At one point in Battle: Los Angeles, after Staff Sergeant Aaron Eckhart, USMC, does something cool, his lieutenant says, approvingly and not altogether inaccurately, “That was some John Wayne [stuff].” Another Marine then asks, “Who’s John Wayne?” Rather than have one of the “kids don’t know their history” exasperation seizures to which I’m increasingly prone the further I get into my 30s, the first thought that crossed my mind was, “Forget John Wayne, y’all need Robert Heinlein to clean this mess up.”
There are many levels on which Battle: Los Angeles could work. It has aliens, explosions, Aaron Eckhart’s chin, all kinds of potentially valuable assets. The premise—an alien invasion from a Marine platoon’s point of view—had potential. Director Jonathan Liebesman’s stated intent was to tell the story as a realistic war movie, which is a fine idea indeed. It’s too bad he came nowhere near achieving this goal.
Chris Bertolini’s script keeps getting in the movie’s way. If ever there was a movie made to embody (and, frankly, gentrify) the stereotype that Hollywood movies are all action and no story, it’s Battle: Los Angeles. Just tossing a bunch of faceless characters into the mix, giving them guns and a few bricks of C-4, and turning them loose on the aliens actually might not have been a bad idea at all in this case. Giving the platoon members’ backstories—there’s the dorky virgin, there’s the guy who’s getting married, there’s the guy from Brooklyn/Bronx/Jersey, there’s the slightly crazy Southern dude, there’s the guy who’s Haunted By His Past, there’s the other guy who’s haunted by the same past and bears a grudge that miraculously gets resolved at the break between Acts Two and Three. There’s the good civilian. There’s the shady Intelligence officer (who, pardon the mild spoiler, turns out to be okay, and moreover, being Michelle Rodriguez, is one of the movie’s best assets along with Mr. Eckhart). Et cetera. And because of all this “character development,” the Marines often have to stop right in the middle of firefights with the aliens so someone or other can get emotional. In a movie where aliens and stuff blowing up and Marines making aliens blow up are the most important things, why not just preempt the inevitable and toss the characters altogether? It might not be a good movie, but at least we wouldn’t have to watch Lieutenant Hamlet, who’s never seen combat, take longer to make up his mind than the aliens took to cross the universe.
This brings up a point about the aliens in Battle: Los Angeles. They open with the fairly awesome gesture of straight-up materializing in Earth’s atmosphere, no multi-light-year slog through space for this bunch. One could easily infer great technological skill—and a certain elegance of style—from this. Where it starts to fall apart is when Earth’s nerds—seen on the occasional, conveniently functional, TV set—figure out that the aliens are here for our water because liquid water is a scarce commodity. They make a point of emphasizing “liquid” water. Since we’re already in inference mode from earlier, let’s go ahead and determine that the aliens must have access to plenty of ice, some of it maybe even on uninhabited planets. So. They’re capable of beaming into our outer atmosphere from who knows where….but they can’t melt ice?
We haven’t even gotten to the horribly short-sighted and wasteful military tactics. They’re here for our water, and the general idea is they’re going to kill everybody so no one’s around to get in the way. They’ve got these super-fast, powerful un-aliened aircraft that can blow stuff up pretty quickly and efficiently. Why, then, do they lead with a wave of ground troops, actual living, breathing aliens, zillions of whom get blown to kingdom come by the Earthlings before they decide to bust out the drones? I can’t imagine the tut-tutting the military would be subjected to on alien NPR for that kind of stupidity. Also, why do they even have to blow us up? If you’ve got the technology to just beam into the atmosphere, couldn’t you bring along some alien vaccuum tubes and a tanker spaceship or something and just vacuum up Earth’s oceans and beam back home?
It is a serious liability in a movie whose appeal rests largely on the spectacle of aliens and Earthlings trying to blow each other up when one can sit and analyze how dumb it is while it’s going on. The idea, in an explosion movie, is to keep enough stuff blowing up that the audience’s lizard brain keeps going “cool!” and then afterwards, when the adrenaline wears off, those inclined to do so can start going “Wait, what’s with [salient flaw]?” Expecting good writing in movies like this is foolishly Utopian, but there are plenty of directors of sufficient technical skill to keep the movie’s foot on the gas until it reaches the finish line to distract from the dumb script. Jonathan Liebesman is not one of these. He’s yet another of the misguided types who associate shaking the camera around all over the place with realism, when really all it does is keep the audience from seeing what’s going on. Documentary filmmakers who operate a camera by hand are trying to capture something that’s going on so that the people watching the movie can see it. The camera only shakes because they don’t have a tripod. The camera moving around is something they try to minimize.
So, Battle: Los Angeles ends up occupying an uneasy middle ground, having neither sufficient explosions and competently malignant aliens to succeed as escapism nor sufficient intelligence to work as an emotionally involving war movie. The only good news is that when the word of their military’s horribly botched water-stealing mission gets back to their home planet, the alien Left is going to go to town on them in the media.