Battle: Los Angeles (2011)
It’s just your typical sunny, Southern California day. Blue skies, good vibes, and aliens wiping out the indigenous species (read: us) for our bountiful resources. Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), literally a morning away from retirement, is pulled back into combat to be apart of a Marine platoon that must hold up in the city and fight back against our otherworldly intruders.
Well there is a battle, and it is set in Los Angeles, but that’s about all you’re going to get from this movie. If you were looking for something approximating character, you’re looking in the wrong place. The characters are purely defined by one-note superficial differences, like this guy’s a doctor from Nigeria, this guy has a pregnant wife, this guy has… glasses, etc. The characters were so powerfully indistinct that there were three separate times that a person appeared onscreen and I said aloud, “Hey, I thought that guy died.” Battle: Los Angeles is a military movie, a grunts-eye-view to an alien invasion. And we keep that limiting POV for the entire movie. Battle: Los Angeles has more in common with Black Hawk Down than it does with Independence Day. Replace the depiction of angry, faceless Africans with aliens and there you go. We move from house to house, rubble-filled street after another, shooting wildly, barking commands, and trying to make sense of the urban battles. I’m doing the film too much of a favor because that makes it sound thrilling, which it is not. While there is plenty of action kept at a fairly frenetic pace, that action consistently stays at the same level of intensity. Nothing truly builds or develops to add extra levels of tension. The action is consistent, shooting through one neighborhood after the next, and when the action is plentiful but fails to develop, then the entire movie feels stagnant. Sure it develops from a “We have to go here now” assembly of plot dominoes, but advancing from one location to another with fewer characters each time is not the same as a plot.
These have got to be some of the dumbest aliens in the universe. These are the aliens that the other aliens pick on. Some scientist/exposition device pontificates that the aliens are after our water, which is a better reason than invading a planet to harvest our tasty brains (Skyline, I’m looking in your direction). The talking head says it’s a rarity to find a planet with liquid water and thus Earth is so attractive to outsiders. Okay, so you’re going to tell me that aliens lack the ability to take ice melt it? There’s an awful lot of ice in the universe that could be more easily obtained. That seems like a better solution than an interstellar road trip for a drink. The creature design is decidedly lacking as well. The aliens look like a cross between squids and a hardware store shelf; they have metallic weapons forged to their skin. At one point Nantz and his crew is dissecting an alien POW to look for vulnerable spots (this might violate some sort of treaty somewhere) and find a lone sack underneath about five layers of armor and exoskeleton. Then they relay the news about this “delicate” spot to all the troops and miraculously all of the aliens start to now go down easily by being shot at a great distance and having the bullets penetrate layers to hit one spot a half a foot in diameter on a moving target. Makes perfect sense now that they know. That info didn’t seem any more helpful than just blindly shooting at the area below the head, which was the previous method for killing. These alien spaceships look like someone attached rockets to the shantytowns from District 9. These ships look like something assembled over at a junkyard and I thought to myself, “You traveled through space in this heap?” It’s like an invasion from an impoverished alien race that also happens to be ignorant and uneducated, which might explain the whole coveting water thing. Battle: Los Angeles might secretly be a metaphor for class warfare. Or not. Probably not.
The movie transforms into a two-hour commercial for the Marines. Battle: Los Angeles espouses the selfless bravery and honor of our servicemen, which is commendable, but it should have been done in the ame of recognizable human characters. It does the honor of good men no justice when they are turned into statues. These aren’t people, they’re recruitment figures spouting poster slogans through gritted teeth. The valor turns just this side of jingoism, and that does a disservice to the sacrifice of the men and women of the armed services. It’s hard to watch Battle: Los Angeles and not come away with the impression that the Marines are superhuman badasses and let’s fight some aliens! What compounds this messy association is that the Marines have long featured TV ads where their square-jawed recruits battle fantastical monsters (I recall one of them being made of lava).
Director Jonathan Liebesman (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, most famous for Jordana Brewster’s gravity-defying low-rise pants) is no great lensman. He gives shrift attention to the significance of geography in action composition, but he makes up in quantity what he lacks in quality. There is plenty of loud noises and the like, so you’ll be kept awake, that is until you heard the stilted dialogue and wish you could fall asleep. The film packs enough stuff into an overlong 110 minutes but it’s not terribly interesting stuff, which is saying something for an alien invasion movie.
Disappointingly, the movie makes no usage of its titular location. Los Angeles may be the battlefield in name, but this movie could have been set anywhere. It does not take advantage of any of the geographic features that are unique to Los Angeles, or even California. Why bother establishing a specific location in the title and premise when the execution means you could have set the story anywhere (Battle: Cleveland?). It’s a crumbling city; it could be Libya for all that matters. Some of this is likely due to the fact that the movie was almost entirely filmed in Louisiana, which seems like a rather unnatural double for Los Angeles pre and post-alien invasions.
Battle: Los Angeles is a studio film that gets its job in an efficiently empty-headed manner. The space invaders are dumb, the action is too limited and erratically framed, and the story exists only in a theoretical state. Eckhart grunts in his raspy Two-Face voice from The Dark Knight for the entire film. I suppose if you have low expectations and just want to fill up on special effects, Battle: Los Angeles should sate your desire for straight-forward shoot-em-up entertainment. It’s not brainless but it’s close to it. Near as I can tell, Battle: Los Angeles is devoid of political or topical commentary on contemporary conflict because that would just get in the way of its straight-laced heroics. Sorry District 9, what were you thinking?
Nate’s Grade: C