It’s been 15 years since Independence Day. I know, right? That’s an entire Justin Bieber ago. Anyway, 15 years seems to have been enough time past for someone to greenlight a fairly faithful remake, shot entirely with hand-held cameras. Who needs Will Smith when you have cameras that wave and wobble, as if being wielded from a surfboard at high tide?
My tone may be arch, but rest assured, the tone of Battle: Los Angeles is not. Jonathan Liebesman’s movie is played entirely straight and relentlessly serious. Occasionally a character will crack a joke, only to be dressed down by Aaron Eckhart’s Staff Sergeant Nantz. Eckhart gives a most valiant effort to sell the severity of the circumstances of a full-scale alien attack on Los Angeles. He’s definitely the kind of guy you want to have in a movie like this: Even when delivering a string of dialogue to a child actor in an inspirational monologue that is so blatantly pieced together from other movies that it plays like the filmed equivalent of a ransom note, Eckhart is a professional, stabilizing presence in Battle: Los Angeles.
You’ll recognize the scene I’m alluding to when you see it. The audience I saw Battle: Los Angeles with was howling with laughter when it happened. To be fair, that was only one scene, and overall, you can’t call this a bad movie. It’s too swift, efficient, and entertaining for that. As long as Battle: Los Angeles keeps its head down and steers away from engaging in anything resembling substance, it’s fun to watch. The problem is that it often wanders into attempts at real-world resonance, and that’s probably a mistake.
The story focuses on a Marine unit stationed near the Los Angeles area. When meteors start landing off the coast, they are called into active duty. When the meteors turn out to be delivery vessels for heavily-armed alien invaders, it’s war. Eckhart plays a career soldier haunted by a disastrous tour of duty overseas; when he’s recruited to fall in alongside a brigade of much younger Marines, there is some conflict over whether he could have saved the men he lost, and over whether he will be able to bring these boys home alive.
The young troops are played by a host of young actors, some recognizable (like The Wire’s Ramon Rodriguez and the R&B singer Ne-Yo) and some not, but none of them truly get enough substantial screen time to make an impression. The hyperactive camerawork does them no favors – the shooting style wants to be Spielberg or Greengrass in theory, but in practice it’s recent-vintage Michael Bay. No shot lasts more than a couple seconds, and the intended battlefield verisimilitude only obscures important storytelling information, such as which characters have just been killed and which characters are still in the action.
Of course, we’re not too deeply invested in these guys to begin with – the early scenes that are meant to introduce us to the large cast plays instead like a checklist of clichés. There’s the young lieutenant with a pregnant wife at home. There’s the sensitive medic who hopes to become a doctor. There’s the runty virgin who hasn’t seen battle. There’s the wisecracking black guy. There’s the wisecracking white guy. There’s the temperamental Southern guy (whoever he is, he’s a dead ringer for the young Sean Penn.) There’s the guy with the mustache. There’s the Asian guy. Wait – an Asian guy? Okay, so here’s one place where Battle: Los Angeles must genuinely be commended: It takes pains to demonstrate the multicultural make-up of the modern U.S. armed forces, with its noticeable (unfair?) emphasis on the black-and-Latino percentages,
The main action of the movie takes place when this group is sent in, to Venice no less, to pull out civilians embedded in an overpowered police station before an air strike is sent in. The platoon starts taking casualties, but also picks up characters along the way, most noticeably Michelle Rodriguez as a typically-believable tough lady, because the movie hasn’t had any girls before now. Again, this is the kind of actor you need in a movie like this – as in Avatar and Machete and the Fast/Furious movies, Michelle Rodriguez always hits the right tone. She’s not in the movie to make fun of its ridiculousness, but she also knows it ain’t Shakespeare. Less well-served are Bridget Moynihan and Michael Pena, as two civilians in need of evacuation and in charge of a trio of small children. Instead of the knowing and canny Michael Pena from Observe & Report, unfortunately, the less funny, more noble and self-sacrificing Michael Pena from Crash was hired. As for Moynihan… well, she does get one of the movie’s more enjoyable lines: “Maybe I can help. I’m a veterinarian.” (Says the model to the military…)
Again, I’m making light of Battle: Los Angeles, but really, it frequently invites that kind of treatment. In my notebook I scribbled down the phrase “All the easy beats,” which is to say that the writers and filmmakers let constantly-playing news broadcasts relay important exposition (“We’re being colonized!” “Their main target is our water!”) Jump-scares occur exactly where you anticipate they will, a portentous orchestral score (by the extremely talented Brian Tyler) announces the emotional trajectory of every key moment, and some of the worst ADR I’ve ever heard cues us into the idea that the younger guys don’t exactly trust the old guy. [ADR is dialogue re-recorded after the main filming of the movie, to add jokes or information or to try to fill in story points without reshooting scenes. Here’s the best-ever explanation of the process.]
The main problems with the movie, though, are conceptual. First of all, the aliens are invading Los Angeles. In my other life as a struggling writer, I have a script for an action-comedy whose main premise is that no disaster movie ever occurs in L.A., so no one’s fully equipped for it when it does. L.A. has no real iconic national monuments, and even though I think it gets a bad rap, it’s not seriously considered as an international cultural center. What kind of dumb-ass aliens would invade Los Angeles? The idea of aliens invading L.A. could probably easier be a comedy premise than a hard-edged military drama. When you start considering that it could easily have been set in L.A. for budgetary reasons, the joke gets even funnier.
More seriously, though, it’s hard for any serious person to watch Marines getting shot at without considering the fact that there are very real implications to the era we are living in. Even though I know that those are actors, and even though I know that those are computer-animated aliens, I still can’t turn my brain off entirely and enjoy watching these guys in harm’s way. It’s too real. Or it should be. I don’t like to be a buzzkill, but the question really should be considered: Is it irresponsible to make movies like this one during wartime? Is it possible that all of the obvious effort spent making this movie more realistic has actually made it more trite and meaningless?
Again, don’t get me wrong: Battle: Los Angeles isn’t a poorly-made or a boring movie, not by a long shot. I’ve seen plenty worse, and unfortunately for the genre, not many better. But it’s also a lot like watching a friend play Call Of Duty and Halo at the same time. (And I’m sure I won’t be the last to make the comparison to video games). It might be fun for a while, but it’s definitely a diversion from more serious thinking.
Early in the action in Battle: Los Angeles , one of the grunts says, “I’d rather be in Afghanistan.” That means that, even in the world of this movie, our very real military conflict is still happening. To me personally, that reminder took me right out of the movie. In real life, America is still at war. It just seems silly to think about aliens at a time like that.