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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ultimate Geek Fu

Battle: Los Angeles
Review by Bruce Bethke

ARR, there be spoilers ahead!

The Kid and I saw Battle: Los Angeles last weekend, but before I get to my main comments I want to address some sidebar issues. Apparently in some circles this is already considered a controversial movie, and some critics are racing to heap opprobrium upon it. Along with the usual sci-fi wanker fanboys complaining that the SF elements of this film aren't explained to their satisfaction and you never get a really clear look at the aliens or their equipment, a large and vocal contingent of critics are complaining that the characters in this film are somehow not credible.

Hmph. I suppose, if you're the sort of person who thought Avatar was both a brilliant film and an honest and accurate depiction of the mind and personality of the typical American military person, you might find Battle: Los Angeles to be a bit off. But if this is the case, honestly, you really should get out more, and perhaps meet some actual armed forces members once in a while. While you can find the stereotypical dimwitted trigger-happy racist jarhead if you look hard enough, most modern American armed forces members are typically a lot smarter and just generally much better human beings than you seem to be willing to give them credit for being.

And with that said...

What I most admired about Battle: Los Angeles is how tightly focused the story-telling stays. All the action in the film takes place in the space of 48 hours, in a tightly constrained physical space (Santa Monica: I used to bike around it), and with a very small cast of characters. There is no cutting away to see what the President is thinking, or back to some general thundering orders at cowering subordinates in some command bunker somewhere, or away to watch some scientist at CalTech have a brilliant insight into the aliens' one weakness, or off to see what Lieutenant Martinez's pregnant wife is doing while he's away — frankly, the really short form of this review is that everything that made Independence Day totally stupid is not in this film, and it's vastly better for it. Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum, or any simulations thereof, do not appear in this film, so those are two big plus marks right there.

Instead, almost everything we see on-screen is tightly tied to the viewpoint of one character: Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (played by Aaron Eckhart, who you probably most recently saw as Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight). Nantz is a mature career noncom at the end of his twenty; a decorated combat veteran and an authentic hero, but also a man acutely aware that men under his command died in the action for which he received his medals. All he wants to do now is finish out his hitch with a training battalion and retire quietly—

Okay, yeah, he's Clint Eastwood's character from Heartbreak Ridge — only without Marsha Mason, Mario Van Peebles, or an old Marine buddy he can cry in his beer with. So that's three more big marks in the "plus" column.

The action opens with the Marines in the thick of combat and really getting pasted, then immediately jumps back into what I considered a gratuitous 24-hour flashback. (However, Starship Troopers opens this way, so I suppose I can't complain too much.) The remainder of the action then proceeds in strictly linear form from that point.

It's the day before the invasion. The Earth waits, unaware. In a series of short vignettes we meet SSgt Nantz, 2nd Lieutenant Martinez, and the men of the platoon, and they're all just... men. Normal men. (Okay, Marines.) They have hopes, dreams, ambitions, personalities; they're just like any other group of somewhat physically above-average contemporary American twenty-somethings. They're black, white, Hispanic, Asian; they're from Down South and Jersey and Compton and everywhere else, including an immigrant who joined to get on the fast-track to citizenship. (Again, it bears repeating: there is no Mario Van Peebles in this movie! Big plus!) There is the slightest taste of foreshadowing: a news report, seen on a TV, describes an unexpected meteor shower that's predicted to hit the Earth in the next 24 hours.

Except they're not meteors, of course, they're landing craft, and they're coming in hot. It's only when they're seen to be decelerating that the powers that be realize something is up, and the Marines get the call to mobilize. The aliens splash down just off the coastline, near major cities all around the world; again, as the alien troops emerge from the water off Santa Monica beach we get our first blurry looks at them through the omnipresent eye of a TV news camera.

[One more sidebar: if you must have political relevance in your films, this is the point where I would have been very happy to see Tom Hayden striding confidently down the beach, eager to be the first to offer his hand in friendship to our new alien overlords. But that's just me.]

If you like to catalog such things, this is the point where it turns into War of the Worlds for a few minutes. (The 1953 version, not the 2005 version.) The aliens come out shooting. The slaughter of the curious bystanders is horrendous. The on-the-scene reporter is abruptly cut off and presumably killed. The Marines get the call to swing into action.

Again, at this point the movie departs from Hollywood canon. It takes time for Marines — even Marines who are already at Camp Pendleton — to get organized, gear up, and move out. By the time they get to the forward operating base the aliens have already established a substantial beachhead, and the platoon is tasked with a rescue mission. There is a party of civilian survivors in a known location behind enemy lines; the Marines' job is to go in, find them, and get them out, before the Air Force's heavy bombers come in and flatten the area. (Again, it takes time for the Air Force — sorry, yes, even the Air Force — to mount a fire mission.)

At which point the movie then turns into something like Black Hawk Down. [Another fair warning: if the "shaky cam" technique used in the combat scenes in Black Hawk Down or the Omaha Beach scenes in Saving Private Ryan made you queasy, be advised that the technique is used in abundance here.] The Marines go in. They make contact with the enemy. The aliens are tough, but not unkillable. The fanboys in the audience begin to whine, because we never get a really good look at the aliens, but in truth this represents an old axiom: "If you can clearly see the enemy and have them in range, the reverse is probably also true."

From here on out to the end, the movie does a masterful job of metering out information. The Marines fight their way in. When their original extraction plan goes to hell they fight their way out again. Everything they subsequently learn comes only from what they observe themselves. (Including one somewhat icky scene in which they perform a crude field dissection on a wounded alien, trying to figure out what its vital organs are.) There is only one serendipitous revelation; the Marines find a couple of stragglers from another outfit, one of whom happens to have a piece of information that's vital to their survival, although that's not immediately evident. [There is also another scene in here that gets the fanboys wincing. With their radios cut off the Marines are looking for another way to get back in touch with their F.O.B., and in a bombed-out convenience store they find a working TV upon which a CNN talking head is pontificating about a truly stupid rationale for the alien invasion. A number of critics have pounced on that scene as a flaw in the movie. I prefer to think of it instead as ironic commentary on the intelligence of CNN talking heads.]

Again, I can see why serious movie people are upset by this film, as it departs from Hollywood canon in so many ways. Lt. Martinez is young, green, and fresh out of officer's school, but he does not go to pieces emotionally and require SSgt Nantz to take over. One of the civilians the Marines rescue is the lovely Bridget Moynahan and she and Nantz seem to have a moment together, but they do not immediately tear off each others' clothes and have torrid sex. One of the stragglers they pick up is Air Force Tech Sergeant Elena Santos, played by Michelle Rodriguez, but she does not turn out to be a totally hot take-charge kick-ass one-woman assault force with more balls than all the men put together. One of the Marines turns out to be the younger brother of a Marine who was killed on the mission for which Nantz was given his Silver Star, but he and the sergeant do not have a fist-fight over it. SSgt Nantz gets to perform one insanely heroic feat, and afterward the lieutenant chews him out for "pulling that John Wayne s**t" when his first duty is to survive and complete the mission. Nobody gets drunk or drugged-up in despair, and absolutely no one stops the action in the middle of a firefight to argue about their relationship problems.

And in the end, the Marines win — the battle, but not yet the war. For unlike most Hollywood aliens, these buggers wisely did not equip their mothership with a big red button marked, "Press Here to Destroy Entire Alien Invasion Fleet." In fact, they don't even seem to have a mothership.

What else can I say about Battle: Los Angeles? It's an action picture; violent but not gory, brimming over with heroism, excitement, with a feel-good ending that might actually instill a sense of pride in the USMC — and did I mention that Mario Van Peebles and Jeff Goldblum are not in it?

Rating: *****
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