Reviews: Battle Los Angeles

Enjoyable, Despite the Humans

The director stated that he set out to make a war movie with touches of sci-fi, rather than the other way around. Unfortunately, by that set of parameters, I feel the movie falls short of its potential. Now, before I explain myself, know that I was thoroughly entertained and would recommend that people see it. It was a good movie, but it could have been so much more.

Now as I said, they went out to make a war movie, and without the trappings of the science fiction elements, they did not succeed. To me the heart of a great war movie lies not with the firefights, realistic tactics and jargon, or earth-shattering kabooms; but with the very real human reaction to combat. The emotional toll that violence takes on a person needs to be evident with each character and how they deal with it in different ways. War movies are essentially character studies of people placed under the most extreme conditions imaginable and asking if their actions are justified.

Battle Los Angeles does not provoke those questions. Viewers have said that it is possible to overlook the fact that the Marines are a Storm Of Cliches and I agree with them. But the fact remains that they are as flat as cardboard. Aside from Aaron Eckhart's character (and Michelle Rodriguez, but only because she's playing the same character for the billionth time) the only thing I could tell you about the other Marines is that one wore glasses and another had a moustache. Yes, I remember their backstories, since they're the same backstories given to every other disposable grunt in B-movies, and I honestly could not match an a character to their history if pressed. I asked myself if I would have found the movie as enjoyable if, instead of aliens in LA, they were fighting insurgents in Iraq, or Koreans in Pyongyang, or Germans in Normandy. The answer, regrettably, is no.

My hat is off to the graphics department for creating an immersive post-apocalyptic wasteland and the aliens themselves were thankfully original. Also, the military advisors deserve credit for staging believable battles and adding hints of tactical intelligence to the invaders that makes them a credible threat. If you like a knock-down drag-out fight with humanity struggling for survival, this is your movie. Hell, that's why I love Independence Day. But I can't shake the feeling they were trying for something more than that here.

Saved by Genre Savvyness.

I usually disagree with critics and often give movies slammed by them at least the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, I went into Battle LA expecting the usual action-movie tripe masquerading as science-fiction, and was pleasantly surprised. The trailers showed a certain level of, if not originality, than at least a little bit of common-sense in film making, like the movie would at least try not to insult my intelligence.

Shockingly, the movie turned out to be rather well-made. The Marines are all walking cliches like the main page says, but their backstories take an abrupt turn for the unimportant when the action starts. This is what a war movie should be; following people into war as an observer (invisible though we may be as the viewer) shouldn't lead one to expect a plethora of backstory. It should lead one to expect a functioning fighting unit, and true to this, their attitudes shift towards getting their jobs done. Likewise, the Heroic BSOD is rare in this film, each one underscored by subtlety instead of Narm. They're scenes we would believe in a standard war film without the aliens to encourage absurd distress.

The alien designs are a mixed bag. Their tech is suitably bizarre but the actual aliens are somewhat bland. This works well during the combat scenes when their basic bipedal design gives us enough to recognize their body language, but they seem much less impressive when we get close-ups.

The aliens as entities, however, are done brilliantly. Much of this movie's effectiveness is carried in the very small details, like the way the aliens communicate with hand signals and drag their wounded behind cover, things that don't even happen more times than you can count on your hands. Little touches like this, as well as on the human side (the lack of Hollywood Tactics, the way the civilians are definitely not The Load as we would expect, averting typical action movie cliches like Black Dude Dies First) go a long way to legitimizing the film as a war movie.

It's not very original, but it also does its tropes right. Don't see it if you're in the mood for a popcorn-munching action movie, but see it if you've gone through Saving Private Ryan, Generation Kill, Band Of Brothers, The Pacific and The Hurt Locker and need some new military drama to chew through.