Mark Harris
March 25, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Here’s a rule of thumb for our still-new millennium: Whenever world events reduce people to saying ”It’s like a movie,” you know something indescribably terrible is happening. In recent weeks, I, and probably many of you, have been riveted by news footage from the horror unfolding in Japan. In particular, I found myself returning over and over to images of the tsunami wreaking its havoc along the coastline — noting how the dark water looked like lava, how the cars and buildings seemed weightless, how it could appear to be almost slow, yet so devastating.

Eventually, I realized I was trying to make those images feel like a movie — because a movie can be turned off or put away. Whereas the reality is that the tsunami was not like a movie in any way that helps us understand it. Even if we watch it on the same TV or laptop on which we watch movies, and even if we try to correlate all the cinematic visions of catastrophe we’ve ever seen with what we’re witnessing now, ultimately saying something is like a movie is just a despairing reminder that it is not a movie.

In the first days after 9/11, when videotape of the jets hitting the towers was still being rerun almost compulsively on TV, the problematic weirdness of our appetite for apocalyptic destruction in movies, TV, and games was widely discussed. Some people said, ”9/11 changes everything,” but of the many things 9/11 did change, our taste for mayhem as entertainment wasn’t on the list. A decade later, enough people still like to see things get demolished to keep half the movie industry busy and rich. Ten years is, for the young moviegoer to whom most movies are marketed, an eternity, and Japan is a lot farther away than New York City, and tragedy on this scale can make you long to be numb. So, despite 20 very sincere seconds of the American Idol judges talking about how terrible what happened in Japan is, people mostly switched into ”The show must go on” mode so quickly that we barely had time to process the truth, which is that the show never really stopped in the first place.

The week after the tsunami, the No. 1 film was Battle: Los Angeles, a surprisingly old-fashioned platoon-on-a-mission movie about Marines fighting hostile aliens bent on destroying the world, but more importantly, L.A.! Opening day brought some muted speculation about whether this was really the weekend for Americans to gorge on the spectacle of a city being totaled — even if Japanese filmmakers were pioneers in urban-destruction monster movies and this film is itself a Japanese product (it’s from Sony).

As it turned out, the $35.6 million that Battle: Los Angeles grossed in its first weekend was, I think, pretty much what it would have grossed anyway. I watched the film braced for any sickening friction with reality that it might produce, and what I saw instead was the usual, mostly competent PG-13 vision of the near-end of civilization (hundreds of fireballs, very low body count, only one F-word). It was just a movie, like so many movies. In fact, the most interesting thing about Battle: Los Angeles is how fruitlessly it tries not to be ”like a movie”; its shaky-cam style is an eighth-generation Xerox of the Blair Witch/Cloverfield pretense that you’re watching on-the-fly docu-footage — an action-film neo-cliché that’s as far from ”realistic” as the clichés it replaced. The scariest part of the film comes early on, when the Marines get their first look at unfolding calamity the same way we always do — they stand slack-jawed in front of cable news broadcasts. That felt real. I was surprised one of them didn’t say, ”It’s like a movie.”

We all get to choose our own anesthetics, and I’ve got no argument with anyone who decided to seek refuge from the overwhelming real world by seeing Battle: Los Angeles. One of entertainment’s uses is to provide us with the option of a temporary time-out. But it’s worth taking a moment to remember that the chance to escape for a couple of hours is, after all, a luxury. One that we’re all lucky to have.

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