Review first appeared in Sight & Sound, May 2011
Synopsis: Los Angeles, August 2011. Physically aging and guilt-wracked over a disastrous tour in Afghanistan, Marine Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz tenders his resignation. As he is completing his last training session, alien forces begin a massive coastal attack on the world’s major cities. When the platoon is mobilised, Nantz is asked to accompany its rookie commander, Martinez. Tasked with evacuating civilians from a police station before the Air Force levels the whole of Santa Monica, the platoon comes under heavy alien fire en route, and is joined by survivors from other Marine units. They recover five civilians from the police station, but a flying drone destroys their rescue helicopter. Helped by the veterinarian Michele, they determine how to kill the aliens by performing a live autopsy on an injured one. Fleeing by bus, they come under attack, and though Nantz manages to bring down an alien drone single-handed, a freeway battle results in many casualties, until a gravely injured Martinez destroys the advancing aliens along with himself. When the airstrike fails to come, Nantz et al. discover that their Forward Operating Base has been destroyed. As a helicopter lifts them out of the battle zone, Nantz realises that the alien command centre is nearby, and returns to the ground, joined by his remaining Marines. Under heavy attack, they laser target the command centre for a missile strike, destroying the aliens’ air support. Nantz and his unit head back to retake L.A..
Review: From Dante’s Peak (1997) and Volcano (1997), through Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon (1998), to Despicable Me (2010) and Megamind (2010), cinema is littered with similarly themed films released at nearly the same time – and now aliens can be seen invading the City of Angels in both the Strause brothers’ modestly financed indie Skyline (2010) and Jonathan Liebesman’s big-budget tent pole Battle Los Angeles (not to mention Asylum’s 2011 straight-to-video ‘mockbuster’ Battle of Los Angeles). The close connection between these two films is complicated by the fact that the Strauses’ company Hydraulx also furnished visual effects for Battle Los Angeles.
Both films open in medias res and boast spectacular special effects, but there are also striking differences in their details. Where Skyline shows an alien apocalypse unfolding from the perspective of beleaguered civilians in a condominium, and ends on the sort of bleak note that could only be possible in an independent production, Battle Los Angeles embeds viewers on the ground with a platoon of Marines, deploying the sort of chaotic realism familiar from films like Saving Private Ryan (1998) – and, more pertinently, from videogames like Call of Duty – and ends with the defiant triumphalism of Independence Day (1996). Made with considerable support (including advice, base camp locations and manpower) from the US Marine Corps, the film serves as a gung ho recruiting sergeant for America’s armed forces. Despite a brief background glimpse of extra-terrestrials recovering one of their injured, for the most part the invaders represent a convenient Other depicted with no redeeming features or recognisable human traits to problematise the film’s unquestioning militarism. So even when an injured alien is shown undergoing a live autopsy to determine how best to kill its kind, the film makes no attempt to elicit our sympathies for this dehumanised POW, or our abhorrence for its torturers. If the aliens’ goal is to take the Earth’s water for their fuel, the film never pauses to reflect on America’s own history of adventurism abroad for dwindling resources, nor alludes to the likelihood that future human wars will also be over water. While the ending, with the heroes heading straight back for further dangerous combat, formally evokes the final sequence of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008), it lacks the critical intelligence or psychological insight to make anything interesting of this resemblance.
Instead there is cliché-riddled dialogue (mostly comprising macho posturing), and a parade of thinly sketched characters – the aging, guilt-stricken Staff Sergeant (Aaron Eckhart), the resentful Corporal (Cory Hardrict), the top-of-his-class rookie commander (Ramon Rodriguez) with the pregnant wife, the veteran (Jim Parrack) struggling to overcome post traumatic stress, etc. – whose narrative arcs are entirely predictable from the moment they are introduced. It is a platoon’s worth of unengaging subplots that fail to cover over the lack of anything like a thoughtful subtext.
Battle Los Angeles can hardly be taken seriously, but unlike the otherwise not dissimilar Starshoop Troopers (1997) and Team America: World Police (2004), it has no obvious satirical intent – and so, like any jokeless comedy, it falls as flat as a city’s heavily bombarded skyline.