If aliens are going to land tomorrow, and you can only pick one movie to watch the night before you fight off the alien swarm, Battle: Los Angeles would be a pretty good choice.
This "war movie with aliens," opening today, is not subtle. It doesn't reveal anything new about the human condition, or provide any performances that will be part of next February's Oscar montages. It doesn't reinvent the alien invasion film for a new generation. But it does provide two solid hours of Marines fighting aliens — tooth, nail and grenade — and blowing shit up good. It's an intense, fun action movie that sucks you in and keeps you pumping your fist in the air.
Battle: Los Angeles is the movie Michael Bay would make, if he could focus on basic story-telling for long enough. Spoilers ahead...
So you might have noticed that Battle: Los Angeles is getting pretty bad reviews in most places. I'm kind of surprised, because I really, really liked this movie. It's a really thrilling action movie, in which the alien invaders appear unstoppable at first until the human characters painstakingly figure out how they can be defeated.
To be fair, Battle: Los Angeles has a ton of cliches, the characters are somewhat one-dimensional archetypes, and there is more than enough cheeseball dialogue to go around. But I think the reason why so many people have such a hate-on for this film is because it's ultra-sincere, and very, very militaristic. There's not a self-mocking bone in this film's body, nor does it every try to be postmodern or wink at the audience.
It's one of the few action movies I've seen in ages that's not a teeny bit embarrassed to be an action movie.
People are calling Battle: Los Angeles a video game in movie form — which doesn't sound like a bad thing to me — but actually compared to tons of other action movies, it's way less video-gamey. There are no funny graphics on screen, no cartoony slow-mo sequences, and no other visual tricks to signal gamey-ness. Instead, director Jonathan Liebesman goes for a straight-up war-movie feel, with lots of handheld camera work and literal "fog of war." Unlike a lot of Michael Bay's oeuvre, the shaky-cam never got to the point where I was confused about the action, though. And the action is pretty kinetic and fun, especially a lot of the scenes of the tiny Marine squad fighting desperately to get past overwhelming numbers of alien death machines.
The film's sincerity is what really won me over, and I especially liked Aaron Eckhart's performance. Eckhart gives his all and then some, as Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz, who's about to retire from the Marines after a mission in Iraq where some of his men died. Everybody blames Nantz for the deaths of his men, and when he's pulled back into action in the wake of the alien invasion, his new platoon doesn't trust him to watch their asses. He's saddled with a newbie lieutenant and a mistrustful squad, including the brother of one of the men who died on Nantz's old squad.
So Nantz not only has to navigate in a confusing world of alien monsters, he also has to win the trust of his men. And he's also tasked with rescuing some civilians. Eckhart lectures everybody about the Marine spirit — the regiment's slogan is based on a saying by one of its former leaders who was ordered to retreat during World War I: "Retreat? Hell, I just got here!" And his determination to prove he can be a good leader, to get the civilians evacuated safely, and to stop these fucking aliens somehow is what drives the film. Eckhart oozes a weary valor and an extra helping of gung-ho — basically, he's a walking Marines recruitment poster.
And the last half hour of the film is basically a non-stop series of "fuck yeah" moments in which Eckhart and company prove that Marines Don't Quit and that a Few Good Men (plus Michelle Rodriguez) will triumph over anything you throw at them. If you're allergic to pro-military propaganda, you might want to have a booster shot before seeing this film.
Faced with a film that takes itself this seriously, and is this corny and jam-packed with cliches, the natural response might well be to make fun of it. But if you can go with it, the "Ooo-rah" spirit in this film just carries you along. By the end of the movie, you'll either be falling out of your seat laughing, or cheering and rooting for our heroes. I actually recommend the latter — it's actually more fun to enjoy this film on its own terms. I don't honestly think it's any cheesier than the original Predator, a film with which it shares a certain amount of DNA.
And here's the thing — the basic skeleton of the movie is about people doing problem-solving, which is something I fucking love. Not just problem-solving like trying to find the stranded civilians and then try to find an evac point that isn't rubble. But also, we see Eckhart figuring out stuff like: what is the aliens' weak point? How can they be killed? (Eckhart doesn't say "If it bleeds, we can kill it," but he comes close a couple times.) He also spends a lot of time deducing that the alien aircraft are unmanned drones, which home in on radio signals — and he uses this knowledge to set a trap. And finally, with the help of Michelle Rodriguez's tactical officer, he figures out the aliens have a hidden command-and-control center, and then tracks down its location.
Given a choice between a dumb action movie where people punch and shoot stuff mindlessly, or a dumb action movie where people figure stuff out and use logic, I'd way rather see the latter.
And because the movie takes great pains to show us the humans figuring out stuff about the aliens, the natural progression from "the aliens are unstoppable" to "the aliens can be fought" doesn't feel artificial. Without giving too much away, there's no magic computer virus in this movie. There's no weakness like "they're allergic to water," or "Slim Whitman's music kills them."
But here's the bad news — the explanation for why the aliens have come to Earth is total nonsense. It's so dumb, it almost drags the whole film down with it, and it made me slap my head repeatedly. Spoiler alert: The aliens are here for our water. Because apparently, Earth is the only place in the universe that has water in its liquid state. (To be fair, though, this explanation comes from a talking head on a television set in one scene, and he might just be an idiot.)
And there are plenty of other nitpicks — like, there are several startling moments that are telegraphed so heavily, Marconi would see them coming. For example, when the marines hear something moving and it turns out to be a dog, you know that the aliens are going to attack a second later — because that happens in every silly action movie. (Here's a clip of that scene.)
So yeah, I would never call Battle: Los Angeles a great movie, or claim that it's going to make your teeth whiter or anything. But if you want to see what the Transformers movies would be like if they were focused less on selling toys and more on kicking your ass, then this film is well worth checking out.