Why science fiction action movies need a little comic relief

The Marines vs. aliens war story that is Battle: Los Angeles may not be a modern classic, but it does do one thing that's unusual (even admirable) for action movies, particularly scifi action movies: it takes its premise absolutely seriously.

Now, make no mistake: Battle: Los Angeles is not a great movie. But the movie's basic idea — that this is a realistic depiction of what would happen if aliens invaded — is a strong one, and a lot of what goes into this movie actually supports that conceit. Jonathan Liebesman's direction captures the aesthetic of embedded footage from an actual war zone, there's plenty of technical and strategic discussion about how to hold Los Angeles from the invasion, the aliens and other effects mesh well with the real actors and locations, and none of the performances are showy or over-the-top. Basically, the whole thing feels realistic, at least to a viewer like me who isn't a military expert.

Battle: LA is played completely straight, and that means the Marines don't drop badass quips as they kill the aliens, they don't make any knowing wisecracks about how even an alien invasion can't remove LA's traffic jams, they don't trade witty banter during their downtime, and certainly not during combat…the movie completely eschews any comic relief whatsoever. This is a big ridiculous action movie without any jokes, and that immediately makes it feel different from the rest of the genre. And, insofar as it helps establish the movie's gritty, realistic tone and sense that this is how it could all really happen, the absence of comic relief works brilliantly.

But comedy does have a very particular purpose in sci-fi and action movies. It's a safety valve, a way for the movie to help soothe the audience's suspension of disbelief. After all, Battle: LA might want to be realistic, but on the most fundamental of levels, it isn't. Aliens aren't going to launch a massive invasion any time soon, and such an event is so completely beyond our comprehension that, frankly, there's no way we can actually judge if Battle: LA is a realistic depiction of something we can't even really imagine.

After all, if this was a completely realistic depiction of a war between humanity and a space-faring (and presumably interstellar) race, then there wouldn't be a movie, just our complete and total destruction. Any intelligence that has the technology to travel between stars should be able to wipe out humanity without much trouble, as Stephen Hawking suggested in his famous comparison of aliens to Christopher Columbus. But that doesn't fit with the requirements of making an entertaining action movie, and as Jonathan Liebesman explained to us, this required substantially powering down the alien army to give humanity a fighting chance.

Why science fiction action movies need a little comic relief

The point is, there's a fundamental tension here between Battle: LA's realistic aesthetic, the need to craft a satisfying action movie, and the very real chance of annihilation if an actual alien invasion ever happened. That's where even a little comic relief would go a long way, just to give us some sense that Liebesman and screenwriter Chris Bertolini aren't taking this premise completely seriously, that they don't actually think this movie is a sober depiction of an actual alien invasion. Science fiction is the most reliant of all genres on the audience's suspension of disbelief, and Battle: Los Angeles demands we buy into the movie's premise completely.

This comedy doesn't even have to be cheesy one-liners (which Arnold Schwarzenneger's entire career is pretty much built on) or goofy side characters (which reached its borderline racist nadir in Revenge of the Fallen). Consider Battle: LA's most obvious spiritual predecessor, District 9, a movie possessed with a wicked sense of humor and razor-sharp satire. Indeed, as a science fiction take on South African Apartheid, we know from the outset that District 9 takes place in a heightened reality, that this is a sci-fi reflection and extrapolation of something that actually happened. We don't have to worry so much about realism because that isn't the main point of District 9.

Battle: LA, on the other hand, is almost entirely satire-free. There's no coherent attempt to link the alien invasion of Los Angeles with, say, the war in Iraq - which is a very good thing, because there's no way this movie could have pulled off something so bold and controversial. There are some talking heads and stories on the news ticker which in most other movies would have a more blatantly satirical edge - but apart from a blink-and-you'll-miss-it reference to all stock trading being suspended in the wake of the invasion, there's nothing here that could even vaguely be considered social commentary.

Now, none of this has to be a bad thing — science fiction movies don't have to be allegorical, and they certainly don't need to crowbar in comic relief. But if you want the audience to accept a fantastical scenario that's presented in a completely realistic manner, you're going to need an absolutely amazing script to pull that off. There aren't many movies that even try this - off the top of my head, I'd put forward 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and maybe the original Terminator as movies that succeed without any comic relief, and all three have strong scripts and virtuoso directors.

Hell, even a humor-averse Christopher Nolan gives Michael Caine some good quips in The Dark Knight and lets Tom Hardy give a slightly larger-than-life performance in Inception. It's not much, but at least it's a little something for audience members who need a little relief from all the seriousness. Yes, to some degree, Battle: Los Angeles is more self-serious than The Dark Knight, which should tell you pretty much everything you need to know.

It's in this completely humorless devotion to its premise that Battle: Los Angeles falls down, as do most other recent sci-fi action movies that attempt this. Just ask Terminator Salvation or Tron Legacy, both of which tried the same thing and ended up being ponderous, boring, and, yes, sometimes unintentionally hilarious.

I'll defend the direction, acting, and effects work in Battle: LA, but this movie is seriously let down by its screenplay, which is a couple shades below workmanlike. There are no actual characters in Battle: Los Angeles. The most well-developed character, Aaron Eckhart's Sergeant Nantz, is just a bunch of hoary action movie clichés strung together – for goodness sake, the man is actually a week away from retirement.

When you're knee-deep in yet another clichéd, cheesy, and unbelievably earnest speech about patriotism and the Marine Corps way – both noble sentiments that the script is utterly unable to convey in an interesting way –- it would be really nice to have a little comedy, a little wink at the audience that the movie isn't taking this drivel completely seriously. Strictly speaking, this isn't directly related to the movie's science fiction aspects, but it's part and parcel of deemphasizing good storytelling and strong characters in favor of spectacle, convincing special effects, and desperately trying to make all the science fiction stuff seem vaguely realistic.

And that, of course, is where the lack of humor works to the movie's serious detriment. That's the nice thing about comedy: used properly, it can paper over almost any faults. Hell, just look at the man who, more than any other actor, fused the science fiction and action genres together over the last thirty years. Arnold Schwarzenegger was barely an actor – indeed, in his earliest roles, he barely spoke English – but his carefully crafted movie persona always seemed to be aware of this.

Movies like Predator and Total Recall are brilliant not because they have perfect scripts — Predator in particular has plenty to criticize — but because Schwarzenegger and the creative team around him knew when to take the premise seriously - when Dutch was on the hunt for the Predator, when Quaid was confronted with the possibility that his entire reality was a lie — and when to wink at the camera, which includes any scene in which Schwarzenegger was required to emote. The man went from Austrian bodybuilder to international movie star — not to mention Governor of California — because he never asked anyone to take him completely seriously, and in the process he even managed to make Commando kinda awesome, which really should be impossible.

The lack of comedy doesn't kill Battle: Los Angeles like it did Terminator Salvation or Tron Legacy — the movie is still well enough directed and acted to work as a rousing, brainless action movie. But the movie set out to accomplish something that only the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott have managed, to take a ridiculous science fiction premise and play it completely straight.

For the sheer audacity of what it tried to accomplish, I'd call Battle: LA a noble failure. But when even a little comic relief or self-awareness could have improved this movie dramatically, and when the screenplay fell so dramatically short of what it needed to be for an entirely serious movie to work, I can't help but think they would have been better off just giving Aaron Eckhart some cheesy one-liners and calling it a day.