In the annals of film, no place has endured as many disasters as the City of Angels. It’s been the site of 10.5 magnitude quakes, lava spewing from the La Brea tar pits, and the incineration of the Earth’s crust. So, in honor of the Carmageddon that wasn’t, this week’s edition of “Now and Then” attempts to quench your unsatisfied thirst for the destruction of Los Angeles. Nothing quite says “sunny Southern California” like the alien invasion of Battle: Los Angeles or the gutterpunk paralysis of Blade Runner — two films in which the city fares distinctly worse than it did with the closing of the 405.
The only good line in Battle: Los Angeles (Jonathan Liebesman, 2011) comes near the end of its interminable two-hour running time, courtesy of Sgt. Elena Santos (Michelle Rodriguez). One of the hulking extraterrestrial enemies terrorizing the city catches her in the face with a hearty slap, so she kills it, kicks it in the head, and unleashes a little verbal fury. “Son of a bitch,” she screams, “that hurt!”
My sentiments exactly. Following every war movie cliché like the Stations of the Cross, Battle: Los Angeles is a punishing fusillade of jostling hand-held camerawork and the tea-kettle screeches of electric ordnance. It plays like the video dispatch of an embedded journalist. Titles acknowledge every change of scenery, while 24-hour news channels provide punditry and a wide-angle of the action. Even the characters’ names are flashed on screen, as though writer Chris Bertolini was too busy plotting which buildings to set aflame to put them in the script. Not that it much matters: two-thirds in and it is impossible to distinguish them. The aliens have more personality.
We hear in snippets from CNN that these attackers are hoping to purge Earth of humans in order to use our water for fuel, prompting the thought that we should just give them jobs making hydrogen-powered cars for GM, but this too is a moot point. What matters to Liebesman and company is escalating the size of the explosions as our misbegotten unit escorts civilians to safety and tries to take down the alien command center. Some of these sequences are fine, largely because of the novelty of the setting: Army raids of Santa Monica bungalows; the carnage of abandoned, burned-out cars and severed off-ramps atop the 10. (The only way for the characters to get down is to rappel off the side, which, if you’ve ever gone to Venice Beach on a Friday and tried to get back downtown in time for dinner, is an alternative you’ve probably considered.)
The repetition of this theme — Holy crap! Aliens on Santa Monica Pier! — quickly becomes draining. As the movie stretches on and on, our indefatigable heroes bravely sacrifice themselves for the greater good one by one. Tears are shed, promises made. Unit leader Aaron Eckhart’s center-chin dimple challenges you to take his caterwauling seriously. By the time he gets around to the requisite let’s-go-get-em speech, nearly drowned out by the rise of cheaply inspirational strings, you might also consider rappelling out of your window. It might be the only way to return to some place that feels a little bit more like planet Earth.
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) is noisy, too. Here, though, the sound is unsettlingly ambient. Distant reports mix with the patter of acid rain, and high towers release bursts of flame and dirt in a sharp hiss. Foreign wails pierce the perpetual night, an ungodly city’s call to prayer. Floating billboards cry out: move to the Off-World colonies, “a golden land of opportunity and adventure.” Sound this lush sneaks up and envelops you, and all of a sudden the bleakly dystopian Los Angeles of 2019 becomes the only Los Angeles you’ve ever known.
It would be easy to write about Scott’s visionary landscape — nearly every film since which has dealt in the apocalypse game owes a serious debt to the wittily baroque, grungy, and densely allusive costumes, sets, lighting, and camerawork. But it is equally easy to forget how grimly funny it is. The brilliant opening scene, between an investigator and a suspect, calls to mind screwball comedy:Holden (Morgan Paull): You’re in a desert, walking along in the sand when all of a —
Leon (Brion James): Is this the test now?
Holden: You’re in a desert, walking along in the sand when all of sudden you —
Leon: What one?
Leon: What desert?
Holden: It doesn’t make any difference what desert, it’s completely hypothetical.
Well, it’s funny until Leon shoots Holden in cold blood. “Let me tell you about my mother,” he says, before two cracks of the gun.
Leon is a “replicant,” a humanoid robot produced by ultra-powerful Tyrell Corp to provide slave labor in those aforementioned colonies. They are identical to humans in every way, except they cannot experience emotion and have a life span of four years — or so it is supposed to work. Leon and a band of three others have returned to Earth because they have started to feel, to believe they have childhood memories, and so do not want to die. They have come to meet their maker.
Being illegal on Earth because of their mutinous reputation, replicants are tracked by Blade Runners like Rick Deckerd (Harrison Ford), cops specially trained in the art of reading emotions. In Deckerd’s case, he reads emotions well because he tries not to have them himself. Aloof and hard drinking, he’s a squinty, mouthy fella, about as gray and unstinting as the sky. Ford has rarely been better, the boyishly rakish hair and ratty trenchcoat lending him equal measures devilishness and sobriety. He plays it suave but smirking, suggesting Deckerd’s determination to hold the world at arm’s length. That so much of it is set in Chinatown is perhaps no coincidence: this is Jake Gittes with a flying car and a perfect nose, an archetype of diffident masculinity.
It’s also no coincidence because the frame of reference is distinctly film noir. Though Scott took out Ford’s voiceover narration in his final cut, I like it — it reminds me of private eyes and tough broads in second-billed pictures of the 1940s, where the old Los Angeles leaches the optimism out of people the same way Scott’s future Los Angeles does. That some clunky, weighty philosophizing slinks in toward the end can be forgiven when a film is this smart about what pictures mean to us in the first place. Studying a stash of photos Leon left behind, Deckerd finds himself wondering why someone with no memories would keep such things. But to anyone who’s seen Chinatown , who “remembers” the bright glint of the orange groves and the ugly flash of the slums, the answer to this question’s an easy one. The memory is in the pictures themselves.
That’s the real magic of L.A.’s particular dreamy dark.