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Non-Review Review: Battle – Los Angeles

Battle: Los Angeles is a movie we’ve all seen countless times, only with a different name. It’s perhaps the most generic and cliché-filled alien invasion movie that I have ever seen, and I think I’ve seen a lot of them. Part of the problem with the film is that it does a lot functionally, but does nothing especially well – but it’s also that it’s so mundanely bogged down in formula that it’s hard to ever engage with what’s going on.

Facing a completely alien foe...

The movie opens with an announcement that the world is under attack by invaders from another world. I assumed, as I sat in my chair, that this was something resembling an interesting move on the part of the film. Providing us with this much exposition this quickly was undoubtedly a way of just picking the audience up and throwing them into the ensuing chaos. That would have been an interesting approach, to just throw us into a situation with as little grounding and information as possible – to have us caught up in the carnage without any idea on the details of what exactly was going on.

Unfortunately, the movie chickens out of that initial premise and then flashes backwards to a day before the invasion. Which feels kinda pointless, because we know a lot of the details of what is about to happen (although, the movie is called “Battle: L.A.”, so the clue might be in the title). Instead, we spend the better part of half an hour with a bunch of characters who would need serious work in order to be two-dimensional. One of them is our lead character, who is a stereotypical “burnt-out” marine corp soldier who has seen too much combat and has a dark incident in his past that he has yet to come to terms with. We also spend some time with the soldiers of what will inevitably be his platoon. Some are wedding planning, some are visiting dead relatives, some are drinking and playing golf and scoring women. You know, banal activities which substitute for character.

Keep watching the skies...

I’m disappointed the film jumped back to give us exposition that we probably could have lived without. Just jumping into the action would have suited the themes of the film particularly well. Alien invasion stories have been allegories for “colonialism” since H.G. Wells first used War of the Worlds to shine a mirror on the British Empire. This time around, the metaphor of choice seems to be American intervention in the Middle East. The alien invaders are here for our water. “They’re here for our resources,” as one pundit puts it. The water they use to fuel their war machines. Let’s ignore, for a moment, the fact that it’s probably easier to melt the ice frozen out there in the cosmos (they want ours because it’s “liquid”) than it is to launch a full-scale invasion of a foreign planet.

So, recalling the conflict in the Middle East, Battle: L.A. attempts to offer its audience an alien invasion film for the age of urban warfare. Everything is ground-level. We are not treated to high-level “threat briefings” or anything, and the President is not a character in the movie. Characters are ambushed on roads, and shelter in community buildings under attack from all quarters. The camera is hand-held, which works well for the ground combat sequences.

Aliens take to Earth like fish to water...

The problem is that the movie lacks the courage of its convictions. It focuses on a single lost platoon in the middle of a conflict that is so epic in scale they shouldn’t see the big picture. The harrowing thing about insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan is the random brutality of it all. It’s raw and it doesn’t always make sense. However, the movie insists on conforming to the structure of a big budget blockbuster. Randomness doesn’t fit the mould. Things need to make sense. You need to explain everything to the audience because you fear that they won’t “get it” if you don’t. You need this little platoon lost in the scale of things to somehow be the most important people on the planet, because audiences don’t like to feel they’ve watched something “meaningless.”

So, coupled with this small-scale approach, we get all the tropes associated with big-budget action films. The transition is somewhat jarring, as we get handheld footage of close-quarters combat with a sweeping orchestral score that strikes all the typical patriotic and emotional notes. We get an exposition-filled conversation between two characters across a small desk, with the camera zooming in and out three or four times while focused on the same face. 

Soldiering on...

Another problem is just how “workmanlike” the film actually is. When the mysterious objects falling to earth are revealed to come from some alien civilisation, nobody really seems too fussed. It’s just another bump in the round. The marines would be more surprised if Canada, bothered by decades of being mocked for their pronunciation of the word “about”, decided to annex Texas. Okay, forget that comparison – that scenario would be surprising. However, the troops still seem pretty blaisé. I’d expect some reflection on the fact that they are facing something from another world – not in the existential sense, more in the “we have no idea what we’re up against” sense.

You could argue that these are just marines buttoning down and being stoic – keeping quiet and getting the job done. However, the melodrama in the plot suggests that these aren’t folks to keep quiet. The soldiers aren’t exactly quiet on their distrust of their veteran Staff Sergeant. “You got a silver star and my brother came home in a body bag,” one exclaims to him. You’d think somebody would be concerned that they are facing an opponent that they have no measure of.

Get to the choppa!

But then, there’s little alien about these aliens. In fairness to the film, it’s quite clever to portray the creatures obviously moving in military formation (rather than just flailing around seemingly randomly like most alien invaders). However, it seems a bit awkward to have the troops immediately identify that the aliens have a similar hierarchy to the marines and to speculate that the soldiers fighting are just “grunts.” In a movie which is so straight-forward about everything else, it seems strange to shoehorn these observations awkwardly in there through expository dialogue. Let their actions speak for themselves.

It doesn’t help that, literally right as one character speculates that the foot soldiers are just “grunts” following orders, we get to witness a vivisection of an alien trooper, as it squirms helplessly. The soldiers rationalise this cold-blooded torture as a means of finding a weakness in the alien. I’d disagree with the fundamental logic of this – in that once you strip away the creature’s armour and several layers of skin and tissue, I’m fairly certain anything is a weak spot, so it seems a bit odd to have them digging through the creature’s entrails until they are half-way to China.

A scorched Earth tactic...

However, my real problem with the scene is that – right after it’s pointed out that this creature could be a conscript or a volunteer who didn’t know what it was getting into – we’re asked to accept that tearing it open while still alive is a heroic thing to do. If that creature were a human, regardless of whether it was invading or how purely evil it was, this sort of conduct would not be acceptable from a heroic character. Indeed, one might forgive the film if it accepted the moral implications of the action, but it just seems indifferent towards it. The civilian doctor (well, vet) on hand even volunteers to help.

In fairness to the film, it’s a fairly typical alien invasion film, and it hits all the tick-boxes. The problems include the sheer volume of clichés that the film crosses along the way. At times it seems aware of them – “you owe me five dollars,” one soldier remarks, “I told you the virgin wasn’t going to die before he got any” – but other times it plays them frustratingly straight. All the obligatory scenes are here. Children need to be saved. A superior officer argues with a subordinate about remaining behind. A military officer makes a strategic decision deemed “suicide” by a colleague, with lots of shouting.

Who says LA is a cultural wasteland?

However, these clichés sometimes lead to awkwardly dumb storytelling. If I’m ever invading another planet for their water, for example, I will never place “a command and control asset” on their soil, even if they seem to be retreating – I’ll keep that baby in orbit. If I am facing an alien invasion force that has navigated across the stars to reach us, I will not make the assumption that an advanced space-faring race does not have basic air-combat units. However, these are the sorts of tactical decisions that both sides make over the course of the film – and they just seem so fundamentally flawed it’s hard to go along with them, even in an alien invasion film.

Battle: L.A. is stronger in premise than in execution. The idea of a ground-level alien invasion film drawing inspiration from urban conflict is a fascinating one, in credit to producers. However, the problem with a ground-level combat film is that you need to commit to a sort of gritty and honest film making style that you just can’t build a blockbuster around. It would be like attempting to combine Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour with The Hurt Locker. It just doesn’t work.

4 Responses

  1. Some movies would only be good for people who don’t watch films regularly.

    • I think you have a point, and I certainly don’t want to grow “numb” from watching too many films. That’s what I worried about starting a blog where I write about films regularly. I worried that I would analyse them into the ground or lose the basic joy of watching a film. I like to think I haven’t – I hope I can argue with the best of them, but I like to think I can still be impressed by a film “for what it is.”

  2. I was bored to tears waiting for the credits to roll on this one. There were a number of entertaining moments but I was seeing “Paul” a theater over later that same night.


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