There are very few movies that I'll actually fanboy before their release: following the trailers, rumors pictures, soundtrack, etc, but Battle: Los Angeles was one that I've kept my eyes on ever since I first heard about it. It looked and sounded a lot like the type of film that District 9 was: a somewhat different take on an alien invasion, and that style of originality is a good thing in the genre. Battle: Los Angeles doesn't necessarily rise to the level of District 9, but it does know what it is: a movie about Marines shooting at aliens, and when the film stays on target, it really keeps to it, coming out the other side a fun, exciting war film that completely lived up to my expectations.
Reading the reviews of Battle: Los Angeles, I can't help but think that a lot of reviewers missed the point of the movie. I've begun to realize that some films need to be watched as they are intended, and this one isn't designed to be anything more than a science fiction war flick, stripped of context to play out a very small picture within a much larger one. Coming out of a Master's degree in Military History, this approach really appeals to me, trying to make sense of a larger issue from a smaller one.
As an action film, this is a good environment to be in: the Marines get to do what they do best, and we don't have a whole lot of extraneous clutter such as the last minute solution that saves the day. There's some information delivered via television at points (although it's strange that given the attack, networks are still broadcasting, and there's power), and apparently the alien invasion force is after our water. There's also some obligatory sub-plots about Aaron Eckhart's character Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz, and something about his history with the Marines in Iraq. Beyond that, the film is simple: get out to a police station, rescue the civilians, and get out. The film, armed with this goal, hops from street to street as the squad navigates the streets of Los Angeles, shooting their way through when needed.
The action is well done, and director Jonathan Liebesman does a good job taking up the tension a bit, revealing the aliens little by little in quick bursts, which combined with some shaky-camera work, lends itself well to a chaotic environment and situation for the team. While the film doesn't have a whole lot going for it in terms of overall story, it does have some very good points when it comes to leadership and leading through a difficult situation. A key part of this story, while clichéd, is the story between SSgt Nantz and 2nd Lt. William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), with an inexperienced officer learning exactly how to lead his soldiers.
The lesson isn't a perfect one: it's ridden with some clichés and overdone dialogue, but it gets the point across over the course of the film: you have a mission, and you have someone to lead, with people to follow. As Nantz notes at a couple of points, he'll follow left or right, but the leader needs to pick a direction. This strikes me as a good lesson in the military field, and I'd be interested to see what the military community feels about this film (aside from the nitpicking on the technical level). The marines in the film are essentially told to go to a location, and to come back. They're not told how to go about their work, it's just expected to be done in a timely fashion. (In this case, before the bombs start falling out of the sky). If there's any central theme to this film, it's this.
I was hoping, distantly, that there would be a bit more to tie in this film to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as District 9 did with immigration and Moon did with our energy crisis: that small theme that sits in the back of the film, helping to inform how things go along. That doesn't quite happen with Battle: Los Angeles, as it very well could have, but it's clear that this film is inspired by the experiences that we've had in the Middle East since 2001. There are a number of points where this very well could have been part of that conflict, and I suspect that there were a number of military advisors and veterans to help tweak the look and feel here and there.
But the absence here didn't really hamper the film: indeed, it was nice to see something that was largely unencumbered by a moralistic writer, decrying whether or not war was good or bad. Here, it doesn't matter, as much as the intentions of the invading aliens don’t matter for this picture. They're there, and the characters have to deal with this major problem, with little guidance or instruction. From all appearances, there’s no magic bullet in the form of a computer virus, or that water will make them disintegrate, just lots of regular bullets and explosives to hold off their advance.
What I was most happy about was that the film took a fun concept and took it seriously. One of my main complaints about other alien invasions was that they come off as a joke: aliens land, shoot up some monuments or do something really dumb, and humanity wins the day. Here, we see that there’s an organized military effort attacking the city and planet. Ignoring for a moment the logistics of interstellar travel and landing an invading army on another planet, their approach makes the most sense to me: you want to take a planet, you’ll need a military to do so, and an organized ground force, if you’re going that way, works well. I’m also going with the line of thought that as these are aliens, their logic when it comes to attacking will similarly be somewhat alien.
The aliens are particularly well done. They’re not the usual weird ears or human actor stuffed in a suit: it looks like the designers took a leaf from District 9’s book and decided to make them into something that really felt out of this world: there’s a great (messy!) scene where the soldiers try to find out how to kill one of the invaders, stabbing various organs before finding the sweet spot. The aliens themselves seem to be organized and are particularly brutal, shooting anything that moves and are equipped for their jobs: guns, packs, etc. At one point, it’s outstanding to see them pull one of their wounded comrades away from danger: it’s an approach to an invasion film that I haven’t seen, and it’s great to see someone thinking through some of the environment.
The film’s real faltering point is its reliance on the clichés and poor script throughout the film. The dialogue sounds very much like how I’ve heard Marines talk, and there’s only a couple of people who really get a lot of face time in the film, with a small cast of rotating Marines to fill in where needed. I wish that there was a bit more to some of the guys, but there’s an element of tongue-in-cheek when the real corny parts come through (such as right at the end), and it’s something that I’m willing to forgive the film for.
For all of its flaws, Battle: Los Angeles is a fun film, and it came exactly as expected: aliens vs. marines, with plenty of action, and just enough story to carry it all forward.