Arts Desk

Reading The Washington Times’ Revived Arts Coverage

This week, Washington City Paper is putting together its annual Best of D.C. issue, which means our newsroom is currently feeling pretty masochistic. In that spirit, I've decided to read The Washington Times.

Specifically, I'm interested in the Times' arts coverage, which beginning today has returned to the paper—in the form of the Life section—following an absence of some time. So what's inside?

Nothing local, to start. In the section—which is actually the back few pages of the sports section—you'll see the faces of Seth Rogen, Aaron Eckhart, Victoria Jackson (oh noez! She's dissed Glee!), and the cast of Sister Wives.

The lead item is an essay by Reason Associate Editor Peter Suderman, and it begins with an analogy so clunky I simply must block-quote it:

What does one do with the body of a half-dead alien invader?

If you’re one of the Marines battling a race of insectoid conquerors through the dusty streets of L.A. in “Battle: Los Angeles,” you hack it apart with a combat knife — and look for any way to kill it.

By the time the body is found, the Marines have discovered that the creatures are remarkably tough to kill; like horror movie villains, they get shot again and again, but keep rising from the dead. So, with the aid of a conveniently available civilian veterinarian, the troops begin a hasty dissection, searching for the hidden weakness in an indestructible enemy.

As its squishy insides are spilled, the alien groans, but never says a word. The wide-eyed vet wonders at the lack of defined organs or internal structure. “Does it have some sort of cognitive mechanism? Anything?” she asks.

The answer is no — not just for the disemboweled alien, but, sadly, for the movie itself. Unlike the best alien invasion films, “Battle: Los Angeles” doesn’t have any real ideas or anything to say. Like its organless invaders, it’s basically an empty shell.

You see, bad sci-fi movies are about aliens. But good sci-fi movies are about us! Us all along! And all the while, I thought 2001: A Space Odyssey was just about a computer with too much sass!

The piece does a fine job running through some of the themes Hollywood alien movies have addressed since the 1950s—Communists! Technology! The, um, "dangers of self-destruction" (actual quote)!—but rarely thinks too hard about them. Since the Times is a conservative newspaper, its cultural criticism must come with some amount of finger-wagging—I know this, because I used to work at one. And so, alien films once had much wisdom to impart (with the exception of Independence Day and its "hastily grafted on environmental message"). Now they are lackluster, and one reason is that they have so little to say (with the exception of ABC's series V, which is willing to "engage, and sometimes undermine, the hope-and-change politics of the Obama era). Take The Invasion, Skyline, and Battle: Los Angeles, Suderman writes, and their dearth of thematic substance.

I dunno: District 9 was a solid, recent alien movie with a message—it was an apartheid allegory—and while it didn't come from Hollywood, it was certainly mainstream, earning a best picture nomination at the Oscars. Avatar also had a message about imperialism, if a clumsy one (and also an additional message about how noble—and simple—the wisdom of native people can be). Meanwhile, you can imagine the Manicheanism of the Transformers movies appealing to conservatives, but they're also crap, so it's just as well Suderman left them out of his argument.

The rest of the section, which I submit without much comment: a column titled "Same-sex marriages give polygamy a legal boost," which invokes Big Love and Sister Wives; entertainment briefs from The Daily Caller that lead with why Victoria Jackson (of SNL fame) thinks Glee is anti-Christian and way too gay; and a column titled "Charlie Sheen and the Fukushima 50" which I couldn't bring myself to read.

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