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Battle: Los Angeles – Victorious in Defeat

By Jim Rohner · March 16, 2011

I don't like the phrase "I don't get it" as a reaction to a movie. I don't like hearing people say it, and no matter how perplexed I may be after a screening, I will try as hard as I can to come up with a more suitable phrase to express my feelings.  In general, I think saying "I don't get it" is a lazy response that implies there is a single interpretation to a film that the audience failed to derive due to some fault of the filmmaker behind his or her product. Often there is an immense group of people that have worked so hard and for so long on a film that simply saying "I don't get it" seems far too unfairly of a terse write-off.

And yet, having said all that, I found that an apt response after seeing Battle: Los Angeles was "I don't get it." You see, I largely try to avoid reading reviews of film's I'm going to see before I see them, but couldn't help but notice during the days before its opening that Battle: Los Angeles was getting eviscerated by critics. So when it came time for me to see it, I entered the theater, took my seat and waited for the projector to ignite with a bit more skepticism than I had felt even a week before. Yet after the credits began to roll, I felt my brain forming the words that my vocal chords would actualize for my ears to process: "I don't get it." Except when I said it this time, I didn't mean it in the same sense as after I had watched the mind f*ck that was Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, nor in the same sense as after I had watched the vastly overrated Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby; I meant it in the legitimately perplexed sense: "I don't get it. Why do critics dislike this movie so much?"

Don't do too much reading between the lines, though – there is nothing overly fantastic or original about Battle: Los Angeles. An alien force invades and nearly decimates Earth until the determination of mankind prevails? If you haven't seen that premise at least one thousand times, then you haven't seen enough movies. I suppose where Battle: Los Angeles differentiates itself is that, despite Aaron Eckhart's casting as Sgt. Michael Nantz, the film is an ensemble piece. There is no Will Smith to sass aliens after he punches them in the face, nor any Tom Cruise to uncomfortably parent his children. Instead, there is a motley collection of United States Marines who all bring their own eccentricities and backstories to a cataclysm of global proportions. Sure, Eckhart's Nantz is intended to be the character with whom we as an audience most directly relate, and his skill as a performer shines through with his ability to elevate his character above some clunky exposition and dialogue, but the film belongs just as much to his supporting cast, whose names with likely escape you, as it does to him.

But the fact that most viewers will be unable to differentiate which actor portrayed which Marine says much more about our own mental limitations and much less about the film's, for though the names are not immediately bubbling to the surface, the characters sure as hell are: there's the inexperienced lieutenant, who leaves behind a wife with a bun in the oven when the aliens invade; there's the green rookie, who's the butt of every joke due to his inexperience with the ladies and his lightweight nature with booze; there's the bitter Corporal, whose brother died under Nantz's command and who resents the man's inclusion in his squad; and there's also Michelle Rodriguez, who is the apparent benefactor of an unspoken agreement in Hollywood to always cast her when an action flick requires a strong, supporting female. These are not just carbon copy grunts pouring out of Camp Pendleton to be effortlessly mowed down by alien forces, these are individuals with names and faces who bring gravity to their actions, humor to their quips and motivation to their sacrifices. 

The motto of the U.S. Marine Corps is "semper fidelis," which translated from Latin means, "always faithful."  The Marines in Battle: Los Angeles strictly adhere to that code and in many conspicuous ways, so does the film's seeming checklist of tired genre conventions. From the initial hint of invasion to the final climactic clash, Battle: Los Angeles commits the following crimes against our expectations:

    •    The alien soldiers, seemingly invincible upon first contact, are dispatched with relative ease once their "weakness" is discovered.

    •    Through a rather tenuous scene late in the film, it's unveiled that the motivation for the invasion seems to be Earth's natural resources.

    •    Logic and physics are frequently defied in order to see our heroes rescued from pulse-pounding action.

    •    A motivational monologue late in the game rallies otherwise dejected and defeated troops.

    •    Despite apparent technological and tactical superiority, the aliens overlook, and are duped, by simple technology.

Sounds crappy, right? Actually, it sounds a lot like any other sci-fi alien invasion flicks to me. How many of those same conventions (plus more) can be found in Roland Emmerich's hugely successfulIndependence Day or in Steven Spielberg's critically lauded War of the Worlds? What qualifies Battle: Los Angeles to be the critical whipping boy? Certainly there's nothing that makes the film stand out, but that applies to the cons just as much as it does to the pros. There's certainly nothing that will make the film stand out come end of the year honors, but there's something to be said about a genre film content to be and succeeding at being just a well-crafted genre film. It may be flawed, and it may be directed by the guy who takes credit for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, but try as I might, I  look at that 32% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and still, I don't get it.