Inscrutable Enemies

Posted: April 18, 2011 in Artistry, Cinema, Tacky

I made the mistake of watching Battle: LA. Save yourselves from this utter waste of effort before seeing it. I have complained in the past about CGI festivals — films whose primary purpose is to showcase technical effects. Similar movies include Blackhawk Down, District 9, Children of Men, and Independence Day. The last three in that modest list at least have stories on which to hang their prolonged battle scenes, but Battle: LA and Blackhawk Down are nearly all battle, as if to say that the drama of men fighting and dying but always eventually triumphing is all by itself enough to green light a movie. A rather formidable list of films could easily be assembled, set in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, that feature the same well trod ground: blind commitment to more firepower and victory over an inscrutable enemy. I wouldn’t say that such films explore, examine, or develop these themes much except perhaps in an accidental way. (They lack even the knowing irony of Starship Troopers, which was regrettably lost in the sequels — a classic case of the underlying message from Heinlein’s novel being coopted and rendered impotent by cinematic noise.) Rather, jingoistic portrayal of American fighting men as heroes is the rule, and moral ambivalence about the justness or pointlessness or waste of war rarely appears. I can think of a few exceptions.

The inscrutable enemy is what most interests me, though. Alien invasion is a common enough theme, but it’s interesting that aliens are almost always humanoid, meaning they are mirrors or reflections of ourselves. (Steven Spielberg, I’m lookin’ at you!) After all, who can really work up indignation at the advance of mindless, soulless pea pods, corn stalks, bugs, or even blobs, whose only motivation is growth? No, we need enemies with faces and limbs to blow off, especially if they are sufficiently different to keep us from recognizing ourselves fully in them.

This calls to mind the famous Walt Kelly quote and book from 1972:

These movies all rely on dehumanizing our enemies so that we’re anesthetized from the horrors we inflict on them, much like we regard the terrorists we torture as subhuman. Yet underneath it all, we must know that we’re always really just warring against ourselves, the most inscrutable enemy. In the modern age, we’re also warring against the power complexes and technologies that have reduced human identity to being cogs in machines and processes we serve rather than being served by them. This last theme is explored repeatedly and continuously at The Compulsive Explainer, which repetition is necessary because it’s a subtle idea not easily grasped. I don’t recall the word misanthropy being used there, but I’ll use it here to observe that our obsessive film subjects — expressions of the Zeitgeist — frequently revolve around depictions of mayhem and destruction, which are at root self-destruction. This is true because at our core, we hate ourselves and the world we’ve made.

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