los Angeles Times (February 26, 1942), the secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, dismissed the event as a “false alarm” due to “jittery nerves,” but when this failed to satisfy the press and the public, the Army responded with a definitive answer that the craft and the battle were real, and the next day, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson confirmed that.  Santa Monica”s US Representative, Leland Ford, was quoted in the Times on February 27 calling for a Congressional investigation into the incident, but this went nowhere.  In the years since, various explanations have been offered – from Japanese planes to German craft launched from secret bases in Mexico to unidentified aircraft to weather balloons to sky lanterns to blimps.

However, it is also alleged that General Marshall reported that the Army had recovered an unidentified aircraft off the coast of California that indicated that the “mystery airplanes are in fact not earthly and according to secret intelligence sources they are in all probability of interplanetary origin.”

What was this event – just a sighting?  Or could it have been something else – a scouting mission, reconnaissance for a coming invasion?  For years, there have been documented cases of UFO sightings around the world, like the one in Los Angeles in 1942, but in Columbia Pictures” Battle: Los Angeles, what were once just sightings will become a terrifying reality when Earth is attacked by unknown forces.  As people everywhere watch the world”s great cities fall, Los Angeles becomes one of the last stands for mankind in a battle no one expected. It”s up to a Marine staff sergeant (Aaron Eckhart) and his new platoon to draw a line in the sand as they take on an enemy unlike any they”ve ever encountered before.  The film is directed by Jonathan Liebesman, written by Chris Bertolini, and produced by Neal H. Moritz and Ori Marmur. 

One thing is certain:  audiences demonstrate a fresh appetite for destruction every couple of years, keeping these films in development and release, and I suspect the same will be true once “Battle: Los Angeles” hits theaters next month.  We’ll have interviews and a review of the film coming soon, and in the meantime… watch the skies.

“Battle: Los Angeles” will be released on March 11, 2011.