I started off a tad miffed at Battle: Los Angeles when, mere moments into the film, just after we are informed that the events we are witnessing take place in August 2011, a U.S. general on TV talks about something in Los Angeles occurring at “Pacific Standard Time.” (It should be, of course, “Pacific Daylight Time.”) My ire rose as the TV news continued to report “meteors” “landing” in defined clusters off the coasts of major cities around the planet, and yet the obvious fact that this clearly is not a natural event and clearly is intelligent behavior is avoided, and no one says the word aliens… and when people do start saying it, it’s with a disbelief that goes in a completely different direction than the shock you’d expect.
And then alien infantry arrive, attacking from the ocean and pushing inland rapidly. Soldiers. On foot. Yes, they have laser rifles and other just-barely-higher-tech-than-ours weaponry. But still: they’re from outer freakin’ space, and they’re going street-to-street not only in Los Angeles but, the TV news keeps informing us, in London, Paris, Hamburg, all over the world. Who takes over a planet street by street? What sort of technologically superior extraterrestrial bad guys don’t take out our power and global communications as a first step? One big EMP engulfing planet Earth, and they wouldn’t even have to set tentacle on the surface: we’d be back to banging rocks and sticks together.
I was beginning to wonder, amidst all the noise and the gunfire and the chaos and the shouting, whether Battle: Los Angeles weren’t the action-SF equivalent of Idiocracy’s Ass… and then I realized: B:LA may be about invasion, but it’s not about aliens: it’s about us. This isn’t science fiction: It’s a bleak fantasy about karma being a bitch. It’s about collective cultural guilt.
Looked at from that angle, Battle: Los Angeles is fascinating.
After the aliens arrive, with their mysterious motives and their lightning tactics and their coolly regimented genocidal calm, we follow one platoon of Marines on a mission to dip behind enemy lines — that is, into Santa Monica — and collect some civilians before the area is set to be bombed into dust by the U.S. Air Force in an attempt to, the hope is, cut off the ETs. Led by Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart: Love Happens, The Dark Knight, who is as intense and dedicated as he always is), who had been about to retire after losing some of his men in a bad situation in Iraq, these soldiers — soon joined by an Air Force tech sergeant (Michelle Rodriguez: Machete, Avatar), the last survivor of her team — face hell: this once pleasant city is in ruins, with dead bodies everywhere and raging fires reducing even what rubble is left to nothing. Worse, the Marines know nothing about the enemy, barely even glimpse them… and once the tall, spindly, apparently power-armor-wearing troopers come into sight, they have no idea even where on the aliens’ strange bodies to shoot in order to kill.
“I’d rather be in Afghanistan,” one Marine (Adetokumboh M’Cormack: Blood Diamond) notes ironically. It’s not just a joke: it’s the shiv-sharp point of the movie. Of course he’d rather be in Afghanistan! There, he’s the badass. He’s the one with superior technology and — he believes — superior motives. He’s the invader.
Here, he’s terrified. They all are, including the small band of civilians the Marines do manage to find (including Bridget Moynahan [Ramona and Beezus, Lord of War], Michael Pena [Observe and Report, Lions for Lambs], and three kids). Who are these aliens, and what do they want? Nobody the fuck knows. And it’s scaring them shitless. Quick flashes to experts on the TV news allude to the invaders wanting our resources, our water, which is of course both nonsensical, decidedly un-science-fictional, and has already been dealt with in Independence Day and V. It’s a hint that it doesn’t matter, don’t bother to think about it, what they want isn’t what’s important to this story: what’s important is the namelessness and apparent senselessness of their motives.
Or else that it does matter: think oil. The aliens use water to power their tech, so it really couldn’t be any more obvious. “Fuck you, humans,” says ET. “Too bad for you that you were sitting on top of all our water before we got here.”
Look: Battle: Los Angeles is a metaphor. When it’s our cities looking like Baghdad, now we care. When it’s our kids being terrorized by invaders with guns, now we care. Santa Monica is behind enemy lines, for Christ’s sake. What the fuck.
This is a visually chaotic film. Director Jonathan Liebesman (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, Darkness Falls) — the script is by Christopher Bertolini (The General’s Daughter) — doesn’t give us a way to grasp what’s happening most of the time. It’s not meant to be comprehensible: it’s meant to make you feel dislocated. It’s about being viscerally immersed in events too large to comprehend, even when it’s happening all around you. (In that sense, of course, it’s all a little too tidy, because it does wrap up in a standard Hollywood way. If they took the metaphor all the way, the movie would be ten years long, with no resolution in sight.) But it’s also aware of what it’s doing. When one soldier congratulates Nantz for an act that is “some John Wayne shit,” another soldier cracks, “Who’s John Wayne?” There may be John Wayne shit here, but it’s not delivered to us in a familiar, boxed-in, lucid, visually logically way. The medium really is the message here: the movie would be pointless if it was “reasonable” in how it presents itself to us.
Battle: Los Angeles is all about knocking that peculiarly American comfort and complacency. Not feeling so invincible and invulnerable, now, eh? Maybe it takes a threat from outer space to break it… but not so much for those usually on the other end of the Marine competence and professionalism on display here. If this is a recruitment commercial, as appears to be threatening early on, it’s inviting recruits to sign up to be the bad guys here on Earth.
Watch Battle: Los Angeles online using LOVEFiLM‘s streaming service.