Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person review Battle: Los Angeles

Both: We had one hope going into Battle: Los Angeles: That it would be better than Skyline. Thankfully, it met this very, very low criteria for success. Beyond that, the question of whether you’ll it like boils down to this: How much originality do you require in your science fiction films? If the answer is “none,” you might well enjoy it, because Battle: Los Angeles doesn’t have an original bone in its cinematic body. It’s a very competently executed Big Stupid Action Film.

Howard Waldrop: I am reminded of nothing so much as Assault on Precinct 13 with aliens.

I have a feeling they were trying something with this–a new paradigm SF film–except like the old ones, narrated from the inside of the government-military complex.

Staff Sergeant Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), nearing retirement after losing some men in Afghanistan, is suddenly put in a platoon when aliens invade (the platoon includes the brother of one of the men he lost). Things start getting hot. There’s an attempt to characterize each platoon member–one’s a 17-year-old virgin, one’s getting married; there’s a Nigerian serving as a Navy corpsman who wants to be a doctor and the aforementioned brother, all going in under a green lieutenant and the seasoned Sgt. Nantz.

Inadvertently or not, this is a recruiting poster for the US Marines. It goes through many of the clichés of WWII, the last war we ostensibly won.

Their immediate mission, it turns out, is a rescue of some civilians at a police station that’s been overrun. You’ve got these relatively intense personal stories going on in the service of a dumb-ass movie.

Lawrence Person: Besides Skyline (which sucked), the two films Battle: Los Angeles brings to mind are Aliens (Michelle Rodriguez’s character is so close to Pvt. Vasquez that they’re virtually interchangeable, save the latter’s ridiculously large gun) and Black Hawk Down, both of which are unquestionably out of its league. Advanced word promised a cross between Black Hawk Down and Skyline, and to that extent the film delivers, sans any notable twists or originality. To its credit, the battle sequences themselves seem fairly well staged.

HW: Before I unload, I want to talk about the things that are good in the movie. The acting is better than the movie deserves, even the bit parts. The aliens are used well initially, seen in long shot or in quick flashes, until one is roughly autopsied with a Ka-Bar knife to see how it ticks, an homage, I assume, to Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, a better movie. As in combat, the aliens are mostly unseen except at a distance. Technically the movie is swell; the FX are pretty seamless and the production design is fairly unique. All that being said, everything else falls down.

LP: The reason this is so much better than Skyline is that not only is the acting better, but the characters are people we actually care about and want to see live, as opposed to actively rooting for the aliens to eat the annoying idiots in Skyline. Both the acting and the direction are good enough to make you intermittently forget that the script is composed of wall-to-wall clichés. Aaron Eckhart (probably best known as Arthur Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight) is very good, bringing alive a character with tissue-thin dialog and a connect-the-dots backstory.

Director Jonathan Liebesman, who you probably know from, well, absolutely nothing (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning? Really? Thanks for confirming our preconceptions of your vaunted originality, Hollywood.) keeps the movie moving along at a steady clip. Like combat? It’s got good combat scenes. (It’s also got lots of shaky cam.) Don’t like combat? There’s nothing here for you.

The less said about the script the better. There are a few decent laughs scattered throughout, and some of the characters you have pegged as redshirts actually survive. But that about exhausts the inventory of the script’s originality.

HW: A science-type says “Earth is the only place in the Universe where liquid H2O exists. They’re using it to power their ships and themselves.” Notice: Universe. Not galaxy. Not solar system. And probably wrong. If the aliens were coming here for our water, wouldn’t they just sit down in the middle of the Pacific, suck the Earth dry, and leave and we’d be none the wiser. We don’t use the ocean; we’re barely on it.

Instead they appear above 19 coastal metropolises worldwide and make fargin’ war. Because that’s the way we’d do it. At first they have no air support. Then all these un-beinged drones show up and settle our hash. As in Independence Day and They Live they only have one command and control center for each city. It’s so vulnerable a squad of Marines can hold it at bay and call in a missile strike. Even we can plan better than that.

LP: They also used the same “control the drones from one central location” bit in The Phantom Menace. Exactly why the aliens in this film would put it down under the ground rather than keep it in orbit is unclear. Or rather, it’s all too clear: Then the heroes wouldn’t be able to blow it up.

There’s some more stupid on display, such as whole lot of business involving paper maps. Never mind military-issue GPS, does no one in this stateside platoon have an iPhone? And every TV seems tuned to The Plot Point Channel.

If you’re actually looking for a science fiction film, you’ll be disappointed; there’s no formal novelty, unusual twists or sense of wonder on display here. To its credit, Skyline at least had a novel idea or two, no matter how annoyingly deployed or badly executed. (Increasing the parallels, both films have the same irritating “start with the aliens, then jump back 24 hours before” structure.) Unlike Skyline, this is a swift-moving, competently executed, and modestly engaging action film. If you’re in the mood for that, you probably won’t regret the time spent watching it, but you’ll also have trouble remembering any details a month from now.

HW: The movie ends on a Sgt. Rock-type cliché, with everyone left filling their magazines and getting ready to go back into combat now that the boogers are on the run. (You expect images of the dead to march across the sky like at the end of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or The Fighting Sullivans.) Doesn’t happen and the credits roll.

LP: The war movie has long been a staple of Hollywood; American audiences love to see American soldiers as The Good Guys, and love to see them unapologetically kicking the asses of The Bad Guys. But that idea has fallen out of favor among film producers for largely political reasons. Despite the ferocious, complex, dramatic, and (as seen by countless current video games) sellable nature of modern warfare, Hollywood simply seems unable to make films that depict American soldiers fighting Communists or Islamists (as opposed to Nazis) as uncompromised heroes. (The exceptions that prove the rule, like Black Hawk Down or The Hurt Locker, tend to tell stories and/or have characters more morally complex than those of classic World War II templates.) Instead, Hollywood prefers to make money-losing anti-war films depicting American soldiers as the Bad Guys (like Rendition). And thus we get a film where U.S. marines fight the only politically acceptable bad guys since the fall of the Third Reich: aliens. Expect more to come.

HW: This has its finger on the pulse of the 15-year-old future Marine. It probably didn’t mean to but it does.

Howard Waldrop‘s latest books are Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989 – 2003 and Things Will Never Be the Same: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005, from Old Earth Books. Locus Magazine interviewed Waldrop in its November 2003 issue.

Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Postscripts, Jim Baen’s Universe, Fear, National Review, Reason, Whole Earth Review, The Freeman, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and, as well as several anthologies. He also edits the Hugo-nominated SF critical magazine Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books.

9 thoughts on “Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person review Battle: Los Angeles

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  • March 14, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    I have not seen this movie. I don’t need to. I caught a flick just like it, for free, on the SyFy channel: Battle Of Los Angeles. It was shown the day after Battle: Los Angeles came out. Its title is identical except with “Of” in place of “:”. It was pretty bad, derivative of better films (including The Mutant Chronicles, which followed it) and many online games. Boneheaded and laughable as it was, Battle Of was at least a few notches above those flicks of a certain subgenre (Disaster Movie, Superhero Movie).

  • March 14, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    “Aaron Eckhart (probably best known as Arthur Dent in The Dark Knight)” is probably slightly better known as Harvey Dent (aka Two Face) in The Dark Knight. Arthur Dent is better known as the protagonist of The HitchHikers’ Guide to the Galaxy.

  • March 14, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    Thanks. Corrected.

  • Pingback:Howard Waldrop and I Review Battle: Los Angeles « Lawrence Person's Futuramen

  • March 14, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    Your criticism of the science type in the movie stating ” earth is the only place in the universe with liquid H20” is misleading. What he actually said was in the”known” universe…big difference. This statement is actually true

  • March 14, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    Interesting review. The only problem I have with what you said comes, surprisingly, from the comment about all the TVs. Allow me to explain this was highly short sighted and how you’ll feel dumb for not understanding it. *ahem*

    “And every TV seems tuned to The Plot Point Channel.”

    In states of National Emergency (I do believe that the “OMFG ALIENS WANT TO KILL US ALL!” scheme qualifies as a National Emergency) the government has the ability to override all network broadcasts and, in turn, broadcast on every single channel. You know how in other apocalypse movies, there’s always the scene in a bar (it almost always takes place in a bar, and I don’t know why) where whatever sports game is interrupted with a message from the government? And that fat guy enjoying his beer turns to the barkeep and tells him to change the channel? And they find that every channel is the same thing? That’s what they’re referring to. Keep that in mind about the, what did you call it? Oh yes, the Plot Point Channel.

    Also, I’m surprised how you didn’t relate the ending, where the military dude tells Eckhart that they’re telling the rest of the world how to kill the big bad alien control center, to Independence Day. Almost the same line, word for word.

  • March 15, 2011 at 2:13 am

    “It goes through many of the clichés of WWII, the last war we ostensibly won.”

    You don’t think we won World War II outright?

  • March 21, 2011 at 10:23 am

    Makes you nostalgic for the SF war films like “War of the Worlds” where all our contemporary weaponry and battle tactics are tried and prove futile. Then, when all is lost, humanity is miraculously saved by our lowly friends, the germs.


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