“Battle: Los Angeles” — Who Came Up With This Crap?
With movies as spectacularly bad as Battle: Los Angeles, it’s hard not to imagine what the pitch meetings in the studio’s office were like. Similarly plotted movies like Independence Day and The War of the Worlds had to have been mentioned, and this would make sense. But I suspect that someone in that meeting also evoked a non-sci-fi movie: Ridley Scott’s decidedly alien-free Black Hawk Down. And I say this because Battle: Los Angeles focuses not on the global response to an impending annihilation at the hands of emotionless invaders from space, but on a single squad of U.S. Marines as they try to save a handful of civilians trapped within the aliens’ beachhead in Santa Monica, which the Air Force plans to raze in a matter of hours to quell their advance. You see, unlike heartless bureaucrats or fancy flyboys in their jets, Marines never leave anyone behind, and here’s where this should sound familiar to Scott’s (much better) movie. The trouble, however, with making a movie like this—with obvious predecessors and influences—is that unless the new movie is thoroughly engaging, the audience is going to let its mind wander over to those other movies it’s seen and reflect on how much better they are.
Battle: Los Angeles opens promisingly enough, with an in media res CNN report (no one watches anything but CNN throughout the entire movie) from a spot overlooking the Los Angeles Basin, where the reporter informs us that several global cities have been destroyed, that Los Angeles appears to be the last unconquered city on the West Coast, and that the military is concentrating its efforts there for one last stand. Once more into the breach, so to say, and in theory this is a great set up for some dazzling human vs. alien war scenes and inspiring speeches about defending our way of life (see: Bill Pullman as the President in Independence Day). But then we’re rushed back in time twenty-four hours, before anyone knows anything about the rapidly approaching spaceships. We see an obviously aging Marine named Nantz (Aaron Eckhart, who may have been cast simply for his imposing chin dimple) as he flounders through his morning workout and then files his retirement papers. The fellow Marine he chats with, of course, makes sure to drop a few clumsy hints that Nantz made some sort of grave mistake during his last hitch in Afghanistan. Then we’re introduced to the rest of the squad in a series of quick exposition scenes, all of them strained and clichéd.
Cue the aliens, whose spacecrafts have entered the earth’s atmosphere totally undetected and which crash land into the oceans near the world’s largest coastal towns. All of the Marines on the base (Camp Pendleton, about halfway between LA and San Diego) are mobilized and Nantz is tasked with leading the squad on their rescue mission. In bits and pieces (through CNN or the USMC commanders) we’re given details about the aliens actions and capabilities, but we don’t see them for quite a while, a gambit that’s achieved via shooting and editing techniques that are best described as gratingly chaotic. The aliens, it should be mentioned, seem not to have any weaponry more advanced than a really powerful machine gun. One would assume, or at least I would, that a species capable of traveling untold light years to earth—and with the hubris to stage a global attack on many fronts at once—would also have some seriously advanced killing technology. But that wouldn’t make for an interesting match up against the single squad of Marines, would it? Anyway, after some confusing firefight, the stranded civilians are found and our squad tries to get from behind enemy lines to the safety of the temporary base. The squad also picks up a curious refugee from another, now mostly dead group of soldiers: Michele Rodriguez, playing (I kid you not) an intelligence scout for the Air Force.
From here the plot becomes a series of frantic skirmishes with aliens interrupted by agonizing (for the viewer) scenes that the filmmakers would like you feel are seriously emotional. They are not. They are sappy, their dialog is wooden, and overall they’re uncomfortable to watch in the way that local theater is. And the plot developments themselves are all well within the realm of predictability. Some of the scenes and exchanges are so groan-inducing that even the most forgiving viewer might get the impression that the movie is nothing but one long tribute to the bravery, dedication, etc. of the US soldier. Which is all fine and good on some level, but I thought we’d decided long ago that the most successful ads were those that enabled consumers to feel as though they weren’t being advertised to.
Eventually the Marines save (most of) the civilians and manage to figure out a way to cripple the alien onslaught. Yes, one squad. Which of course leads to more displays of heroism, sacrifice, selflessness, loyalty, and whatever other virtues of good Marines you might wish to see demonstrated and extolled ad nauseam. Perhaps you’re wondering (I was) what the rest of our massive industrial-military complex was doing while a grunt like Nantz and an unintuitive techie like Santos (Rodriguez), stuck on the ground dodging bullets, were able to identify a solution. Well, we don’t know, because the film is myopic to a fatal fault. And this is where their decision to, essentially, make Black Hawk Down meets Independence Day reveals itself to be both the crux of the problem and the catalyst. The concept strains to justify the movie’s existence and in doing so permits and even precipitates a series of bad decisions (the lackluster cast, the dialog, the herky-jerky plot, the frenetic aesthetic…) that compound the problems at every stage. Battle: Los Angeles does nothing to dispel the notion that Hollywood has turned into an assembly line factory that cranks out blockbuster after blockbuster, painting in broad strokes and neglecting the finer points of quality filmmaking, or that it callously believes that blockbusters are, prima facie, worth customer’s money. I generally feel that comments like that are cheap and dismissive, if only because we’re foisting our artistic values on their capitalist endeavor, and because there are well-made blockbusters that become classics, that we’ll watch every Fourth of July weekend when shown on cable. But sometimes those comments are patently true.
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