It must be the pro-military slant. There’s not a lot of other reasons I can think of why critics have been so eager to trash “Battle: Los Angeles,” a hybrid of “Black Hawk Down,” “District 9,” and “Independence Day” that incredibly manages to crib mostly the best parts of the three. It’s not as thematically sophisticated as the former two, true, though it’s easy to marvel at the ability of critics to selectively decide that one piece of slam-bang entertainment is worthy of our attention, then turn and denounce another as worthless for its lack of “useful” subtext.
In a role that will have many an important casting director take note, Aaron Eckhart stars as SSgt. Nantz, a battle-hardened Marine who finds himself at the epicenter of the Los Angeles front during an alien invasion. His squad, which consists of a number of character types standard to war pic fare (the inexperienced officer, the engaged guy, etc.), in most cases successfully engender sympathy, providing they survive long enough. Many don’t, and die faceless to us, though the sight of Marines being butchered by extra-terrestrial intruders is affecting. The aliens, who never speak a word and clearly have no interest in diplomacy, are a stock sci-fi design of flesh and metal hybrid, but are rendered convincingly, and present serious danger as their lethality is unveiled over the course of the film’s many encounters.
For the sake of foreign grosses (and perhaps the good sensibilities of the average left-wing film critic), pic avoids any outright pro-America patriotism, though its admiration of one of the USA’s most revered institutions is none-too-subtle. Truthfully, this might actually be the most respectful and reverent portrayal of American servicemen since “Black Hawk Down,” certainly light-years away from the extreme pessimism of, well, any military pic about our dual wars. It’s telling of the direction our culture has been steered that scenes depicting Marines engaged in unvarnished heroism are often simply dismissed as shameless and simplistic, though an attentive news reader will find evidence of such bravery occurring daily on the front. When Nantz and squad opts out of an exit late in the film to launch a suicidal attack on the alien fortress, it’s in fact one of many moving, unironic moments that draw attention to the risks taken by those in uniform. Detractors may sneer at this as fiction, though consider a scene in the aforementioned “Black Hawk Down” that sees two Delta Force operators volunteer their lives to cover a downed chopper crew; that was genuinely real, so, in comparison, how one accuse can the fictional Marines of “Battle: Los Angeles” of bravery manufactured purely as propaganda?
Yet for every film showcasing the heroism of our armed forces, there are several more that primarily serve to showcase them as war criminals and psychotics. Add this to the list of films where traditionally conservative viewpoints are expressed through fantasy (think “The Dark Knight”) and to wildly positive audience approval, in contrast to left-wing pics like “In the Valley of Elah,” which find near-total audience indifference. Critical points might have been higher had it been revealed that Eckhart’s Marine was a rapist overseas, or had two of the Marines expressed a long suppressed homosexual attraction for one another. But no, just a bunch of straight, non-rapist Marines, none of whom are even polite enough to plug Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. The same critics who deride the dialogue and bravery here as unrealistic are mostly the same bunch who celebrated the chemical-candy artificiality of “The Kids Are All Right” as naturalistic because it hit socially trendy points. And the much-derided shaky cam style didn’t seem to bother as many critics when it was done in a much choppier manner for the proudly left-wing “The Bourne Ultimatum,” which featured action scenes constructed as if one had hit a Shuffle button on the editing suite.
Certainly, there are fair criticisms to be had, such as the manner in which Liebesman and screenwriter Christopher Bertonlini hammer in the emotional cues, or the visual style (more on that later) which some find so off-putting. The dialogue is a mixed bag, saved by fine performances and the simple realization that it’s appropriate that these Marines not sound too much like screenwriters (or snarky film bloggers).
Eckhart, whose performance in “Rabbit Hole” was as fine a piece of acting as you could find last year, admirably and with great success segues into the role of a sturdy Marine, the kind old B-pictures insisted were in plentiful supply in Uncle Sam’s military. Physically stout in uniform and speaking with no nonsense nobility, Eckhart makes his simple dialogue into something that astonishingly reaches poignancy. Don’t be entirely surprised if he makes a career turn into leading action hero territory ala Liam Neeson, and should that be the case, it starts here.
Director Jonathan Liebesman stages the battles through shaky cam, and while not a Spielberg or a Scott with his firefights, ties it together with smooth functionality. Viewers not likely enthralled by gunfire and squad tactics may have trouble keeping up, but Liebesman’s action makes clear the relative position of the combatants, shows the result of successful fire, and creates phenomenal urgency. The invaders use ballistics weaponry, foregoing the lasers and force fields with which aliens usually seem to be armed, which creates a riveting combat atmosphere during the battle scenes, recognizably dangerous. As the picture progresses, the invaders begin to hemorrhage skill and start going down with every burst of Marine fire, but it’s buried in a climax suspenseful and rousing enough to be forgiven.
Of course, it’s possible to view “Battle: Los Angeles” without an ideological filter, which is to say as a humans vs. aliens action spectacle, fueled by equal parts military hardware and tough guy gumption. Whether judging the film’s technical merits or its philosophical ones, count this as a major victory.
Last note: Despite taking place in the heart of the world’s film industry, “Battle: Los Angeles” was filmed in Louisiana. The state of California has made business so cost prohibitive that a Hollywood movie with Los Angeles in the title has to be filmed across the country. I’m not sure how even the densest tax-and-spend liberal can fail to see the problem with this, but, then again, I don’t live in California.