An epic representation of everything these people are up against. And some helicopters too, cuz fuck it why not?

This is the first time I’ve gone back and added to a review other than maybe commenting more in the comment section. I feel that my original review is lacking some commentary that needs to be part of the discourse of this film. Namely that critics keep bitching about it’s “videogame” sensibilities. This is a potentially important point and factors into the target audience and expectations people are going to have about this, let alone action (military action) movies down the road. I will stick my additional comments to the end of the review so you can see its original form and then read what I have chosen to add after initial posting.

Battle: Los Angeles is the rare movie that delivers on its concept so well that it almost hurts it. Told and sold to audiences like it was going to be Black Hawk Down with aliens, that is exactly what this movie is. We never learn much about the enemies, besides that they want our water, but we learn enough through the eyes of our core group of soldiers, with whom the movie is completely committed. We never stray into other characters’ perspectives or see much of the “bigger picture” beyond what information you might expect to be flying around as things unfold.

Battle: Los Angeles is receiving mixed reviews because it is exceedingly well made but has some elements that just don’t work. The dialogue is often corny, full of the kinds of stupid comments and speeches that a writer who has only experienced war movies would try and sell in an otherwise authenticity-bent war film. And Battle: LA does feel very authentic… except for when characters open their mouths. Too often the dialogue takes you out of the movie and plants your perspective on the over-earnest and inexperienced acting or the seriously uninspired writing. It’s not even that the story or characterization is bad, because it isn’t, it’s just that our beloved heroes are too often saying really stupid things. More than once the epically redundant words “it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen” are uttered. I would rather they had characters say nothing at all than dumb shit like this.

The funny thing about this criticism is that I wouldn’t be making it about Independance Day, which has a lot of the same cornball bullshit. Maybe the juxtaposition in Battle: LA (between gritty authenticy and ra ra USMC postering) is what makes the dialogue choices such a let down. Independence Day was a lot more honest about its cheesiness. It is a fundamentally corny film but it works within context. I guess it could also be the times. It seems like Independence Day comes from a more innocent era, when it was a lot easier to cheer on the myth of the American military machine.

Nowadays, scenes like the amazing autopsy scene (the one in Battle: LA, not Independence Day) have a sort of uncomfortable edge. Personally, I think that subtext elevates both that scene (which features a pair of soldiers experimenting with a still-alive captured alien soldier to find internal weak-spots) and the film itself. There’s a sort of moral grayness to it, especially when five minutes earlier one soldier muses to another that maybe they have something in common just by virtue of being soldiers. Like these aliens maybe don’t want to be here any more than the humans do. This kind of notion fits our times better than the hollow, unrealistic dialogue crammed into characters’ mouths. Leave that shit for over-the-top nonsense (but in a good way) like Independence Day.

Anyway, now that’s out of the way.

There’s a lot to like about this movie, in spite of what finicky critics are saying. It is not as “dumb” as Ebert is saying. It’s also so well shot that you might not notice just how much shaky-cam they are doing to enhance the “realism” or whatever. It works well in war films and is used to great effect here. The film takes the time to introduce the main group of soldiers and gives small scenes to other characters picked up later in order to give us reasons to care about these people. None of this reaches far beyond the generic, but it is enough to give these people identity. Besides, the movie knows what it is and it’s more about injecting modern warfare authenticity into a far-fetched scenario than it is about Sgt. Nantz’s survivor’s guilt or Lt. Martinez’s inexperience as a leader (which is by far the most lazy and cliche choice made about any of these characters, I have a hard time believing anyone thought this was a good move). The one thing I’ll say against the movie is that I wish they had stuck with the cold open instead of dialing back to introduce the characters. A better writer, or team of ’em, would have had the confidence and competence to develop the characters in the lulls, much the way Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down did.

Mostly we’re here to see some hardcore destruction and humanity braced up against the wall by a surprise attack of epic proportions, probably by an enemy that is beyond our ability to defeat. Of course, Battle: LA pulls an Independence Day and gives the key to victory to its heroes but I don’t have a major problem with this. Thinking of some elements of the movie as being homages to the various alien invasion films it is no doubt partially inspired by, it seems like the intent was mostly to string some of this stuff into a newish design and they pulled it off. The action sequences, which make up 80% of the movie, are visceral and inventive. We get to see realistic military tactics on both sides, as well as cool vehicles and almost sadistic (though fun) lack of regard for the well-being of the main cast. A lot of thought went into how to pace and structure this film, how to design it, and how to make it as grounded as possible. Ultimately this is somewhat betrayed by a cliche-ridden script, but with everything else working so goddamn well, it’s impossible for me to condemn the thing as a whole.

The corniness aside, Aaron Eckhart is a total badass and you’d follow him into those sewers too.

You can have guilt-free fun with this movie. It is not fucking Skyline. It is sort of the anti-Skyline. As long as you aren’t going into it thinking it’s going to change your life, it should pretty much meet your expectations. Just be ready to cringe at some of the dialogue and roll your eyes at a corny speech or two.

From here on are spoilers and more serious discussion of the “videogame aesthetic” complaints. Oh, and more about that fucking autopsy scene I like so much:

I was a bit remiss in not talking more about the “autopsy scene”. It’s easily my favorite part of the film. Like I said, there’s a moral ambiguity to it that is never dwelt on. The aliens are an unprovoked foe and it’s clear that humans are in a fight for their survival. Because of this, extreme tactics are a bit more justifiable than they would be if we saw the enemy showing restraint. Of course, there is no indication other than conjecture of their future intentions and the two marines talking about how maybe they’re just soldiers following orders is in the film for a reason.

Why does this matter for the autopsy bit? Well, the aliens are biomechanical and very hard to kill. Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) and a civilian veterinarian desperately try to figure out where the vital areas are so that they can kill them quicker and more efficiently rather than spray-and-praying every time they come up against them. Anyway, while the rest of the marines try to hold the police station from incoming aliens, Nantz and the vet cut open the alien and stab at various parts of its body. The alien is still alive and making various noises while they go about brutalizing it.

Like I said, they don’t dwell on the implications of something like this, which is surprising given how shitty the script is nearly everywhere else. Those implications, though, are clear and elevate the film. The things they do to the alien are horrific and inhumane, but they are necessary and derived from desperation and a soldier’s eye to efficiency of purpose.

It’s a short scene but it delivers something extra to the compact nature of the film, which drives itself objective to objective while (ineptly) delivering character moments along the way.

Anyways, it’s time to talk about the videogame issue.

I have to call bullshit on this complaint. It’s way too easy to pick on videogames in most contemporary action sequences. You can break them down to “action stage, cutscene, action stage, boss fight, rinse and repeat” but I think that is a bit in ignorance of how action videogames arrive at that structure in the first place. In pre-videogame action movies, particularly the shoot-em-ups of the 80’s, there was that same structure of action sequences tied together by set-up, reprieves, and small character bits. The writing in videogames tends to be uninspired, mostly based on the cliches of those same action movies videogame creators grew up watching. Battle: Los Angeles is certainly guilty of its writer, Christopher Belini, being less concerned with what the characters would actually spend their time saying or talking about than he was about throwing in “classic” military machismo and action movie cliches. So in a sense, the dialogue actually does feel like the kind of shit you hear in a videogame. It’s a lot more forgivable in a videogame too, mostly because this downside is offset by the experience of playing the game. I think it’s more difficult  to parse dialogue and character moments from the overall entity of a film but your mileage may vary. While videogames may be getting better at maintaining a flow between talking scenes and the action of gameplay, a failure to create that flow in a movie is a noticeable flaw that quickly reminds one of the hackneyed story elements of lazy FPS games.

So in that sense, I get why someone might say there are parts of Battle: Los Angeles that remind them of videogames. The bad dialogue, though, doesn’t seem to be brought up in that context very often.

A lot can be made of Battle: Los Angeles‘s seeming use of Call of Duty stylization in terms of how things look and move, if not in the structure and pace of the action vs. story beats. I disagree that this is all that important an issue to either hold against the movie or comment on for the sake of sounding like you’re catching filmmakers in the act of mimicking games.  Which is, I think, a curmudgeonly tendency of older critics or ones who think they’ll sound smarter by being dismissive without really bothering to think about it much.

My other big problem with the videogame complaint about most movies where it’s raised is this:

The suggestion is not that Battle: Los Angeles was deliberately made to appeal to a generation of people who didn’t grow up simply watching macho military-action movies, but playing them in a very realistically rendered genre of games. That this is so is obvious to the point that it barely needs to be mentioned. The suggestion, though, is that this is somehow a bad thing or detracts from some imagined filmic integrity that pre-videogame generation critics imagine is being destroyed by the presence of this sensibility in certain films.

To that I can only make loud farting noises with one hand and a jerking off motion with the other. I mean, that the lines are blurring is the result of one media reacting to the presence and emulation of another. Videogames are in a stage where they often emulate cinema and even the word “cinematic” is omnipresent in discussions about AAA action games, especially the military-themed and uber-popular ones like Call of Duty or Battlefield.

To the extent that Battle: Los Angeles has lazy writing (dialogue and character stuff only, everything else is aces), it is not fair to say it’s because it’s a “videogame movie without the videogame”. There were poorly written, vacantly felt action movies before this one. To extend that to the aesthetics is similarly unfair and probably a bit ignorant/curmudgeonly to boot.

Movies and videogames are in a weird feedback loop and Battle: Los Angeles is a product of that paradigm, no more and no less. To disparage a movie for being “videogamey” by default is to be out of touch with pervasive cultural and media changes. The familiarity in the audience gained by being inside of that feedback loop is probably part of the reason Battle: Los Angeles will be widely seen by the demographic those games (and these movies) are made for. This is not de facto weakness but at worst a weird phenomenon brought on by the awkward early courtship of our two most powerful narrative mediums.

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