What "The Eagle" and "Battle: Los Angeles" taught me about telling stories

      I have to laugh. I just read Roger Ebert’s review of Battle: Los Angeles and, while I greatly respect Mr. Ebert’s opinions, I do believe he gave that movie the lowest rating I have ever seen. He not only hated the movie but said that anyone who liked it was an idiot. Oops. Well, I did like it, I’m almost embarrassed to say. The movie is about a squad of U.S. Marines who fight aliens in Los Angeles, and maybe the fact that I am an ex-Marine influenced my feelings.
    In any case, the movie was filled with clichés: the Marine sergeant with a troubled past, the green lieutenant, the Marines learning to trust each other, etc., etc. But here is what I liked: I thought it was honest and did not over-reach. And while it did have some clichés, it didn’t have all of them. For example, there was a kid in the movie but he had a small part and wasn’t captured by aliens and then needing to be rescued. And there was a woman, but the hero did not fall in love with her. But what I especially liked was that the movie did not try to be more than it was. Rather than having epic, special effects battles, virtually all of the fighting was via small team tactics between the Marines and the aliens. This allowed the characters to stay center-staged and reinforced the idea that even vs. aliens Marine Corps combat training and marksmanship are effective. Hoo-rah!!
     The Eagle is the story of a Roman officer in first century England trying to recapture a Roman Eagle that his father lost while commanding a Legion some years earlier. Ebert loved the movie, but, to my mind it had several major similarities to Battle: Los Angeles.  First it involved similar, simple themes and wasn’t shy about invoking clichés. Second, the battles were, by and large, a series of small group encounters that allowed the story to stay focused on the characters. As I watched the movie, I was struck by how the simple values of courage, loyalty, and trust can stir emotions in viewers, almost as if we as humans are hard-wired to respond to them.
    These two movies caused me to ponder what are the elements of a good thriller. These days some would say it is unexpected twists and brutal action that grab a reader’s attention. However, I am more likely to say, it is about the emotions the story conjures in its readers/viewers.
In my next posting I will discuss what makes a satisfying ending in a thriller.
Jim Haberkorn
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