Monday, March 28, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles: A War at the Beach

Here must have been the pitch: Cross Independence Day with Platoon. Then it seems that Black Hawk Down crashed into the plot, stranding our squad in a shower of military and sci-fi cliches. The result: Battle, Los Angeles – a rusty, humping, explosion generating film about aliens invading LA and the disgraced but loyal platoon leader who leads his grunts out from behind enemy lines (which happen to be in Santa Monica).

Unlike, say, District 9 – which similarly used sci-fi as a metaphor for present-day social issues (while for District 9 it was apartheid, Battle LA is decidedly coded around the Iraq war), this film has little concern for the alien culture or intricacies of science (‘”they’re here for our water,” says a commentator on a 24-hour news show playing in the background, and that’s all the context we get). Instead, this is a movie with video-game envy: with a plot and background less thought out than most game franchises, the film’s sole motive is to re-purpose LA as a backdrop for a war zone and send our platoon through it on a ripped-from-the-clich├ęs mission to do something or other rather incidental to the war while really trying just to survive.

Aaron Eckhart leads the platoon as the disgraced commander who’s assigned as an “observer” and only later needs to take over when everyone is half-dead and dispirited. That is to say, never mind the tentacle dragging, laser-firing, heart-misplaced, disgustingly sea-food-like aliens. This is basically an old-fashioned war move, and the Aliens are landing around the world in coordinated fashion while the military is worried about ribbing the new recruit. It doesn’t seem congruous at first, but if you just go with it, you soon accept that this is just another Saving Private Ryan or whatever test of young manhood and camaraderie that these types of films are usually about.

All of that would have been entertaining, if it weren’t that the dialogue was so poor and the Alien background so un thought out. The aliens come totally unprepared for anything but a ground assault – one is mystified how they traveled across the galaxy and convert half the Earth’s ocean into petro-fuel for their flyers, and yet have nothing more powerful than what seems like a laser-powered gatling gun to subdue the local population with. They must have some alien version of Donald Rumsfeld as their war commander.

That parallel to our own goof-ups in the Middle East is intentional of course, since this is clearly a parable more than a science fiction. The tables are turned; the rich families of Santa Monica are now the “collateral damage” of war and the Americans in Eckhart’s platoon are the heart of resistance. As in other recent movies of this theme, Los Angeles gets trashed and many great explosions occur, and the crowd I was with seemed to like it fine enough. I’m just saying that a little logic and a little smarts would have gone a long way towards making it more enjoyable for anyone who’s seen more than the Harry Potter series.

Which is to say that the movie makes its money, though it does so in a bit of a lazy fashion, drawing on the standard war-movie tropes and borrowing all its make-up and imagination from better sci-fi that have come before.

All the crashing, wheezing hurly burly of the rag-tag group of grunts and civilians making their way back from the alien beach head finally starts to gather steam once the movie enters the third act – that is, once the painful burden of exposition, stock character portraiture and painful character arch is finally dispensed with and we can focus on various ways of dispatching the aliens: shooting them down, blowing them back, plowing them over, and bombing them up. Then the movie starts to get the momentum of other great sci-fi battle thrillers (of both Terminator and Aliens type). It’s a shame it takes this long to get here, but there you are.

Watching this film, I also couldn’t help but be struck by yet another movie about worldwide calamity that chooses to limit its point of view to a few stray citizens whose everyday petty concerns seem to outweigh the monumental nature of the event, the narrative of which is delivered as mere background on random screens tuned CNN, or Fox, or Ski – depending on the studio (albeit, in this case, since they’re in the military, they do get to see some of the primary action). No one in this film seems the least impressed that we just discovered other intelligent life in the universe; let alone that they traveled the far reaches of the galaxy to consume our planet. Rather, the event is mere background for whether Private so-and-so will get over the chip on his shoulder about his commander.

I suppose it would be a bit ghoulish to draw parallels to the recent events in Japan, or the Middle East. Nevertheless, I can’t but sense in this film – as in similar non-disasters such as Cloverfield or Skyline – the influence of 24-hour news and an attempt to portray the increasingly shrinking-yet-distant emotions of a connected globe, in which daily disasters are felt keenly but way too routinely. The characters in this movie are fighting a war against an alien army in their own back yard, but they seem hardly any more interested in it its remarkable nature than they would in a talking squid presenting its argument for human annihilation on an episode of "Judge Judy." Given this lack of emotional scale, one might judge this as simply a film made of video-game interstitials. Then again, it’s equally plausible to think this film’s portrait of its young soldiers as an accurate reflection of the sanguine, unimpressable media consumers we have become. The latter may be the scariest thing about this movie, indeed.

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