Battle: Los Angeles
Battle: Los Angeles is, yes, an alien invasion movie; it’s also, at heart, a war movie. While this combination isn’t new, I’ve never seen it done quite so well. It’s almost certainly the best example of the sci-fi/war movie, and it’s among the better war movies of all time.
The secret seems to be to really make a war movie where the enemy just happens to be a vastly superior extraterrestrial force, rather than to put a military spin on an alien invasion narrative; Battle: Los Angeles clearly owes a lot more to Pearl Harbor or Band of Brothers than it does to Independence Day. And part of that influence seems to be the focus on a small group doing their small part in a much larger conflict.
The difficulty with focusing on such a small group is exemplified nowhere better than the other recent aliens-invade-LA film, Skyline: you actually have to care about this group. And this is where Battle: Los Angeles succeeds and that movie fails. In only about fifteen minutes it introduces characters we actually feel for and empathize with, which is itself an accomplishment.
Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhardt) is feeling his age; after 20 years in the Marine Corps, he’s ready to get out of the way of the younger generation. It doesn’t help much that he lost four men in his last combat command, while earning a silver star himself. So after training one last platoon he’s about to retire. Still, he did earn all his awards and commendations, and he’s clearly the solid core of the unit. Also along for the ride are Navy Corpsman “Doc” Adukwu (Adetokumboh M’Cormack) — an immigrant who enlisted to become both a doctor and an American citizen — 2nd Lieutenant William Rodriguez (Ramón Rodriguez) — fresh from the Officer Training School — PFC Shaun Lenihan (Noel Fisher) — who enlisted at 17 and may not be 18 yet — Air Force Technical Sergeant Elena Santos (Michelle Rodriguez) — who falls in with the group later, after being separated from her own — and Corporal Jason Lockett (Cory Hardrict) — whose brother died under Nantz’ command — among a number of others. We find a broad spectrum of the American population, and we know enough of each of their backgrounds to humanize them just as they are fused into a cohesive group.
When the invasion comes, the platoon is moved from Camp Pendleton to a forward operating base set up at the Santa Monica airport. A line of defense has been set up, and in three hours the air force will level everything between that line and the beach. But there are reports of some civilians trapped in a police station just inside the line, and it falls to the unit to retrieve them before the bombing. This is another key: while there are events taking place on a grand — indeed global — scale, the action in the film is confined to this one small band of terrified marines, just trying to get their job done to the best of their ability. We can get emotionally involved with them a lot more easily than if we have to split our attention between the president, a scientist, a downed fighter pilot, and a half-dozen other separate character arcs.
But what clinches it is the performances. Eckhardt is, unquestionably, the heart and soul of this movie, and he’s everything you’d want in a war hero. But everyone else slots tightly into their own characters, as well. Michelle Rodriguez, in particular, may typecast herself in these tough-girl police and military roles, but she certainly is excellent at it. Even the minor characters feel solid and engaging.
Now, the trailers may give the impression that this amounts to a disaster film, where humanity is totally outgunned, and there’s ultimately no hope of fighting back. They certainly don’t give much evidence of our victories, even minor ones. Of course, that won’t completely fly, and so there has to be some sort of upturn at the end; and, indeed, there is. But since this is at heart a gritty war movie, it’s actually far more plausible than, say, the aliens being susceptible to the common cold, or allergic to water.
Of course, it’s impossible to ignore the politics inherent in a war movie, and the case could be made that this is basically an advertisement for the US military. That may be true, and the obvious criticism is that the platoon is not representative of all — or even most — units. But even if Nantz’ band doesn’t represent all of the military, it surely represents the best in them. And sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of what we can strive for.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.