Olympus Has Fallen

olympus_has_fallen_posterThe first of two ‘White House-taken-over-by-terrorists’ flicks this year, Olympus Has Fallen, looks, sounds, and feels exactly like an action-picture relic from 1995, right down to the obvious dialogue and dated special effects.  It borrows heavily from genre staples like Die Hard and Air Force One, without ever providing a winning homage to either.

Olympus, from Training Day director Antoine Fuqua (who has spent the last 12 years of his career reminding us he made that movie), is heavy on loud banging, but devoid of any and all smarts.  Had this movie been made 20 years ago with Sylvester Stallone in the lead role, it might be one of my classic go-to actioners, or at least a passable two hours of commercial-broken cable TV programming.  But instead, we are brought to a silly 2013 setting in which North Korean invaders savagely attack the most secure building in the world—and do so rather easily by cinema standards.  At least the film is unintentionally timely.

Aaron Eckhart plays the U.S. President whose staff majority and himself are locked away in the lower bunker of the White House with a group of baddies who want to start some good old nuclear war.  Cue the always reliable Morgan Freeman as the new ‘Acting President’ in negotiation with the terrorists, and Gerard ‘This is Sparta!’ Butler as the one ex-special forces Secret Service agent, Mike Banning, who escapes Korean detection and runs amok killing off henchman in the blown-up and barricaded war zone of the Executive Mansion.

Olympus-Has-Fallen-GI’m actually shocked this idea hadn’t made it to the big screen before now.  Soon Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012) will bring his brand of Armageddon-ography to the proceedings with Channing Tatum protecting Jamie Foxx.  But for we now we get Fuqua’s efforts which rely heavily on insanely stupid plotting under the guise of enormous and unnecessarily gratuitous action salted with some awkward patriotic propaganda.  I wanted to like his movie, but his ‘Die Hard-in-the-White-House’ extravaganza doesn’t hold a candle to the action classics of yore.  Butler is serviceable but not great.  Freeman is always a plus in any movie.  But the rest of the cast is wasted, especially Melissa Leo (who is beaten to a pulp and dragged away saying the Pledge of Allegiance—an awkward scene) and Ashley Judd as the first lady who is only given the most uninspired dialogue in her precious screen time.

Not to mention every single scene in the film has been done with far more skill and assurance in cinema past.  Fuqua’s movie carbon copies some great Die Hard, Speed, Air Force One, etc. moments and can’t up the ante.  It can only dumb it down incredibly, ultimately becoming one of the year’s dopiest films as it marches decades past its expiration date.  I say skip Olympus and wait to see what Emmerich brings to the table.

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Battle: Los Angeles

When will Hollywood filmmakers learn how to design an engaging extra-terrestrial?  I sat through the entirety of Battle: Los Angeles wondering why the movie was even made if the creatures the film is to be about seemed as though they were cobbled together on the last day of post-production.  Even good science-fiction films feature hokey creatures, such as Signs and War of the Worlds, but with practically limitless technology these days, why resort to such lacking creativity?  And why start out a film critique bashing alien designs?  Because the sheer laziness and lack of imagination brought to the table when considering the science-fiction elements on display here ruined Battle: Los Angeles.

I’m sad to report that Jonathan Liebsman’s stab at the alien invasion epic is an otherwise interesting (although one-note) piece of filmmaking.  Blending Black Hawk Down and War of the Worlds, Liebsman drops us into Ground Zero with a group of confused marines sent into the battleground of Los Angeles following a barely announced invasion circling the globe.  I call it Call of Duty: Worlds at War.  Aaron Eckhart, featuring a full face once again, leads his platoon of one-note soldiers into a combat zone that would have Michael Bay and Sylvester Stallone drowning in envy.  There’s a handful of characters here, but the film has precious little time for back story.  Minutes into this thing the audience is dodging shrapnel and ducking under the smoke clouds.  This is a combat film, through and through, filmed via handheld and edited to make your head spin.

So what’s the mission?  Honestly, there isn’t much of one.  The marines are choppered to the L.A. police station to rescue a group of civilians trapped inside.  From there on out, it’s moving from point A to point B avoiding deadly fire from the outer-space hostiles.  Never mind why the aliens are invading with violence.  We hear a few news clips claiming they are harvesting our planet for water.  Also never mind that their biological composition makes little to no sense.  Part machine, part creature of some sort, they look cheap and biologically improbable to function.  In a head-scratching scene, Eckhart’s character and a veterinarian dissect one of their captured enemies to figure out how to kill it.  To their surprise, the alien has a heart in its chest.  “Aim for the heart!” he cries.  It seemed to me the marines were blowing them in half from the get-go, but maybe that’s just me.  Don’t ask me about the aliens’ spacecrafts either.  From what I can tell, the filmmakers haven’t any more of a clue than I do.  The ships seem like C.G.I. whirlwinds of car parts that can disassemble into smaller aerial drone planes.  There’s no sensible design or calculations to these vehicles.  I’m guessing the artists behind them saw Transformers one too many times and decided to dumb down the concept there.

Battle: Los Angeles clearly left storytelling and imagination out of the greenlighting contract as well.  Cliches abound in the premise and reign supreme throughout.  We have a gruff leader in Eckhart, whose character battles his haunting past amidst the haunting present.  He’s retiring early on in the film after losing his entire unit of men during his last mission.  For his final day on the job, he is supposed to play second-in-command to another officer for a training simulation.  Turns out aliens invade and he’ll have to take on the greatest threat of his career.  Weird.  The plan to thwart the aliens involves taking out their system core that holds their entire power source.  Also original.  Even the minimal dialogue appears to be peeled away from other films.  At least the pyrotechnics are sound, and to be honest, that’s what the film is all about—getting in-your-face visceral.

For a quick action-fix, Battle: Los Angeles will in no way compare to a classic like Aliens (a far-superior clashing of alien creatures and marines—made 25 years ago…), but it will likely tide over young men who have no problem putting down their X-Box controllers to witness some more first-person shooter mayhem.  Complaints regarding the film playing like a kaboom-heavy videogame aren’t far from the truth.  Battle: Los Angeles isn’t striving for good sci-fi.  It’s striving for gritty target practice.  I actually dug the concept of a military action-thriller as the forefront of an alien invasion film.  Unfortunately, while all the technical aspects and extended action sequences of Battle: LA prevail, the aliens and plot do not.  I can shoot second-rate animated robot slugs at home.  For those needing a break from that sort of time-wasting, Jonathan Liebsman’s bone-crunching, ear-drum pounding, brain-thumping epic will do.  And you don’t even need a controller, unless you wait for it on DVD of course.

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