War as entertainment: ‘Battle: Los Angeles’ nearly succeeds in making mass destruction seem fun and entertaining

June 2, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 2, 2014

If one wanted to put an interesting spin on Battle: Los Angeles, the 2011 war flick directed by Jonathan Liebesman, one could imagine it as a romantic comedy rather than the straight-up action-adventure movie that it is.

In this reading, the protagonist, Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), is not the haunted veteran who has just officially signed papers to retire from the U.S. Marines; he is an emotionally distant but fundamentally decent man who just needs the love of a good woman to let go of the dark, hazy past that is weighing him down. 2nd Lt. William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) isn’t a newly minted officer so green that he and his very pregnant wife struggle to attach his insignia properly to his uniform; he’s the pretty young class president with a boyfriend in college who needs to grapple with adversity in order to learn about leadership, and who inspires her deputy (Nantz). Michelle (Bridget Moynahan) is no longer a frightened veterinarian rescued by Martinez and Nantz’s platoon, but the age-appropriate potential love interest who helps Nantz rediscover his emotional side.

And the uncommunicative, relentlessly violent alien invaders (portrayed by countless special effects and props), rather than being extraterrestrial invaders who blast everything in their path, are… Um, maybe they’re the arrogant rich-kid sorority girls from the snobbish private university who are competing with Martinez and Nantz’s group for a $30,000 prize that the motley public university group needs to save an orphanage, but which the obnoxious sorority girls intend to invest in a McDonald’s that requires the demolition of an animal shelter stocked with exceedingly cute, well-behaved puppies and kittens?

Well, perhaps it’s a mistake to depict Battle: Los Angeles as anything other than it is: a pretty effective straight-up action-adventure romp that revels in violence, male bonding and other hallmarks of war movies.

The movie’s premise, per talking heads glimpsed on snippets of newscasts, is that aliens are invading Earth to steal its water, even though one would think it simpler to find the substance elsewhere in the galaxy. (For instance, on this waterlogged asteroid orbiting a star about 150 light years from Earth, which our humble human astronomers discovered last year. Or mayhaps the aliens could have simply tried negotiating with us to use our water?)

But honestly, who cares about logical holes in the premise? The whole point of Battle: Los Angeles, which was written by Chris Bertolini, is to pit Aaron Eckhart’s chiseled features and a diverse squad of Americans against aliens in small-arms combat. That the movie does, effectively and with minimal distractions. Yes, there are 15 minutes or so of lead-up to the fighting, and yes, some of it cliché-ridden. (When the squad parties, we learn that one of the privates is a virgin; he later turns green and vomits because he drank too much beer.)

Still, Battle: Los Angeles establishes its lead characters as being worth caring about. The movie is OK on this front, even though some of the squad members are indistinguishable from one another; for instance, the only thing I know about LCpl. Peter Kerns (Jim Parrack) is that Nantz is constantly barking “Lockett! Kerns!” and telling them to handle one task or another. (Does Kerns survive the movie? I couldn’t say.)

The movie suffers from a certain amount of sloppiness. Martinez’s squad is dispatched to a police station in Santa Monica to rescue civilians; in the course of their hellacious day, they encounter and join forces with a small band of soldiers whose units have been destroyed, not to mention five civilian refugees — a man, a woman, a boy and two girls. One of the stray soldiers, TSgt. Elena Santos (Michelle Rodriguez), turns out to be integral to the plot; in the third act, the marines turn their attention to destroying an important alien communications hub that she had been assigned to track. There’s also a story arc for the two civilian adults and the boy.

But what’s the deal with the other soldiers? I couldn’t say whether any of them live or die. More disappointingly, the two girls have nothing to do but look scared. Oddly, the camera and/or editors favor the blond girl so much that seeing the brunette girl is jarring, as if she’s wandered in from another movie. I was also unable during one sequence to detect just which of the characters was driving an abandoned city bus that the group commandeered.

The movie also suffers from a few plausibility problems. Nantz’s squad ends up spending about 24 hours rushing around Los Angeles (well, technically, the separate municipality of Santa Monica), climbing ladders and rappelling down from helicopters and running through sewers and shooting aliens. Most of the time, they’re facing a deadline — first, to evacuate the area that the Air Force plans to blast (everything within one mile of the coastline), and then, to rendezvous with a helicopter that will take them out of the combat zone. Yet aside from a sweat stain or two, the marines hardly show any sign of fatigue.

Other parts of the movie seem more realistic. Martinez’s unit is frightened and confused at first. There’s a rather touching moment when, as the squad is airlifted to a base near the battle lines, the anxious lieutenant wipes his brow and hastily scribbles a note to his wife. In an early skirmish, a private accidentally leaves his comrades, necessitating a harrowing rescue. (Afterward, an irate Nantz growls that if the marine is separated from the group again, he’ll personally dispatch the private.) In the most revolting sequence, there’s an impromptu battlefield vivisection that helps the marines learn how best to kill their foes.

There’s a certain — and, I suspect, unintentional — irony to the film. For all the aliens’ might, the defending warriors whom we see on screen are determined to fight to their dying breath, if needed, to reclaim their homeland. I detect no sign that Liebesman (who is South African) or Bertolini (American) had any notion that their fiction might cause viewers to identify with Iraqis, whose nation the United States occupied for many years.

Battle: Los Angeles is aware, however, that it is entertainment first and foremost, and it works well enough on that level. My main fault with it is the strangely optimistic ending, which undercuts whatever subversive anti-military message an attentive viewer might have absorbed.

After Nantz’s group is removed to safety, the survivors eschew an opportunity to wash, eat and rest up in favor of restocking their ammunition and hopping on a chopper back to the battlefield. The implicit message is that war is not just manly and necessary but also fun, exhilarating and redemptive. The end of the world, Battle: Los Angeles would have us know, is what separates kick-ass warriors from the cowering worthless masses.

This would be disturbing in any context. Given that in 2011, the United States was engaged in bloody military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the gung-ho ending lends more than a whiff of propaganda to Battle: Los Angeles.

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