Tuesday, August 09, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

"We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach."

- Steve Hawking

Jonathan Liebesman's Battle Los Angeles is both a gung-ho, full-throttle war movie and an intriguing meditation on the thoughts expressed in the Steve Hawking quote printed above. 

In other words, the film is a two-hour warning that there could be a bigger kid out there on the cosmic block, eyeing up our milk money...or our planet.
The film -- set on August 12, 2011 (this coming Friday, actually) -- concerns an alien invasion and occupation of planet Earth, and the largely impotent (at least at first...) response on the part of our national military. 

Though critics relentlessly hammered Battle Los Angeles for a variety of reasons, the film is undeniably exciting and intense, and also effectively presented in terms of visuals.  The most interesting aspect of the movie however, is the subtext, which reflects on the contemporary age of American Empire. 

With two wars in Iraq under our national belt in 2011, plus continuing military engagements in Libya and Afghanistan, most contemporary Americans are acutely aware of how vital natural resources are; and how far a global power might go to acquire or protect such resources.  As the last remaining superpower, America -- rightly or wrongly -- reserves the right to send military forces around the world to determine ownership and control of such resources.  We are blessed with superior armed forces who are impeccably equipped and entirely capable of carrying out such foreign policy spearheads.

Intriguingly Battle Los Angeles essentially asks audiences to consider the war in Iraq from the other side of that particular equation. 

Suddenly, its our cities being attacked, our resources being coveted, and our soldiers being outmatched by superior technology.  Suddenly, "shock and awe" is being utilized against the very people who invented the term.  The shoe is on the other foot. 

Uniquely, Battle:Los Angeles makes its alien invaders more advanced than the U.S.A. in terms of technology, but not so much so that the aliens are invulnerable or able to wipe us out easily.  The point here is that the aliens are only a generation or so ahead of our own military; as we are but a generation ahead of the Iraqi Army, for example.  Even the design of the alien technology reflects this fact.  More or less, the aliens utilize recognizable guns, air ships, drones and armor; tech only slightly out of our reach today, in 2011.

The goal in fostering this dynamic, this familiar relationship, is to reveal to audiences how modern urban fighting looks and feels when you don't possess the upper hand in terms of weapons, vehicles and territory. 

Here, the battle occurs on American soil -- the soil we consider most important -- and every loss in terms of property and people is a blow to our country's economy, treasure, and life-blood  Thus the movie plays cleverly on our sense of nationalism and pride.  We believe it can't happen here -- that we can't be beaten in war -- but Battle: Los Angeles shows viewers how, in fact, it could.

Of course, in typical Hollywood fashion, the less-advanced army carries the day here, just in time for a convenient happy ending.  But that flaw (along with a few others) might be forgiven since Battle: Los Angeles is so obviously crafted in the blockbuster mold.   Accordingly, the film's action scenes are spectacular and involving, particularly one set on a damaged freeway ramp.  And lead actor Aaron Eckhart is especially impressive as Sgt. Nantz, a quiet and committed American soldier; a reluctant warrior of tremendous integrity and fortitude.

An unidentified enemy has reached our coastlines in a swift and militaristic attack. Right now one thing is clear: The world is at war.

On August 12, 2011, meteors rain down across the globe.  As Earth authorities soon learn, however, the meteors can alter speed and change trajectory.  They also house alien soldiers of frightening, destructive capability.

As armies mobilize around the world to meet the alien threat and pundits theorize that the aliens have arrived to steal Earth's water, Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) is called back from retirement to active duty. 

Under the command of a rookie lieutenant, Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), Nantz is ordered to lead a squad of soldiers, Echo Unit,  into the occupied city of Los Angeles and rescue several civilians trapped in an otherwise abandoned police department.  The soldiers must complete the rescue in three hours, before the U.S. Air Force firebombs the city

After a disastrous first engagement with the aliens, Nantz and a group of civilians and soldiers attempt to make it back to a base in Santa Monica in a still-operating bus.  After a pitched battle on a freeway ramp, the survivors make it home only to find the headquarters burned to the ground by alien air power.

Teaming up with a tech sergeant, Santos (Michelle Rodriguez), Nantz launches a desperate campaign to take out the alien's command center, a construct hidden somewhere within city limits. 

At first, it looks as though Nantz will have to make the final fight alone, but through his heroic and selfless actions he earns the loyalty of the men and woman in his unit...

That was some new John Wayne shit

Although critics complained about Battle Los Angeles visual flourishes -- or lack thereof -- director John Liebesman has nonetheless selected the best technique to depict his particular tale.

In particular, he deploys a shaky cam and hand-held shots so that the audience feels -- viscerally -- that it has landed in combat right alongside the infantry and Sgt. Nantz.

Mimicking documentary film techniques, Liebesman reaches for and attains an authentic cinema-verite vibe here, the sometimes queasy feeling of real life unfolding before the camera, unplanned and unrehearsed.

Yes, this technique isn't always perfect in terms of clarity and spatial relationships, but indeed that's the very point of such an approach.  A soldier on the ground in an alien invasion of Los Angeles certainly wouldn't have access to the larger picture, the position of his enemy, or much of anything, actually.  Instead, the experience would be one of total pandemonium and chaos. 

The jerky camera and the quick cutting here accurately reflect the experience of combat, the proverbial "fog of war."   In other words, the film's form reflects its content to a high degree.  The visuals make us feel the disarray of the situation.  We too, go to war, here and the director's selection of technique heightens immediacy and fosters anxiety.  I fail to see why many good film critics failed to recognize the efficacy of this approach.  Is the film "noisy, violent, ugly and stupid?"  Well, it's the first three, to be certain. And yet a war like this, if fought in real life, would also be "noisy, violent and ugly."  Stupid?  Well, I suppose that's in the eye of the beholder.

The grounds on which to legitimately complain about Battle: Los Angeles are likely those involving the off-the-shelf characters.  The military types in the film, while undeniably heroic, are stereotypes as old as the war movie genre itself.  There's the seasoned veteran about to be put out to pasture.  There's the green rookie put in charge of the unit, trying to find his battle "legs."  There's the married guy, the resentful soldier who lost a brother under Nantz's command and so on and so forth. 

These characters and situations are all right out of the war movie formula playbook, but as one of our readers, Cannon, insightfully commented here the other day "the reason they call it formula is because it works."  Indeed.  We don't watch a film like this for character development, necessarily, but for the riveting action and combat scenarios, at least primarily.

Another reason to dislike Battle: Los Angeles, perhaps, is the unoriginality of the alien motivation.  The E.T.s are here on Earth to steal our water supply.  We've already seen that idea played out on the original V (1984) and in Signs (2002).  Yet, again, I believe that this argument largely misses the point.  Battle: Los Angeles is first and foremost a war movie, but one boasting some welcome and creative twists.  We get state-of-the-art special effects and cinema-verite camerawork, but more importantly the movie presents the unconventional conceit of turning shock and awe on the very country who introduced it to the world.   There's also a nice homage at film's end to Ridley Scott's brilliant Black Hawk Down (2001), and it's one that lauds American soldiers and ther commitment to service.  All in all, it's not a bad or unpalatable mix, frankly.

Fronted by Eckhart -- whose chiseled good looks and quiet strength suggest he would make a hell of a Sgt. Rock -- Battle Los Angeles is ultimately an inventive and interesting enough initiative to grab a foothold in the viewer's psyche and plant it's flag there.

And, it's better and smarter than the similarly-themed Skyline (2011). 


  1. I've heard about this film, it sounded really interesting. Crossing over V, War of the Worlds book and George Pal film (the meteors, attacks on major cities including Los Angeles, survivors), and a classic UFO myth/tale from early 1942.

    If the aliens aren't that far advanced from us, we'd have a chance to win. This is something a lot of people overestimate---an alien race doesn't have to be more advanced in everything to come here, just to develop FTL or Warp tech. Indeed, there is plenty of 1960s-era SF that postulated we could have that by the end of the century--a Twilight Zone episode, On Thursday We Leave For Earth; Lost in Space, to name a couple of television appearances of that idea, and of course the various ships of the Planet of the Apes franchise and, while we are at it, even Space: 1999 looked at the possibility with the Swift in Brian the Brain. All of those people were about at the same tech level, except for the propulsion, as contemporary Earth between 1960 and 2000. Let's say a 2010-modern-tech level alien comes to Earth via an early developed FTL drive in 1960. We could probably beat them, despite 50 years head start. In fact, my friend Chris Nigro has postulated such a scenario from the backstory of various Toho films, including The Mysterians and the Showa-era Godzilla films.

    On the list of things to see someday! But I've never heard of Skyline...

    Gordon Long

  2. Good look at this one, John. The shoe-on-the-other-foot scenario is similar to SKYLINE's and better executed. It's also interesting that both BATTLE: L.A. and that film used the shore communities in my hometown of Santa Monica (B:L.A.) and Marina Del Rey (SKYLINE) to stage their battles. They're very close to each other -- only Venice Beach separates them. SKYLINE, though, did use actual MDR locations where B:L.A. used Shreveport, LA to film much its scenes.

    Aaron Eckhart was very good in this, as I would have expected from this actor. However, isn't Michelle Rodriguez getting a bit typecast (especially with her AVATAR stint, and all)? I think the only thing that keeps me from really enjoying this are the "...stereotypes as old as the war movie genre itself" deployed in the film. And it does harken back to the John Wayne WWII films used during that war. Still, us playing the insurgent fighters defending their homeland against a technologically superior force offers an original thought and commentary, which frankly makes up for a lot that's lacking or copied from other, better war films (like Ridley Scott's superior BLACK HAWK DOWN).

    And it's way better than SKYLINE (you actually like the people in this film compared to that one ;-). Fine review, John. Thanks.

  3. PDXWiz: An interesting idea. I wonder if we could fight back against a race with ftl capability, given that the fight would be here, on Earth. It's certainly a unique premise for a sci-fi film. Battle LA doesn't really delve into those details, alas, it's more of a set up to create a metaphor for the Iraq War here at home. I'm cool with that, but would like to see the other idea played out too!

    Le0pard13: I love Michelle Rodriguez, but I agree with you that she's being typecast. I always enjoy seeing her, so I guess I'm okay with it, but would like to see her branch out into some other types of films. Loved her in Girlfight a few years back...

    We agree that Battle LA s better than Skyline, in part because -- just as you say -- we don't actively hate the characters here. They may be cliches and stereotypes, but they're likable stereotypes! :)

    Best to you both!


  4. Hi John,
    I'm sorry to disagree with almost everything you and PDXWiz wrote above, as well as with Stephen Hawkings. As to this last point (Hawkings), you just need to read the inteligent rebute from Michael Shermer in this month's SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN.

    As to the idea itself - and the shoe on the other foot and all that - is as old as SF itself (just think of Wells WAR OF THE WORLDS).

    The main point for disagreement, however, is on the chances of survival for Earth based on Earthtech. Discounting the almost certain impossibility of FTL or wormwhole drives or whatever, and Fermi's Paradox, it wouldn't amount to a bag a beans IF the aliens got here. It is one of the oldest military lessons - get the high ground - and one Heinlein explored brilliantly in STARSHIP TROOPERS and Peter F. Hamilton went one (or two) even better in both his NIGHT'S DAWN and COMMONWEALTH series of books: once in Earth orbit, or even better, orbiting the Moon, the aliens would only need kinectic projectiles to subdue all our forces and weaponry, and little more that EMP to disable our civilization.

    That BATTLE FOR L.A. still posits the need for phisical invasion and atmospheric battles is just a sign of lack of imagination (and of not keeping up with good modern Science Fiction and military technology. Come on, we have neutron bombs that could wipe out all of the living beings in any city or compound and keep the natural resources and infrastructures intact.

    Wouldn't an alien race, capable of traversing vast light-years of space, have a weapon as simple as that?

    Come on, it may be a nice popcorn mvie to watch with your brain on idle gear, but hardly something to write home about.



  5. I enjoyed your assessment John. I had a similar take. It's solid fun. It's effective. It didn't break too much stride from formula, but it works.

    I enjoyed your science fiction nods to formula in Signs and V and Black Hawk Down, which I found to be equally as evident. The formulaic nature of the film certainly lends itself to comparison.

    While I didn't agree or take away the contrasts to the war, your Iraqi analogies were colorful and once again offer a different perspective on this film, which has certainly been well-covered.

    In fact, if you take the tact you propose this IS Black Hawk Down on American soil and the aliens are the Somali warlords. But I didn't take it anymore than an exercise in good, old-fashioned fun. Still, I do that sometimes.

    In fact, I liked the Hawking quote and how you weaved the American conflict into that concept, but I definitely do not see us the same way.

    Your take is solid as always with your own unique Muir spin and analysis. You always offer a different perspective. This one isn't terribly inventive, but enjoyable.

    best regards,