The Marines used to run commercials that would show a young man taking a sword and battling a fire-breathing dragon. I was always left wondering if anyone ever saw one of those ads, thought “I need to get in on that dragon-fighting action” and were left sorely disappointed when they discovered that the job was short on dragon-slaying, but long on getting shot at.
That recruitment ad has now been expanded to a feature length film with Jonathan Liebesman’s Battle: Los Angeles. While it’s slightly more realistic than sword-fighting a dragon, a platoon of marines taking on space aliens isn’t really what the actual job entails. On a technical level, the film is a dazzling special effects punch of sight and sound that will keep you pinned to your seat and rooting for a small band of soldiers to complete their mission. But there’s nothing thoughtful underneath and the hollowness of the undertaking that may support our troops, but doesn’t provide them with the honesty they deserve.
Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) is ready to retire after two decades of service. He’s haunted by the men he lost on a recent mission to Afghanistan and he’s too old to keep up with the new recruits. But before he can head into civilian life, invaders of the space variety come crashing onto the coastline of every major population center in the world, including Nantz’ home of Los Angeles. Placed under the command of inexperienced but well-meaning 2nd Lieutenant William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), Nantz is persona-non-grata among his fellow soldiers but he’s seen the most combat of anyone in the bunch. His squad’s mission: rescue civilians from a police station and return back to base before the military bombs the hell out of the area.
For the first two acts, Battle: Los Angeles does an impressive job with its story. It quickly introduces to our main characters, shows us their camaraderie, and sets up a believable mission before placing them under siege from the aliens. It’s rewarding to see the unit’s actions based on tactics and objectives rather than blindly killing aliens. This structure lends an air of realism to the proceedings that helps sell the intense action scenes which owe more to Black Hawk Down than they do to Independence Day, and Liebesman gets some big thrills when he crams the action into tight spaces and long corridors. It’s the kind of mission structure and style that successfully blends a war-film aesthetic with the frivolity of war-based video games like Call of Duty.
While war shouldn’t be taken lightly, it would be hypocritical of me to pretend that I don’t enjoy Call of Duty or that I didn’t like the action in Battle: Los Angeles. It’s bombastic, it’s exciting, and it carries none of the guilt and complexity of actual war. There’s a scene where Nantz has to desecrate a dying alien’s body in order to find their weak point. The scene is played as pragmatic rather than tragic. The aliens don’t have personalities nor do they represent any real nationality. In a guilt-free war, they are the perfect emeny: one that can’t be humanized.
It’s this dishonesty where I begin to have a problem with Battle: Los Angeles. I don’t want to begrudge a movie that only aims to entertain and mostly succeeds in that endeavor. But it feels wrong that when a marine dies, he always goes out in a blaze of glory and we never see his charred remains. Liebesman wants the realism of a war movie but without all the messiness that war entails. Instead of showing the cost of battle, he finds the emotions in playing up the brotherhood among the marines and their interactions with civilians. Thankfully, the cast delivers at making us believe in their fraternity even when the plot betrays the authenticity of their mission.
That mission falls apart in the third act when the unit makes a detour that feels done for the purpose of a massive set piece rather than staying true to the tactical, objective-based action scenes from the first two acts. And when you see the big bad action scene at the end, everything else begins to become undermined. You remember that Nantz may be a veteran marine, but he was also blessed with the gift of inferring the aliens’ tactics and can instantly deduce complicated facts like “The aliens are tracking us based on our communication devices!” with very little evidence. It’s bad that the film makes no explanation of how Nantz quickly comes to his conclusions, and it’s even worse that no one else is allowed those moments of brilliance. At least Eckhard is charismatic and charming enough that we don’t resent the character for the lazy script.
Technically, Battle: Los Angeles is a marvel and a unique spin on the tired alien invasion action genre. The characters are compelling and the plotting is tight for the majority of the run time. But its big third-act contrivance is a wake-up call to the lack of authenticity in the proceedings. Battle: Los Angeles is a film that tears me in two directions. My heart appreciates the action scenes, the performances, and has no problem watching marines kick ass. But my brain feels guilty over watching such an obvious recruitment commercial that strips war of its brutality and has nothing more to say than “Support Our Troops (because they make great protagonists in sci-fi action movies)”.