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March 19, 2011

Battle L.A. Review

Forget that it's preposterous and makes no sense: Battle L.A. is a fun movie that actually has something good and positive to say about our military. Imagine that!

Since my review contains SPOILERS!!, it's below the fold. But if you just want a capsule review -- it's good fun. Not the best movie I've ever seen by any stretch, but 100 minutes of good solid war movie. Plenty of shootin', fightin', stuff blowin' up, hollerin', screamin', and just generalized alien ass-kicking.


First, about the "preposterous and makes no sense" caveat: it shares this trait with every other alien-invasion movie ever made. Any alien species capable of star travel would swat us like flies, and probably would consider an actual military invasion a hilarious waste of time. The aliens in Battle L.A. are after our water (for some reason) and instead of going to one of the icy moons of our outer planets and getting all they want, they decide to invade the one planet with a bunch of excitable, angry ape-beings on it. And for being super-advanced star-traveling beings, they're still using some pretty low tech military shit. (Projectile weapons? Really? That's the best you can throw at us, E.T.? Where are the death-lasers and bioweapons and killer nanobots?)

So: it's preposterous and makes no sense.

But you know what? It doesn't matter. Alien invaders are only the "enemy MacGuffin" anyhow. That's why the filmmakers don't spend any time giving them deeper motivations or a backstory. The aliens don't even have faces. They are quite literally a "faceless enemy". You know how in most sci-fi movies, there is the "big reveal" with the aliens to show how cool/scary they look? There's nothing really like that in this movie. The aliens are just anonymous bipeds with guns. The whole point is to create an enemy for the protagonists (a Marine infantry detachment) that is roughly an equal match. Make the aliens too powerful and there's no drama; make the enemies too weak and there's no drama.

I did have a fear early on that the producers and director were making some bizarro-universe version of the Iraq invasion (the alien leftists' motto would be "no blood for water!"). But it didn't turn out that way at all. It's one of the most pleasant surprises in recent memory. The intent of having aliens invade L.A. is to give the Marines something real to fight for, and to protect: home and family.

This movie harks back to the World War II-era combat movies: a colorful, hard-bitten company of battle-tested veterans fight against overwhelming odds (but not too overwhelming) to gain victory. To say that Battle L.A. lacks a plot misses the point, really -- the battle is the plot. All you need is a workable scenario; the movie revolves around the characters and situations, not the machinations of the plot. It's a combat movie, pure and simple. Plenty of shootin', not much heartfelt agonizing over the morality of it all.

This movie is a love-letter to the military. These Marines (led by Aaron Eckhart channeling John Wayne, and quite well, too) are warriors, protectors of civilians, and brave without being stupid. They give their lives if they have to, and their lives mean something. Many critics found the characters to be flat, but the foot-soldiers seemed very much in line with the infantrymen I have known. The Marines are not victims; they are scary hard-asses with guns. But they are protectors, not oppressors.

Bill Whittle liked the movie for pretty much the same reasons I did.

So much for the good stuff. There are some downers.

First, the shaky-cam: I wanted some Dramamine for the first half-hour or so. Why, oh why, has this cinema verite trick gotten so overused? I can understand it with the combat scenes, but do you need to have the camera wavering around during conversational scenes in interior spaces? Maybe it was unintentional; maybe the camera guy was a drunk. I dunno.

Second, stupid aliens: look, I understand -- you can't make the aliens too formidable, or it's not a fair fight. The Marines wouldn't get five yards before they got atomized, or vaporized, or just liquefied by some alien death-beam or something. But these aliens are so stupid tactically that you have to wonder if they just stole a starship from another, smarter race and then just went on a joyride with it. They (like every alien race in every alien-invasion story ever) make the rookie mistake of having all C&C capability centralized in one spot -- which, conveniently, is near enough for the Marines to attack and destroy. And even after the C&C unit was blown up...how would that stop the alien infantry from fighting? Their guns still worked; so did their assault ships. What, they don't have frigging radios on Planet X'lurgh? Even very primitive species (like us!) have figured out that you don't centralize your command-and-control too much. But no: apparently the alien warmasters decided that it would be best to put all their important shit in one spot, and if it gets blowed up, why, they'll just slink on back home.

Third, boring aliens: They're sorta bipedal, and sorta elongated. And they're kinda hard to kill. Other than that: the film-makers don't do much with them. They're usually seen at a distance, and there's no big "reveal" to show what they really look like. There's no impressive FX shots of the mothership or anything. This is intentional, I suppose, but still -- I would have liked more detail on the aliens who are murdalating everybody.

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posted by Monty at 12:11 PM

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