By Jason Apuzzo. While watching Battle: Los Angeles, which is an intense, stirring and highly patriotic ode to America’s fighting men and women – and in particular to the Marines – I was reminded of that great line from Casablanca, in which café owner Humphrey Bogart drily informs Nazi Conrad Veidt: “There are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.”
As a long time resident of Los Angeles, I can similarly assert with conviction that there are certain areas of Los Angeles that I wouldn’t advise any foreign power to invade – not even aliens – especially if those areas happen to be held by Marines. Battle: Los Angeles explains why.
Those of you who read Libertas regularly, or who are familiar with our regular Invasion Alerts! here, know that we’ve been following this massive new wave of ‘alien invasion’ movie projects for some time now. There was even some major news on the ‘alien invasion’ front today, because the first full trailer for J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 was just released (it’s great) – and that trailer is apparently running in front of Battle: Los Angeles in theaters.
As I’ve said on prior occasions, it’s my sense that many of these ‘alien invasion’ films are – in their own way, and using the unique vocabulary of science fiction – commentaries on our current War on Terror in much the same way that sci-fi films of the past were commentaries on the Cold War. Battle: Los Angeles is one such vivid case in point; it is, in point of fact, primarily a war film and only just barely a sci-fi film, sketching out the most basic and familiar sort of ‘alien invasion’ scenario, with hostile aliens landing in force across Earth in order to plunder one of our major natural resources (more on that below).
These particular aliens are not interested in talking with us, or in negotiating. They couldn’t care less what our private problems are – or what we were planning to do with our weekends. Like the creatures from War of the Worlds or Invaders from Mars or Independence Day, they are simply here to dominate and/or exploit – and they’re possessed of the savagery necessary to impose their will.
And so the question is, when such catastrophic events as this take place – as they essentially did, one cold September morning almost ten years ago in lower Manhattan – who precisely should free peoples turn to in defending civilization? Battle: Los Angeles is there to give us an unequivocal answer: the courageous, resourceful and endlessly tenacious United States Marine.
And this, really, is the most important thing to know about Battle: Los Angeles. Not only is the film ‘respectful’ of our Marines, and of American military culture generally, it could easily serve as a recruiting film for the U.S. Armed Forces. Whatever problems James Cameron has with the U.S. military – problems that led him to portray our military in Avatar as psychotics and killers, and worthy of defeat at the hands of an alien menace – Battle: Los Angeles is having none of it. Battle: LA’s basic purpose is to revel in the honor and valor of military service, the basic code of fidelity to the mission and commitment to one’s fellow soldier – even and especially in the face of overwhelming odds. Battle: LA is a film that feels a lot like Howard Hawks’ Air Force or Delmer Daves’ Destination Tokyo – basically a World War II movie, except that the context for this film today involves wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, yes, those wars are frequently referenced in Battle: LA – essentially as noble testing grounds for this apocalyptic battle-of-all-battles for humanity’s survival.
Battle: LA centers around a retiring Marine Staff Sergeant, played with rugged, low-key machismo by Aaron Eckhart. Eckhart has been in the Corps for twenty years, is losing a step or two, and feels like it’s probably time to hang it up. As the film begins, we also learn that some of the men in Eckhart’s platoon hold a grudge against him because of a firefight that went badly in Iraq, leaving several of his men dead – unnecessarily? We’re not sure. We only know that Eckhart is clearly burdened by the tough command decisions he’s had to make in the field, and is now ready to walk away so that younger guys can take over.
We also spend some time early in the film with the men of Eckhart’s platoon. As in a World War II movie, we’re introduced to a variegated group of young guys of all backgrounds and ethnicities. Whereas in a World War II movie you’d meet all the Jewish and Italian guys, here you meet the African-American, Asian, Filipino and Hispanic guys – with names like Guerrero, Mottola or Adukwu. I love this part of war movies – when you get to see all the different types of guys who serve together. It’s really a big part of what makes America special – this ability of people with completely different backgrounds to blend together and cohere. This blending and cohering is something that’s been happening in the U.S. military for generations.
At this point we learn that what appear to be ‘meteors’ have suddenly begun landing in the water outside of many of the world’s major population centers. What these ‘meteors’ are, nobody knows, but – suspiciously – they appear to slow down as they approach the water. That seems ominous, right?
Suddenly all hell breaks loose, as the aliens – who, sticking to current trends, look more or less like walking calamari with guns – storm the beaches of Santa Monica in a massive, coordinated assault. [Incidentally, I'm not giving away anything here that isn't in the film's trailer.] Initially I laughed at this, because for those of you who don’t know, Santa Monica is already for the most part occupied by space aliens – odd, otherwordly beings with names like ‘Tom Hayden’ and ‘Sean Penn’ – and has been this way for my entire adult life. So basically I had no real problem with the aliens carving out a slice of SAMO for themselves, maybe even opening up a nose-ring boutique on Third Street. But as the aliens proceeded eastward toward the downtown area – and within shouting distance of more valuable areas like the L.A. Coliseum and the USC campus – it became obvious even to me that something needed to be done. Enter Eckhart and his platoon.
What we’re treated to at this point is essentially about 90 straight minutes of intense urban warfare, street fighting suitable for the era of the Iraq War. Since I’m not personally a combat veteran, nor have played one on television, I can’t attest with any authority to the ‘realism’ of the fighting; I can only say that it certainly felt as ‘real’ as it could, given that we’re talking about street fighting with aliens, after all. Suffice it to say that things get quite intense, and we also get the sense that the aliens have a crucial edge in technological firepower, physical durability, and sheer brutality.
Along the way, Eckhart and his men are taking casualties – and also rescuing civilians. For example, Eckhart rescues a Hispanic man and his young son. Both the man and his son show the greatest respect for the Marines and their heroism, and Eckart feeds off this. [Remember, dear readers, to always show the greatest respect toward our soldiers - and personally thank them whenever you can.] The rapport Eckhart develops with the young boy is important to the emotional arc of the story, as Eckhart is regaining the feel of being a decisive leader in the field – and the young boy is getting to see a genuine hero in action. Eckhart also has to knock some sense into a rookie Marine Lieutenant leading the men; the Lieutenant here is getting a first-hand taste of how combat decisions are often made with no clearly ‘right’ option, requiring a leader to simply be decisive, regardless of consequence.
If any of this sounds familiar or basic to you, it’s because Battle: LA keeps things fairly straight-forward as a war picture. Although the film often feels like James Cameron’s Aliens (his greatest film, in my opinion) – or perhaps something like Halo: Reach – Battle: LA really owes a lot more to war movies like John Wayne’s The Sands of Iwo Jima in terms of its depiction of the American fighting man. The actual ’sci-fi’ premise behind Battle: LA is really quite thin, almost a fig leaf, as the filmmakers seem much more interested in the honor code of the American warrior than in hard science fiction.
On the sci-fi front, for example, the aliens themselves are kept rather opaque. We never actually get a very good look at them. Tellingly, however, they appear to have no individuality. And as far as their motivations, it’s intriguing to learn that they’ve apparently arrived on Earth in order to take our water – indicating that they may come from a hot and arid climate? A desert climate, one might even say? We certainly seem to be fighting people from such climates a lot lately. Ahem.
On this point, incidentally, the film pauses to make one, pseudo-snarky liberal comment midway, as a Stanford professor on MSNBC asserts that our own planet is going dry – due, if I remember him saying correctly, to climate change. Whatever. [Stanford professors often say such things.] In any case, my suggestion to this professor would be to blame the Chinese for that, as they’re currently the world’s worst polluters.
The film otherwise gradually builds to a climax, as Eckhart’s platoon members gamble their lives on a hunch – specifically, their ability to knock out the aliens’ command-and-control center for the LA area. I won’t tell you how that goes, but suffice it to say that the Marines acquit themselves honorably – and make living in LA an even bigger headache than it normally is for our would-be conquerors.
***END OF SPOILERS***
So how good is Battle: LA, exactly? I would say that it’s excellent – although I would stop short of calling it great, or a classic. What it is, without question, is old-school – and by that I mean redolent of films from the 1980s, or from the 1950s, eras when we generally had our heads screwed on straight. Eras when our moral compass wasn’t thrown off course by trendy relativism, or cultural self-loathing.
A few words about the cast are in order. Aaron Eckhart is really superb in his role as Marine Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz. He captures the character of the many Marines and military guys I’ve met over the years in terms of their steadiness, focus, civility and quiet resolve. He also has what is quite possibly the best chin in cinema. As far as Michelle Rodriguez, she has a lot to make up for in my book for appearing in Avatar and the godawful Machete; her performance here helps with that, although she isn’t really asked to do very much.
Battle: LA is a straight-up war film, and an enjoyable one, gussied up with a classic sci-fi premise. It’s not exactly what one would call a ‘visionary’ work of science fiction, and a little more creativity would probably have helped it, but it’s nonetheless an entertaining show. I suspect that somewhere Robert Heinlein (Starship Troopers) is smiling over this film – because American science fiction has always taken a keen interest in our wars and in humanity’s struggle for freedom. And since political cinema in America is dead for now, at least there is science fiction to carry forward great stories about heroism and nobility in the face of threats from aggressive, collectivist societies.
One final note: science fiction is, of course, not merely a vehicle by which to examine wars or political questions; it’s also a genre that deals with man’s fragile place in nature and in the cosmos. Battle: Los Angeles begins, oddly enough, with news reports of a massive, destructive meteor shower off the coast of Tokyo – and proceeds in short order to an onslaught coming at us from the shores of Santa Monica, the very site of real-world tsunami warnings from this morning. If you’ve been following the news for the past 24 hours, Battle: Los Angeles may seen eerily ‘timely’ in ways that the filmmakers could never have anticipated. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Japan today as they struggle against a calamity of incredible proportions. They will need all the courage they can muster, and I know America will be there – as ever – to lend a helping hand.
Posted on March 11th, 2011 at 9:17pm.