Saturday, March 12, 2011

Movie Review "Battle: Los Angeles" (Spoilers)

Saw Battle: Los Angeles last night with my friend David.  Time for the review...

The Good

I liked director Jonathan Liebesman's desire to create an alien-invasion film in the style of war movies like Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan.  I don't know if that's ever been done before--Independence Day was very large scale and didn't tightly follow a single military unit, while the Tom Cruise version of War of the Worlds and Skyline tightly followed civilians who happened to encounter military battles against the invaders rather than a group of soldiers.

I liked the concept of the alien invaders.  I don't think I've ever seen squid-like aquatic aliens turning themselves into cyborgs (the comment about the surgically-implanted gun) to fight a land war before.  I also liked some of their weaponry, including something that looks and functions like a cross between crew-served machine gun (it's a squad-support weapon) and a multiple-rocket launcher (it fires swarms of small rockets) that walks on two legs to boot.

The aliens also have some tactical sense.  In one scene, alien infantry use a dog to distract the Marines prior to ambushing them, while they also track human radio and cellular transmissions to hunt down survivors.

The film also has, in TVTropes terms, some Crowning Moments of Awesome.  The first is when Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) lures an alien drone away from a bus his Marines had salvaged and kills it with a grenade to a gas station.  The second is when, with the alien command center destroyed and the directionless drones falling from the sky, the alien infantry begin retreating.


The last Marine squad in Los Angeles (and an Air Force technical sergeant along for the ride) pursue the retreating aliens, hammering them to the point Nantz and another character run out of ammunition for their rifles, draw their sidearms, and hammer them some more.

Another scene features, as the aliens swarm a position the Marines need to hold in order to call in cruise missiles on the alien command center, Technical Sgt. Elena Santos (Michelle Rodriguez) and another Marine actually fixing bayonets and spearing a couple alien infantry to a wall.  Bravo.

There's a good character moment where Lt. William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) is wounded and orders Nantz to leave him to save the others.  They argue about that and when Martinez definitively orders him to go, Nantz shouts "not again!"  Although the incident where Nantz lost Marines under his command is never really described, that line shows how deeply it affected his character.

(Martinez then turns on his radio to lure the aliens in and then blows himself up, killing himself and several enemy infantry and destroying their heavy weapon besides.  He goes out well, despite his inexperience getting the Marines into trouble early on.)

Although some have criticized the shaky-cam aspect of the movie, it accurately depicts how loud and confusing a real firefight would be.

Also, although the emotional impact could have been better, the scene where Nantz shows Corporal Jason Lockett (Cory Hardrict), whose brother died in Iraq under his command, that he remembers the names, ranks, and other information of every Marine who died in that incident and wishes he had died in their place had a good concept.

The Bad

With so many characters, it was hard to keep track of all of them--I actually had to search reviews online to find some of their names.  With Skyline, having a smaller cast made it easier to at least remember all of their names and develop some of them more.  It would be better if the movie focused on a single fire-team or squad rather than a mashed-together unit commanded by a lieutenant, who would typically be in command of a rifle platoon (three squads).  Focusing on a single squad or fire team would enable the friction between Nantz and Lockett, to be better developed and potentially more problematic--for example, with fewer other Marines around, what if Lockett was tempted to frag Nantz?

Given how Nantz's discovery of the alien command center and the Marines calling in an air-strike on it appeared to have turned the tide in Los Angeles, it should have been clearer that it was the aliens' drone aircraft that were the decisive element of the battle.  There's the scene where a drone hunts the Marines inside the commandeered bus and human aircraft attacking the combined-drones (the saucers) and not doing a lot of damage to them, but it could have been developed better.  Maybe if there's more than one incident where we see the drones taking down human aircraft due to superior maneuverability or something like that, it would make this clearer.  A scene where the Marines are pinned and an A-10 Warthog shows up and butchers the alien infantry and lighter vehicles until it's attacked by drones and the aliens start advancing again would make the point better.

The final confrontation between Nantz and Lockett could have had more emotional impact if Lockett's facial expression had changed at all during Nantz's recitation of the names of those who died under him or if, when Nantz describes his brother, tears start rolling down his face.  Lockett visits his brother's grave earlier in the film and talks to him as though he's there, so it's obvious they were close.

Although the theorizing the aliens have come to Earth to take the liquid water to fuel their machines could have been written off as blather from a TV talking head, bringing that in at all wasn't helpful to the movie.  The aliens wouldn't need to invade Earth to get liquid water--if they've got interstellar space travel ability, it shouldn't be too hard to capture ice-comets or collect water from uninhabited worlds (moons like Callisto or Europa, for example).  Given how the aliens appear to be aquatic and Earth is 70 percent water, making their objective colonization makes a lot more sense (and that does come in--"we are being colonized!").

Before anyone says this is a popcorn movie and one doesn't need to take plausibility seriously, it is possible to have one's cake and eat it too.  It's not like I'm suggesting action scenes be cut or unrealistic amounts of exposition dropped in.  Just cut the "they're using our liquid water to fuel their machines" tidbit from the TV and explicitly state the orange things they passed by when they infiltrate the alien command area via the sewer system were alien egg sacs.

The Verdict

A fun movie that could have been better.  6.5 out of 10.

Additional Comments

Something I've noticed about the reviews is that many of the bad reviews (that is, most of them) take issue with the film as being too gung-ho, being a love letter to the U.S. Marine Corps, too patriotic, etc. and use that as additional grounds (besides the characterization issues) to criticize it.

Is something wrong with that?  Does the cultural class (I can say that--I'm a journalist) think somehow more sophisticated to portray U.S. Marines as war criminals or tormented mental cases than portraying them as the heroes most of them are?

It's true that in the past, movies could be Narmishly (see TVTropes) gung-ho or even glorified war, but going too far in the other direction into cynicism and even bashing the military isn't good either.  After all, the film does depict Martinez's inexperience causing problems for those under his command, another Marine apparently suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (who probably should have been elaborated on more), and friction between Lockett and Nantz, so it's not like the Marines in the film are unrealistically flawless.


  1. Good work Quinn. I find this to be one of the most honest reveiws I've read for this movie. Keep up the good work, and keep me in mind when I review Sucker Punch and Paul later this month!

  2. Glad you're liking it. Thanks for the comment.