A lot of people have been sticking poor Battle: Los Angeles in their lists of the year's worst movies, genre or otherwise. And we have to stick up for this war movie about aliens invading L.A. — it's actually a pretty decent action movie, and not nearly as horrendous as a lot of people would have you believe.
Battle: Los Angeles is not one of the year's best movies, by any means, but it is quite possibly the year's most underrated. Spoilers ahead...
Here's the thing about Battle: Los Angeles. It's a straight-up action movie that takes itself absolutely seriously. There's no winking at the audience, no clever banter, no irony, and absolutely no comic relief. And that leaves audiences with two choices: take this film seriously, or laugh at it, since there's nothing to laugh with. And with a movie that's so full of cheeseball sincerity, it's easy to take the second option.
But if you actually take this film on its own terms, as a serious action movie about Marines, it's a pretty good movie. Aaron Eckhart — the guy we all liked in The Dark Knight — is a Marine staff sergeant who's haunted by the fact that he got some of his men killed in Iraq. And he's assigned to a new platoon that doesn't trust him for that reason, including the brother of one of his dead men. The crux of the movie comes when Eckhart recites the names and serial numbers of all the men who died under his command, showing that he really cared about them and didn't just see them as cannon-fodder.
And really, how you feel about Battle: LA depends on how you feel about that scene — in the theater where I saw it, there was absolute silence during that moment. And I found Eckhart's recitation of his dead comrades' names and numbers actually moving and effective. Corny, but it worked. According to a friend of mine who was at the New York critic screening of the movie, everybody burst into laughter during that scene — which is a response I can totally understand.
Oh, and it's true that the movie is full of cliched characters, including the young lieutenant who doesn't know what he's doing and needs his grizzled older sergeant to give him pointers.
Battle: Los Angeles is a totally un-ironic film about wartime valor and comradeship. In fact, it's very much a Marines recruiting film, which is probably another reason why some people found it distasteful. Eckhart's character is basically a decent guy, who tries to keep the civilians safe and provide a role model to a young kid who wants to grow up to be a Marine. And the "gung ho" stuff just gets more air-punchy as the film goes on, until finally the surviving fighters decide to skip breakfast in favor of going out and killing more aliens.
If you're looking for a movie about why war is never a good thing, or a critique of militarism, this ain't it. But if you enjoy the occasional war movie, in which basically good but conflicted people go kick some ass, then I actually recommend Battle: Los Angeles quite a bit.
Oh, and another good thing about this movie: Michelle Rodriguez plays her usual "badass tough chick" role, and doesn't get killed.
The other thing I liked a lot about Battle: L.A., as I mentioned in my review, was the fact that there's a good deal of problem-solving in this film. Not just the "getting the civilians to safety" problem, but also the problem of how to fight these aliens. Eckhart spends a lot of the film studying their anatomy so he can kill them — much like that subplot in Falling Skies. He figures out how they track their prey, and uses it to set a trap for them. And then, in the end of the movie, he finally identifies a real military target and leads a successful assault on it.
I was curious if anyone else felt this movie was underrated, so I asked on Twitter. Among others, I heard from Andrew Liptak (who's written a lot about military science fiction for io9 and other outlets), plus Old Man's War author John Scalzi and Traitor to the Crown author Charles Coleman Finlay. Plus science fiction author and actual military sergeant S.K.S. Perry.
As Perry put it: "Battle LA was one long fire fight and more realistic than half the stuff out there in its portrayal of combat." Added Finlay: "That was the sense I had of it. I also thought it nailed the sense of mission and the courage of soldiers."
So apparently, I'm not totally alone in liking Battle: Los Angeles a lot. I think anybody who enjoys non-ironic action movies where people grit their teeth and give it their best shot, and then shit blows up, really ought to give Battle: L.A. another chance. The haters are wrong about this one. It's neither one of the year's best movies nor one of the year's worst — but it is a decent enough shoot-em-up film.