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Our review of Battle: Los Angeles (Blu-ray), published June 13th, 2011, is also available.
It's not war. It's survival.
A movie in which U.S. Marines are presented as brave and honorable heroes instead of murderous goons and miscreant lackeys of The Old White Man Cabal™? Blasphemy!
Facts of the Case
August 12, 2011, 1446 PST: Twelve apparent meteor strikes happen simultaneously in key locations across the globe. It turns out that Earth is under invasion by extra-terrestrials most likely after our water supply. Their aggressive assault on the planet indicates intent to colonize, eradicating the indigenous population of humans. It's Threatcon Delta, baby. The Marines at Camp Pendleton are perfectly positioned to defend the last remaining stronghold on America's west coast: the city of Los Angeles.
Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight) has been approved for retirement but is called back into action and assigned to lead a unit of young soldiers he doesn't know and who don't trust him because of his involvement in a tragic combat situation during the Gulf War. Nantz's new platoon includes soon-to-be-married Corporal Harris (Ne-Yo, The Princess and the Frog) and his best man, Corporal Stavrou (Gino Anthony Pesi, The Hottie and the Nottie); Navy Corpsman Adukwu (Adetokumboh M'Cormack, Quantum of Solace); Lance Corporal Kerns (Jim Parrack, True Blood), who suffers from post-traumatic stress after his recent return from combat; Corporal Lockett (Cory Hardrict, Gran Torino), whose brother died while serving under Nantz; squad leader Corporal Imlay (Will Rothhaar, Hearts in Atlantis); and 17-year-old virgin Pfc. Lenihan (Noel Fisher, Final Destination 2). The platoon is led by Second Lieutenant Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), fresh from officer training school with zero combat experience. The marines' mission is to rescue civilians trapped behind enemy lines.
Eventually, the platoon is joined by survivors from the 40th Infantry Division as well as Tech Sergeant Elena Santos (Michelle Rodriguez, Avatar) of the Air Force Recon Division who was trying to locate the aliens' command and control center so that the military could knock out their drones and gain the upper-hand. With a rag-tag band of civilians, the marines attempt to sneak back to the FOB, while avoiding legions of aliens who prove tough to kill and incredibly adept at tracking them. During their scramble toward safety, the group stumbles upon what they believe to be an alien command and control center. Nantz and his marines decide to make their stand, and let those alien bastards know who they're f&@#ing with.
Director Jonathan Liebesman's Battle: Los Angeles is no science fiction action flick. It's a war movie, plain and simple. The enemy just happens to be an army of incredibly malicious extra-terrestrials. The first 28 minutes of the flick are a fairly by-the-book setup and exposition for the subsequent 88 minutes, which consists almost entirely of edge-of-your-seat marine combat and extreme ass-kicking. The vast majority of critics panned the movie for its first act, loaded as it is with war movie clichés from the shell-shocked grunt to the poor sap facing combat only days before his wedding. But those elements are nearly inescapable conventions of the genre for a reason. War film drama is fueled by the spectacle of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances mustering the courage and fortitude to behave heroically. It is the characters' ordinariness that makes them heroic and allows the audience to identify with them emotionally. Associating these characters with weddings, births, moments of regret, and longing for mother is cliché precisely because such events are nearly universal to the human species. Complaining that Battle: Los Angeles uses an impending marriage or a soldier's survivor's guilt to evoke our sympathy even though it's been done so many times in so many other war movies misses the point entirely. The searing power of war is that it reveals, through harrowing tragedy, the value of ordinary, boring lives and the potency of cliché.
I have a sneaking suspicion that most of the critics who dismissed Battle: Los Angeles in knee-jerk fashion weren't really offended by its clichés anyway. They were offended by the audacity of its presenting soldiers as anything other than mindless brutes eager to gleefully mow down the enemy or napalm babies without the slightest twinge of conscience. U.S. Marines protecting innocents and defending civilization? Outrage! Many of these same critics were apparently too gob-smacked by the 3D iridescent flora and fauna in James Cameron's Avatar to notice it was far more weighted with cliché than Battle: Los Angeles. They didn't think twice about its two-dimensional depiction of tens of thousands of marines-turned-mercenaries willing to commit genocide without a moment's hesitation on the orders of a wide-eyed loon in an olive drab wife beater. Avatar was a technical game-changer weighted with meaningful allegory and worthy of Oscar nominations! Right? What a load of hooey.
None of this is to say there aren't legitimate reasons one could dislike Battle: Los Angeles. Those who've griped that the flick is essentially a first-person shooter video game (right down to the final boss) turned into a movie with a wafer-thin plot are absolutely correct. If that makes it a non-starter for you, I can't argue your logic. I like a movie with substance as much as the next guy, but there's something to be said for high-energy, unpretentious escapism every once in a while. Battle: Los Angeles won me over because it is an unapologetic action-war movie, content to take its audience on a bone-shattering ride full of combat, risky tactical gambits, and documentary-style hand-held camera shots. It doesn't pretend to be more. Made at a time when America is at war, it doesn't moralize about current events by way of allegory. There's no Gaia-raping capitalist douchebag in a tie to represent Republicans, or CIA turncoat who sells out the human race to the aliens on behalf of The Man, or morose scenes of extra-terrestrial captives being humiliated Abu Ghraib-style. Battle: Los Angeles is content to hearken back to pre-Vietnam war pictures willing to assume the best about soldiers as we journey with them through their triumphs and tragedies. Mostly, Battle: Los Angeles just wants to rock your socks off with intense action, a breakneck pace, and a group of uniformly likeable characters. Sometimes, that's all I'm looking for.
When I say that Battle: Los Angeles is more war movie than alien invasion flick, I'm not just talking about genre conventions. You'll find none of the rubbery CGI endemic to modern pictures about mean-spirited extra-terrestrials. I'm sure much of the destruction in downtown L.A. was digitally rendered (I certainly hope it was), but the use of computer technology is so subtle that it doesn't disrupt the viewing experience. There are no moments of physics-defying action or characters who reside in the uncanny valley. The aliens are mostly seen from a distance, and are often obscured by the shattered buildings and upturned automobiles they use for cover. When we do get a good look at an alien corpse, it is a gooey, life-sized prosthetic model. Battle: Los Angeles takes the jiggle-cam visual aesthetic of Saving Private Ryan and applies it to firefights against spindly creatures from another world. The movie's big battles, which unfold in quick succession, are gut-punching, teeth-rattling, and a bit disorienting in the good way that replicates the chaos of battle (as opposed to the sort of disorienting combat that results from piss-poor cinematography).
With a smaller budget and absent Aaron Eckhart, Battle: Los Angeles could easily be a pungent slice of B-movie cheese. Staff Sergeant Nantz may be a cookie-cutter fighting man, but Eckhart brings a ton of soul to the character without overplaying it. His interactions with the movie's civilian characters are believably empathetic but with a stiff-lipped reserve that avoids sentimentality. Nantz proves to be a cool-headed pragmatist capable of making tough decisions under terrible circumstances. The remainder of the cast is fairly interchangeable (including Michelle Rodriguez, who barely registers), but they deliver the requisite heroism in the face of fear, and they do so without a false note. The characters may be war movie clichés, but Liebesman often defies expectations. When characters meet their ugly fates, there are no heavy-handed callbacks to earlier moments with loved ones. Second Lieutenant Martinez may be set up as the kind of book smart young officer who in so many war flicks wilts under the harsh conditions of combat, but when push comes to shove he doesn't wilt. He experiences momentary indecision during his first immersion in a real firefight, but pulls himself together and leads with wisdom, honor, and courage throughout the rest of the picture. Nantz's fate, too, doesn't play out according the dictates of genre conventions based on his past failures and need for redemption. Battle: Los Angeles uses our familiarity with the war genre to shorthand character setup in order to maintain a taut running time and brisk action, but it also manages to upend expectations, albeit gently.
Also of note: The movie manages to deliver a hopeful but ambiguous ending that doesn't rely on a deus ex machina like aliens who experience a lethal reaction to the rhinovirus or are acutely allergic to water.
Battle: Los Angeles looks superb on DVD. The image is sharp, clean, and free of edge enhancement haloing or other annoying artifacts. Blacks are inky without losing detail to crush. Colors are purposely desaturated (in keeping with the de rigueur look of war flicks), and their reproduction in 480p is pleasing to the eye.
The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix will rock your home theater with explosions and punchy gunfire. Imaging is excellent across the entire soundstage. It's top-notch for a compressed audio format.
The only extras are four brief, electronic press kit style featurettes. Behind the Battle (6:45) is a standard making-of piece with interview input from the director and cast. Aliens in L.A. (17:59) delves into the creature design and special effects. Preparing for Battle (5:17) explores the actors' preparation for the shoot. Creating L.A. in LA (5:47) reveals that much of the movie was shot in Louisiana, where the set designers meticulously recreated city blocks from the City of Angels. It's all pretty standard, disposable stuff.
Battle: Los Angeles isn't high art, but it's a hell of a lot of fun. It's not the sort of blatantly dumbass action movie that requires you to check your brain at the door, but it does require that you lighten up and enjoy it as a fast-paced ride.
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