Aliens invade coastal cities worldwide. In Los Angeles the US Marines mobilize to fight them—and fight them they do. At length. There's your movie, in a nutshell: it's Black Hawk Down with aliens. There are many explosions, and many thousands of rounds are fired. It's a grunt's-eye-view of Independence Day rendered with some of Cloverfield's shaky visual flourish. It’s the glacial visual poetry of Tarkovski's Nostalghia combined with the aching psychological insight of Wild Strawberries-era Bergman.
Well, not that last one, obviously.
But what an earnest, dusty, sweaty, muscular, strenuously macho movie this is; the script marinated in testosterone, the production actively supported by the Marine Corps (for whom, as several reviewers have noted, it in effect functions as a recruitment tool). War is good guys versus bad, full-on, bang bang bang. Men are men and aliens are toast. There are only two female characters in the entire film: one a tough and ballsy solider—Michelle Rodriguez, whose joy at having escaped the curse of Lost must surely be tempered by the fact that she only ever seems to get cast in movies wearing military helmets and riding in helicopters. The other female here is a civilian veterinarian (Bridget Moynahan) who contributes nothing to the ensemble apart from looking pretty in a disheveled sort of way. No, that's not true; she also uses her veterinarian skills to enable Staff Sergeant Shouty McRock PatriotAct (Aaron Eckhart) find the aliens' weak point ("I need to know how to kill them, goddammit!") by vivisecting one of them. Otherwise it's all men, all the time: manly men doing manly things in a manly way. Our team of heroes fights its way across Santa Monica to rescue some civilians from a police station, then it fights its way back again, moving cumbrously from firefight to firefight, killing many aliens. Having rescued the civilians, the Marines singlehandedly locate the alien command and control paraphernalia and blow it up.
The director, Jonathan Liebesman, occasionally leavens the monotony of all this with some slightly less frantic interludes. These give characters the chance to whoop and punch the air, by way of expressing their satisfaction at having killed large numbers of aliens (indeed there was in the film as a whole, it seemed to me, rather more whooping than was entirely necessary). On other occasions characters' jaws harden and the soldiers' eyes get a little teary; but this emotion is always a manly choked-back emotion. Indeed is actually always the same emotion—the bruised heart inside the rock-hard chest—and the eventual outcome of the film is never in doubt.
In sum, Battle: Los Angeles is less a film and more the experience of sitting inside an oil drum for two hours whilst people hit the outside with metal rods and drop firecrackers in at the top. Of course, it doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is; a gung ho actioner that takes no prisoners, least of all prisoners with names like "nuance," "complexity," or "depth." I'm happy to concede that I (preening, effete European liberal that I am) probably don't represent the target audience of such a film. Had I watched it in a movie theatre in Texas filled with red-blooded patriotic fans, my sense of its potential qua entertainment might have been different. As it was, in a four-fifths empty cinema in Staines, it seemed to me a fatally monotonous example of the "more must be more!" school of filmmaking—if one explosion is exciting, eighty explosions must be eighty times as exciting! Although to be fair, the first twenty minutes are lighter on the fireworks. There's a bit of desultory sketching in of characters, and even the promise of tension: the US Marines go about their regular business whilst in rooms and messhalls TV news reports describe the approaching "meteor shower" that we know is actually an alien invasion. But once the boots hit the Santa Monica ground it really is a solid lump of shooting and explosions and running around and more shooting and more explosions.
The narrative premise is that the aliens are here to steal our precious fluids—water, specifically—which they use directly to fuel their technology. "Our planet is the only place in the known universe with liquid water" claims one stare-eyed TV scientist, which made me wonder from which institution of higher learning he had earned his degree. This "water" notion is a puzzler, actually. At one point our guys come across a shot down alien flier, the wrecked innards of which display ruptured pipes from which water is dribbling. This suggests that the aliens simply fill their fuel tanks with untreated brine and are ready to go ("the ocean levels are already starting to drop!" claims the on-telly expert, in another belief-beggaring aside). As to how this technology works, or why, given that the aliens need water, they are moving inland from the California coastline towards the Mojave desert—why, indeed, they are invading LA at all rather than somewhere wetter like Hawaii, or Manchester . . . well, the film doesn't give us enough information to answer these profound and challenging questions. "Our planet is the only place in the known universe with liquid water" indeed—as if aliens with the technology for interstellar flight, and whose weapons discharge heat-ray like blasts, haven't figured out how to melt ice. Ice, after all, is a substance with which the universe is copiously supplied.
But, of course, it misses the point to read this plot element in terms of its semantic coherence. It works, rather, symbolically: "we" invaded Iraq for the oil, which directly fuels our technology. We pitched up there, out of the sky, with terrifying technological superiority, blew a lot of stuff up and killed a lot of people. Now, after the mission accomplished banner has been unfurled, and indeed folded away again, it's possible that "we" feel bad about that. Battle: LA employs the logic of inversion and condensation (as Freud might put it) to rework trauma as wish-fulfillment fantasy. "We" are no longer colonial aggressors; now we are affronted and righteous representatives of civilization fighting—as the squad Lieutenant puts it, in his brief Henry V moment, "for our lives, our families, our homes, for our country goddammit." Accordingly, and however assiduously the film valorizes the ethos and bravery of US Marines, it can't help putting its protagonists into Al-Qaeda situations: the brave officer who turns himself into a suicide bomber in order to take down a clutch of enemy aliens for instance.
During his tour of Iraq Aaron Eckhart's Staff Sergeant lost men under his command. He carries the grief for this throughout the film, manfully repressed, except for one scene in which he gets to vent it. This he does in a properly manly way—by standing very close to one of his Marines, and yelling into the guy's face the names, ranks, and serial numbers of all those who died, which, handily, he has memorized for just such an occasion. Yelling, surely, is the best way to handle negative emotions. Yelling and shooting stuff. Anyway, this scene results in Eckhart's men becoming even more dedicated and loyal to their NCO, their Corps, and their country goddammit. The scene had a different effect on me, I must say. It made me think that for such a conventionally handsome man Eckhart has a really, really long face and proportionately very small eyes. There's something of the Simon MacCorkindale about him, facially. And also something of the aardvark.
So, yes, my preening, effete European liberal view is that this is not a good movie. Some of the design work is pretty cool—both the aliens themselves and their various craft—and very occasional moments of tension or excitement can be found within the relentless hammerdrill monotony of the big explosions. I liked the noise the aliens made, too: a sinister stream of gurgles and snickers, halfway between a rattlesnake and a blocked drain. Or like a 33 rpm recording of Bill and Ben played at 45. But one explosion is very much like another, and ten thousand rifle rounds slamming into metal alien war machinery is nine thousand, nine hundred and twenty too many for dramatic effectiveness. Speaking roughly.
It so happened that I saw this film with my friend Barry. Astutely, I think, he said it put him in mind of Stolz der Nation, "Nation's Pride," the film-within-a-film in Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds about the heroic sniper who kills goodness knows how many enemies. Indeed, Battle: Los Angeles does feel like that, although without the saving grace of Mélanie Laurent's giant face appearing near the end to taunt the audience. Which was a pity.
Nation's Pride was never going to be this film's title, of course. Originally it was going to be called Battle for Los Angeles; and then it was World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles. Battle: Los Angeles is snappier, although I have also seen it advertised as Battle LA, which perhaps runs the risk of sounding a bit Welsh, or even of suggesting that the film will be all Battle-la-di-dah, which, really, it isn’t. Actually when I saw the film, the poster had dispensed with the punctuating colon altogether and gone with the no-nonsense Battle Los Angeles, conceivably on the grounds that colons are for pussies. To which I say: well, perhaps they are.