Cannon Fodder: the changing face of the villainous horde


Battle: Los Angeles is a war movie. Let’s get that out of the way right now. The SF trappings are there to pull in the core audience of 16-25 year old males who will happily sit through it in the same way that they’d sit through a walkthrough of Crysis 2 on YouTube. But it’s really an excuse to have US military, modern US military with their grenade lobbing rifles and laser sights and night vision wage war against an enemy with which they can actually get their fight on. There is no fear of accidental civilian deaths or any of the horrible tangled messiness that modern warfare against an enemy that remains undefined and hard to find has become.

SF has always provided this kind of unambiguous thrill. As the audience becomes less and less excepting of the traditional war movie (which after all served primarily as propaganda against countries that have now been friends and colleagues for over fifty years) there’s still a need for shootybangbang excitement against a villainous horde. If you can make that villain completely fictional, and of a different species to the hero, then all to the good.

The aliens in Battle: Los Angeles are faceless, emotionless avatars, existing only to shoot and to be shot at. They spindle around in a backward-leg walk, and fire guns that have been grafted onto their arms. They couldn’t surrender if they wanted to, or were given the chance.

There’s little sign of pain or any kind of emotion when M-16 slugs tear through them (or, in one memorable sequenced, skewered on a bayonet and then torn apart by M-16 slugs). They make that default monster noise that’s becoming as over-used as the Wilhelm Scream, and then they fall over. As such, they’re simply the latest in a long line of invaders that runs all the way back to War Of The Worlds. Think the swarming hordes of James Cameron’s Aliens, mirrored helmets topping a drooling tooth-filled maw. The creatures of Independence Day, blankeyed and mouthless. Notice too, that the writers haven’t even bothered to give the enemy proper names. They are simply called by their function. Alien. Invader. Enemy. Monster.

Creatures from the Doctor Who universe have names, at least. Of their species, anyway. On the whole, they still follow the same idea of being interchangable, indistinguishable. Daleks and Sontarans differ from the Hollywood Horde ideal in that underneath the expressionless masks they wear, something hideous lurks. The Cybermen take this one step further – they were humanoid once, and chose to lock all that away behind a blank carapace. There’s a little more depth there, but their intentions remain the same. They are set on conquest and colonisation.

The Stormtroopers of the Star Wars Universe have the same purpose. Spookily, under their helmets, they all look the same. They’re clones, and therefore again one step away from the human. They’re constructs, manufactured and therefore easily expendable. And again, they have a collective name rather than anything that would allow us to see them as individuals, to give us the chance to empathise.

The one flipside to this idea that I’ve been able to find comes in, of all places, from the first Austin Powers movie. A running gag showed the home lives of some of Dr. Evil’s henchmen after they were killed by the International Man Of Mystery. Giving a faceless hench a wife, a family, friends and a social life is unthinkable in most of the cases I’ve talked about. We’re not supposed to care about them. They are obstacles to be removed without thought or consequence.

As @JaesonX pointed out to me on Twitter, SF invasion pics are starting to shrug off the old cliches. District 9 takes a much more complex and nuanced approach to the theme of first contact, a situation that’s unlikely to begin with the two sides shooting at each other. Gareth Edwards’ Monsters tells us that we’re just unlikely to be able to figure out what they want here in the first place. Both films end, not in full-scale conflict, but a grudging, uncomfortable co-existence, marred with sporadic violence. This can be tracked back to shows like Alien Nation, where the visitors arrive not as aggressors, but refugees. This reflects the fluid nature of national identity, racism and touches on the way people view their territory and the people that come into them in ways that the basic war movie simply doesn’t have the tools to address.

There will always be a place for war movies. But we live in a complicated world, and it’s sometimes difficult to figure out who the bad guys should be. I’m holding out for the first war movie that pits the USA against it’s own banking system. That’s a fight with some life in it.

(pic credit: Francesco Francavilla).