By Richard Schickel
There are as many ways to make a bad movie as there are—well, bad movies. I’ll concede that every clunker the studios have ground out since they started making feature films in the United States roughly 100 years ago can lay claim to a certain uniqueness of ineptitude. On the other hand, if you are, like me, a professional moviegoer, someone who has spent close to a half-century either restlessly squirming or battered into insensibility in hundreds of screening rooms and theaters, certain generalizations begin to take belated form.
Take the last couple of weeks for example. In that period (which was not atypical) I saw five movies, all of them bad, two of them exemplary in their incompetence. By which I mean that they symbolize what I think are two of the major ways that movies fail to fulfill the bargain they make with the audience, which is minimally to entertain us, take us out of ourselves by absorbing us for a couple of hours in some sort of alternate universe. One way that failure manifests itself is inertness. The other way, obviously, is to be hysterically ert, if such a word and such a quality exist.
Representing the former quality, and carrying colors that are resolutely unempurpled, is the latest version of “Jane Eyre,” faithfully adapted by Moira Buffini and directed by Cary Fukunaga, whose modest filmography gives not hint of a special affinity for this material. According to Charles McGrath, writing in The New York Times, this is the 27th time the novel has been brought to the screen, none of which could possibly be more resolutely dispassionate. It is pretty in the pallid manner requisite to adaptations of classic English novels. It must be nice to live in a country where windswept vistas and impressively gloomy castles are conveniently available up almost every side road. It is perhaps less nice to live in a place where well-spoken actors are also a dime a dozen. I am thinking here of Michael Fassbinder, who plays Rochester. The guy sits a horse nicely, but there is no darkness in him, no anguish in the way he keeps his not-so-terrible secret. This leaves Mia Wasikowska’s Jane somewhat in the lurch. She’s a plain little thing and it’s hard to imagine what she sees in Rochester aside from his general hunkiness. He’s dashing in the most literal sense of the word, which is to say he’s always dashing about on inexplicable errands, leaving Jane to take long, mooning walks on the moors.
At some point, I got to missing Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine in the 1943 movie version of the story. Welles was, in those days, still capable of a rumbling and energetic romanticism (which soon enough attached itself to his own self-destructive career), while Fontaine essayed a pretty standard Hollywood trick—the pretty woman duded out in a plainness more apparent to the characters in the film than to us in the audience, waiting for them to see that she was not only attractive but full of spirit. It was, in its way, a rambunctious movie, still in Hollywood’s eyes a “property” to be exploited, not a “classic” to be statically revered. We all knew, of course, how the story came out, but the filmmakers more or less pretended that they didn’t know—thus avoiding the droning dutifulness of the Fukunaga movie, for which there is no compelling need.
Fukunaga’s camera is very staid, immobilized by respect. This stands in vivid and obvious contrast to its use by director Jonathan Liebesman in “Battle: Los Angeles,” where it shakes constantly while providing any number of degraded images as it tells a story that, in its way, is as conventionalized as “Jane Eyre.” You know how it goes: A bunch of aliens, at first believed to be part of a meteor shower, appear in the skies over Los Angeles (and other major cities). They are large, clanking, apparently invincible fellows whose metallic skins cover internal parts of surpassing gunkiness. We follow a platoon of Marines, led by Aaron Eckhart (who’s pretty damn invincible himself) as they engage the monsters in close combat and eventually discover their weak points, exploitation of which leads to their defeat.
The roots of “Battle: Los Angeles” are, in their way, as classic as “Jane Eyre.” The movie does not derive from a familiar novel, obviously, but from a familiar science fiction genre, the roots of which date back at least to “The War of the Worlds,” which H.G. Wells published in 1898. Its makers need to tend to the conventions of its forms as strictly as people adapting a well-known novel are obliged to pay reverent attention to its sacred story line. And this they do. What originality the film offers derives from its intense—not to say hysterical—manner, which never stops its assaultive quotations from its more distinguished predecessors.
So there you have it—the staid vs. the unstable. And the viewer has this choice: embrace the soporific or opt for the Mixmaster migraine that “Battle: Los Angeles” inevitably induces. Mind you, I’m not saying that good sci-fi movies or, for that matter, adaptations of literary classics cannot be made. But it is late in the day, style does matter, and neither reverenced awe nor galloping heedlessness serves anyone’s interest—least of all that of the audience. There is strength in movie conventions, but they need to be deployed almost self-consciously, with wit and a reimagining eye. The difference between tiresome cliché and authentically energizing classicism is paper-thin.
Aaron Eckhart emotes as Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz in “Battle: Los Angeles.”