Friday, March 18, 2011
I don't know how it is that this movie made it a week into it's run without me sitting in a theater somewhere sucking it down like a milkshake. This was exactly my cup of tea and I knew it the first time I saw the teaser trailer. This is a science-fiction action film that takes a completely different perspective from other Earth Invasion films of the past. "Independence Day" was all about the idea and the spectacle of an invasion, "War of the Worlds (2005") is a horror chase film which focuses on a big story though a small group. "Signs" is the same story without the spectacle but keeping the creep factor and asking big questions about faith. This movie is a traditional war story about a platoon of Marines, involved in fighting a space invasion. If I were a gamer, and played some of the popular first person shooter games that are now so ubiquitous, I might not have enjoyed it so much because it would seem familiar.
There are a lot of cliches in the movie, but it is important to remember that cliches get that way for a reason. Our group of Marines is lead by an untested Lieutenant, backed by a battle hardened but burnt out Staff Sargent. The platoon is ethnically mixed like an old World War Two movie, and there are brief back stories to help us identify with the warriors. The movie does have some plot elements that focus on conflicts between the Marines, but that is not what the movie is about. This film is an examination of the professionalism and dedication of our fighting men and women. There is some hoorah marine macho behavior, but is is only incidental to the job that each person is trying to do to the best of their ability. Some are more gifted than others but there was not a one that was not there to do the job, and each was well qualified. They are tired, and scared, and angry but most of all they are professionals. This movie was not a Patriotic exercise in America First, with flags waving and speeches about our heritage. It celebrates America in the best way possible, by showing real people, who have come together to do a job, and want it to be done the right way. They take responsibility and exercise it in an American way. They care about their team members, their mission and the civilians they encounter with the kind of behavior we all hope is a hallmark of our military.
There are a bundle of special effects, but they are never lingered over or meant to divert us from the story. This is not a CGI pile of junk like "G.I. Joe" a couple of years ago. This is an intense, Sam Fuller like war story, set in a Science Fiction parable. The alien threat is real, and it feels like the world is coping with disaster in the best way possible. Our marines have little knowledge of what they are up against, and they have to improvise along the way. My guess is that this is the way it is in real life warfare as well. You are well trained, but ultimately, the boots on the ground have to make the best decision they can and then live with the outcome. In our modern world, the rest of society gets to second guess them and judge their valor, this movie gives us a chance to see how that process works. I never had the honor of serving in the military, so I see this as someone who's primary exposure to this culture is vicarious. It requires huge sacrifice to serve in combat, and my appreciation for those who do is immense. I suspect they will see this movie as a tribute to their service. Last tear's "The Hurt Locker" is a more serious film with a better developed personal story, but it had many of the same qualities of professional pride that this movie did. There is tension and random mayhem and no one deserves the bad things that happen in war.
Aaron Eckhart is an actor that I have enjoyed but have never really warmed up to. Even in "The Dark Knight" I felt his performance was outside of the character. He strikes me as if he is playing at being an actor rather than playing the character. That was not true in this movie. He is really invested in the part and plays it with gusto and honesty. Even in the most cliched line in the movie, one that reminds us of the boiler plate characters we were given to start with, he sells us this person. Everyone does a fine job, but he is clearly well cast as a no nonsense leader in the right set of circumstances. Of course this is not the right set of circumstances, yet he manages to do the job anyway. Sgt Nantz is a good hero for our times.
I have often said in my comments on films, that a movie is successful to me if I am moved emotionally. This movie did that but not in the way most people would expect. Sure there are characters that don't make it and the emotions there are well created in the story. There is also a sense of dread, that people trapped in these situations would feel. My emotional reaction is to the courage and fortitude shown by everyone in the movie, but especially the military. To see how doing one's job is a part of a team process, that you take up the burden that is given to you and you simply do the best you can. That brought a tear to my eye, because I know that this goes on everyday outside of my experience. It is real and there are enemies that we must struggle with that are not from outer space, but feel like they could be. My friend John Yenny (Jr.) is about to graduate from Annapolis and join the Marines as an officer. I am proud to know a guy like him and all the other young men and women who are called to service in this way. My guess is the Yenny's will have this movie on a permanent loop on the TV for years to come. When the final scene of our marines is shown, I can't imagine how someone will avoid a lump in the throat and a tear of pride in the eye. "Retreat, HELL!"