Battle: LA delivers the alien Armageddon of your dreams – almost!
Anyone who lives in Los Angeles secretly craves the apocalypse. Something about the landscape here, the vast urban sprawl stretching in every direction, cries out for an alien invasion the way some outfits cry out for a jaunty hat. To sit on that endless stretch of parking lot that is the 405 at rush hour is to long to be bathed in the cleansing flame of extraterrestrial war ships. Just please, alien menace, take the douche up ahead in the Escalade before you take me!
It’s telling that an embattled Los Angeles skyline – depicted in Battle: LA posters all over town — has no power to incite a gut-wrenching tug of sentimentality and nostalgia. We natives may love our pretty views, our taco trucks, our relentless greenery, our vastly superior sunsets, our maniacally optimistic neighbors, our supersized egos, our strong drinks, our isolation, our Mike Davis-fueled dystopian laments, our downward slides into what we romantically like to suppose are noir-esque bouts of apathy and depression (and other cinematically interesting moody spells). But if that round building downtown were to burst into flames? We wouldn’t say, “Oh God, no no no!” or “Heaven have mercy on us all!” No. We would say, “Whooa, dude! Did you see that? Holy shit, that was awesome!”
We would all say that, together, on the street, or huddled around our 72-inch high-definition television sets. It would be nothing at all like 9/11. (Those numbers alone, spotted on a digital clock, still give us a lump in our throats.) Here in Los Angeles, where overturning cars after a Lakers game is considered good, harmless fun, where the hills are on fire and then they collapse and slide straight into the ocean, we equate the apocalyptic experience with something roughly equivalent to an extended trip to a day spa — except with more Tweeting.
I guess that explains why the Marine heroes of Battle: LA don’t seem particularly concerned about the television sets everywhere (that part is realistic), blaring on and on about this strange meteor shower over Tokyo, even when the meteors materialize over several other major cities worldwide. Instead, our Marine buddies toss back beers and trade witty rejoinders (“This boy don’t know his ass from a hot rock!” [See also: First to die). As everyone else on the globe is collectively losing their tiny minds or packing their exotic pets into their Subarus or considering an end-of-the-world quickie, our faithful Marines are asking each other “You think this is some kind of a drill, or what?”
That’s probably adaptive, though. Because once the Friday Night Lights jittery cameras and stuttering and jangly indie heartbreak music are over, then it’s time for the District 9 jittery cameras and stuttering and pants-wetting to begin.
The slow reveal is nice, really nice. The meteors “are not hitting the water at terminal velocity.” That’s exactly the sort of spooky detail we need at the outset, to get that soothing, day-spa, “We are fucking toast right now!” feeling we covet so much around here. We catch eerie glimpses of the enemy. We hear the requisite lizardy alien sounds. (Note to screenwriters: Let’s have some bovine aliens, feline aliens, simian aliens, even. The lizard thing has been done to death, even with the on-board circuitry and the juicy, squirting see-through organs.) There are dead bodies in the street, and crumbled buildings, and lots of rooms where wires are hanging and stuff is dripping and… Look out behind you!
Naturally, here’s the inexperienced officer straight from officer training school, the sort of fresh-faced boy who’s sure to die soon. (The question is, will his death be cowardly or valiant?) Next we have the Generation Kill buddies, snarking through the horrors — but getting each other’s backs, no matter what! Here’s tough-girl Michelle Rodriguez, looking right at home in a helmet and snarling, “I didn’t get this far off my good looks. I’m looking for payback!” And of course, there are some pretty, crying children and a hot damsel in distress (Bridget Moynahan).
But best of all, here’s Aaron Eckhart, who has apparently become the GI Joe Action Figure version of himself for this role. Sadly, while his dimpled cheeks and chin do look awfully nice when sprayed with blood and dust, he does not remove his shirt. Eckhart does, however, 1) sigh deeply over the men he left behind “over there,” 2) briefly consider mouth-kissing Moynahan, 3) hug a small boy, and then 4) give a rousing “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!”-style speech to his men. Above all, Eckhart’s Staff Sargeant Nance is a hero. We know this because heroic music plays whenever he’s onscreen.
And that’s sort of too bad. Because, in order to get the full apocalyptic spa treatment that we yearn for, we need some looming, wistful sense that everyone in this limitless dystopic landscape is about to get snuffed out like a light, not saved at the last minute by a handful of dimple-chinned men. Sure, maybe there’ll still be people in Kansas, crouching around their 32-inch regular-definition screens. But screw those people, they’ve never even tasted Korean BBQ tacos before!
You know that one trailer for Battle: LA that has the mournful music, sort of like the opening credits of Battlestar Galactica? That trailer gives the impression that we’ll get to bask in some romantically noir-esque, cinematically interesting bouts of melancholy and daydreamy regret. Yes, that can be tough to pull off, what with the enormous war ships blowing gas stations and high rises and freeway on-ramps to smithereens. And at least there aren’t any Carl’s Jr. restaurants exploding just as a guy gripping a fried chicken drumstick dashes out, screaming, “You’re gonna pay for messin’ with my lunchtime, bin Laden!” or the like. This isn’t a Michael Bay film, and for that, we shall give thanks. In truth, Battle: LA lives up to our eclectic high-low expectations. The aliens are scary, and not totally stupid. The plot doesn’t fall apart halfway through. Lots of stuff goes boom, and the shrapnel sounds just right as it whizzes by our heads. This movie is going to be a hit, no doubt about it.
And there are some hearty laughs. At one point, Nance delivers a dusty-sweaty-face-to-face man-rant about the pros and cons of leaving your men behind (Good men! Good Marines!). And then, when the room is still hushed, he says, “But none of that matters right now!” This drew a big laugh at the press screening, an environment about as conducive to big laughs as a cancer ward.
But this is a war film first and a disaster movie second. So, while we certainly feast on enough burning-round-skyscraper moments to feed the sick Angeleno on-board circuitry that craves such annihilation, we don’t quite get to savor the invasion horrors – local and global — as much as we’d like. Ideally, we’d prefer a little more disturbing CNN footage. We’d enjoy a really doleful bit of music, well-timed to coincide with the realization that everyone on the entire planet has been royally screwed by a well-armed, technologically advanced, lizardy menace.
Instead, we encounter heroes. Heroes who act heroically, and talk heroically, and give man hugs, and say perverted things to children, like “I need you to be my little Marine.” As much as we want Aaron Eckhart to be our little Marine, this doesn’t quite cut the cheese.
“We make our stand here,” Nance growls, “and let those bastards know who they’re fucking with!” But director Jonathan Liebesman has us all wrong – at least those of us here in LA. Call it the learned helplessness of the Angeleno, a calm, victimized state that comes from getting stuck on that tiny stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard that converts into a farmers market every Friday afternoon, except with pissed-off people in cars where the happy produce-purchasing pedestrians should go. Rather than vengeance, what we crave is to be crushed into the ground like bugs under the gigantic boots of our hideous alien overlords.
Or maybe we’re just so saturated with predictable heroic narratives that we recognize that the aliens are the gutsy protagonists of this story. Bravely setting out across the universe in search of much-needed natural resources? If we had such courageous colonists at our disposal, blowing life off distant planets and shipping their rivers of goat cheese and tanks of superior spray-tanning chemicals back to Earth, such daring talk would surely send a patriotic shiver down our spines!
Oh well, there’s always the sequel. “Battle: Planet Herculis” anyone?