With Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Bridget Moynahan, Ramon Rodriguez, Ne-Yo. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman. Rated PG-13 for sustained and intense sequences of war violence and destruction, and for language. 116 minutes.
Likely to be cheered or derided as simply a movie with lots of explosions, like the moronic “Transformers” movies, BATTLE: LOS ANGELES actually draws on two rich streams of movie genres, resulting in an exciting and provocative film. Perhaps it should have made those connections more explicit given the kneejerk reaction of many critics who consider science fiction movies as only about their special effects.
One obvious inspiration is “War Of The Worlds,” both for scenes where we see the city of Los Angeles laid to waste, but also for tapping into the original inspiration for author H.G. Wells. He wanted to give the British – then at the height of the Empire – a taste of their own medicine by making modern readers feel not like they ruled the world but as if they were the primitive locals overwhelmed by a superior force. In modern American terms, the mysterious aliens who are attacking coastal metropolises around the world are engaging in a campaign of “shock and awe.” We never really meet the aliens or understand their motives, although there is speculation they’re after our water. We simply know that humanity is in the way of their objective and mass destruction is their response.
The other source are all those war movies that are not about the generals planning the big battles, but the troops in the field who only know what’s right in front of them. In science fiction terms, an obvious predecessor is “Cloverfield” where the monster and the people fighting it are the backdrop to a group of friends trying to escape. This is not the epic scale of an “Independence Day;” this is the worm’s-eye view.
We meet a group of Marines stationed in California, including Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) who is feeling burnt-out after fighting in the Middle East. Not all of his men came back. He’s looking to finish his tour and get out. Very quickly, meteorites heading to Earth turn out to be alien spaceships, and they’re not looking to be friends. They start to raze cities around the globe.
The rest of the film is Nantz and the other troops trying to survive and get to an evacuation point. They rescue some civilians along the way. They try to figure out how to fight back. One of the toughest scenes is when they capture an alien soldier, their only goal being to figure out how to kill it. They rip open the body trying to find what organ is most vulnerable. That’s a sign that the filmmakers weren’t simply interested in the explosions, but thought about what fighting alien life forms might actually entail.
As often happens in war movies like this, we get quick sketches of the characters. It’s not like we need to know a lot about them. What identifies them is their Marine creed of leaving no one behind. Indeed the unit takes as its byword a quote attributed to World War I Captain Lloyd Williams, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” This is a movie about valor under fire and doing what is necessary to protect your comrade-in-arms. No one complained about “The Hurt Locker” being just about explosions.
“Battle: Los Angeles” may reflect the actions of people in combat but because it’s in a science fiction setting, it will be looked at as having the depth of a fireworks display. That’s a shame, as there’s a solid war film here, as well as the scary thought of what it might be like if we were the “collateral damage” instead of people in Iraq or Afghanistan.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.