|In Short:||One of the most aptly named movies of all time. ‘Cause this is one hell of battle… in Los Angeles.|
|LT. COL. RITCHIE:||We got an infestation of God knows what, but they are not of this Earth and we gotta hit ’em with everything we’ve got, and hit ’em hard.|
When it comes to Military Science Fiction, probably the most pointed lesson that can should be taken away is, man, we humans are a remarkable race. True, this is something that sci-fi as a whole is very good at portraying, but in no subset of the genre is that idea more firmly rooted than in the military arena. In books ranging from those of genre idol Robert Heinlein to latter day pulp-author Jack Campbell, we kick alien ass, often despite overwhelming technological inferiority, because we are inherently human, and therefore practically unassailable. Even in universes in which humans battle other humans for supremacy, it is to be inferred that the reason these battles and wars rage so long and so bloody is because we, as a species, are just so gosh darned good at bringing the pain, so yay for us.
It’s kind of disturbing, actually.
Now, just to be clear, I am no fan of war. Images of bloodshed in historical movies, on documentaries and in the news have been known to make me weep in impotent fury, and historical novels revealing the basic lack of decency that reigned in, say, the Crusades or the Hundred Year’s War often make me question humanity’s right to survive. I find no enjoyment in the Cola Wars, either. (Clearly, Coke is the superior product. Deal with it, folks.)
But in fiction, especially in Science Fiction, I am as pro war as even the most ruthless contemporary arms dealer. I know that most of the works perpetrated in Military SF are cynically catering to my -- to everyone’s -- most primal need to dominate over others, to be superior and utterly splendid, but I just can’t seem to care. I read a novel in this genre not to be enlightened, but to be entertained; I watch a movie in this genre for the vicarious, visceral thrill of serving and protecting in very real, very violent ways -- something of which I am fairly certain I would never be capable in actuality. And if there are big-ass space guns raining fire from big ass spaceships piloted by big ass aliens who want to send our particular genus into extinction, then so much the better. Take that, genocidal bugs, or felinoids, or shapeshifters, or whatever! Get away from our planet, you bitches!
Which brings us to Battle: Los Angeles.
We open amid abrupt and heart-pumping action, with news reports detailing the arrival of a supposed meteor shower over the Pacific that turned out to be an attack of extraterrestrial origin. “Right now, one thing is certain,” a talking head tells us with no apparent hyperbole. “The world is at war.”
It’s another sunny day in LA as 20-year Marine veteran Staff Sergeant Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) comes to terms with his mortality and resigns his commission. We meet assorted young military guns -- the adorably bespectacled and slightly-henpecked Corporal Harris (Ne-Yo) is perhaps my favorite -- and their commanding officer, an intense, newly-graduated lieutenant, Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez). The meteors have just begun their approach and no one appears to be taking too much notice of them, except when an evacuation of coastal areas is mandated by their evident change of course. They’re going to land less than a mile from LA -- and several other world cities, none of which will concern us too much for the remainder of the movie -- and they are slowing down. So, not meteors, then.
Of course, Nantz has a Troubled Past, having lost some of his men on his previous mission (to further add to the “of course”, one of those lost men had a brother, who is now a part of Nantz’s platoon). There are some other personal dramas and assorted male bonding and all of that expected stuff, but it’s all just a precursor what’s to come, the coming attractions before the main feature.
There is a battle. In Los Angeles. The movie title surely doesn’t lie about that. Aliens attack -- their tech is cleverly weird and kinda messy, asymmetrical and very Not of This Earth, and the aliens themselves… well, they’re like skinny old-school Cylons, but no less menacing a force for all of that -- and it is up to our plucky band of misfits to rescue a small enclave of foolish civilians who are caught in a proposed bombing site. (Aw, they’re the military that cares.) It is from this perspective that the remainder of the movie is shown: it focuses not on the big picture or the scientific analysis of events; we’re not in on high level briefings or even once see the President. The choppy, almost documentary style of the film puts us right in the action -- in that, it is much like the revolutionary 2008 giant monster movie, Cloverfield, showing us the effects of the extraordinary on the ordinary -- and there is carnage and gallows humor and heroic self-sacrifice aplenty as Nantz and his ever-dwindling team fight the good fight.
The score here is perfectly balanced between foreboding and triumphal; it’s simple and largely unobtrusive but it is definitively there, and it really adds to the atmosphere of uncertainty and devastation, valor and despair. The acting is exactly what it needs to be, with Eckhart giving a particularly rousing performance (including one insanely inspiring speech that I swear had me almost saluting him), and the oddly fascinating Noel Fisher, probably best known as the eldest Molloy son in The Riches, making the most of his role as doomed pseudo-comic relief. Michelle Rodriguez, who must surely be the go-to casting for badass military chick, does her thing and does it well (although her character here is as much tech support as anything), and Bridget Moynihan has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part as a rescued civilian who provides a moment of flirtation for our hero, but whose presence is otherwise puzzling. There’s also an adorable little girl (Joey King) who just spends the whole movie alternately screaming and crying -- which, given what is going on, who can blame her?
This movie does not glorify war by any means, giving us an utterly terrifying THX surround-sound experience of the cacophony and confusion such an unanticipated attack from space would likely engender. We Earthbound begin this battle at a massive disadvantage, not knowing who these enemies are or what their capabilities or motivations may be, nor how we can possibly stop them. We do see some planning and strategic thinking, but mostly our counteroffensive consists of a lot of yelling and noisy bullets and explosions flying followed by periods of eerie silence.
At one point Nantz improvises a ship kill Macguyverishly and somewhat miraculously survives, but as we come to learn more about our alien oppressors we can only be more and more convinced that this defense of our planet is a hopeless Last Stand. But, wait a minute! What’s this chatter? Something about a command and control center we can take out and thereby neutralize all of the enemy’s air combat capabilities?
(Queue: Humans are awesome.)
From Starship Troopers to Ender’s Game to Independence Day, when humanity falls under attack by an alien unknown we may initially lose the battle, yet the war is still ours for the winning once we learn what we’re up against. (Hell, even in War of the Worlds we won, just by outlasting the Martians’ immune systems.) This movie ends with not only the war but the battle still raging, but with hope now, and an inspirational radio message: “This is Foxtrot Two November. Let’s take back Los Angeles”.
As a lifelong fan of Military SF, I have no doubt they will.
-- Rachel Hyland