Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What "Battle: Los Angeles" didn't do

I saw "Battle: Los Angeles" last night and really enjoyed. I was somewhat surprised to find that a lot of critics had kicked it for being derivative and cliché. Well, duh, it's a disaster movie. I don't care. But let me just compliment the film for not doing a number of things that are kind of expected in this genre:

  • We did not see the destruction of New York City. No one even mentioned New York City. (This was my main objection to "Deep Impact," which I otherwise enjoyed. No characters lived in New York, no action took place there, but they still felt compelled to show it getting destroyed. Yet they didn't show the destruction of DC, where many of the characters lived. Weak.)
  • The world was not saved by spunky kids or personal computers (see "V: The Final Battle," "Jurassic Park," "Independence Day," etc.).
  • The president was not in the movie. I'm guessing he was not flying a fighter jet, wherever he was.
  • The aliens did not offer critiques or praise of humanity in general (see "The Abyss," "Alien Nation," etc.)
  • The world was not saved by nuclear weapons (see "Independence Day," "The Core," "Meteor," "Armageddon," etc.)
  • It did not conflate a local, tactical victory with a win in the overall war (see "Independence Day," "Avatar," etc.).
Also, I actually identified with a character in the film, which is rare for this genre. Occasionally, the film would show a clip from a news show featuring an interview with some random professor (probably in a land-locked state) who was kind of guessing about the aliens' strategy and abilities. I could see myself in that situation. The news station would call and say, "Can you comment on the alien invasion? All our other experts are dead." I'd probably jump on that.

Update: On further reflection, while the depiction of the president was somewhat silly in "Independence Day," at least the film acknowledged civilian control of the military. Conversely, civilians in "Battle: LA" were simply things to be protected. All orders and strategy, as far as we could tell, came from the military itself.


Hans said...

Nice discussion. And mostly on target. What I liked about Battle: Los Angeles was that it was a solid war film, and cliches are to be expected.

Two quibbles, both involving SPOILERS!

First, it's a war film, not a disaster film. The fact that it technically takes place in the United States makes it feel like a disaster, but it really does boil down to a standard issue war movie. It could have been set in Iraq and had almost no changes to the storyline. The "how do we kill these guys" stuff would have been changed.

And that's part of its charm. We can't make a war movie about Iraq these days without it being political. You have to engage the question of why are we there. World War II movies didn't have to deal with that baggage. But if it's aliens, and if they really are invading our own country, there is no baggage. Even Code Pink and United for Peace and Justice would be cheering for the Marines against aliens who want our water. And so this can be a movie about Iraq -- and what it's like to be a modern Marine -- without the baggage. I wasn't in favor of the war in Iraq, but I do think the people who are fighting over there deserve to be honored in this way.

Second, the movie does pretty much the same thing as Independence Day in conflating a local, tactical victory with a win in the overall war. That is, in Independence Day, they figure out how to take down one of the motherships, and then they send instructions to the rest of the world. Here, Aaron Eckhart is about to _single-handedly_ figure out how to take out the aliens before he's joined by his team, who solve the problem by themselves. They are hailed as heroes when they get back to base and basically told to take 5, since they've done such a big deal.

This, too, is part of the movie's charm, though, because it even thought the basic plot beats are the same as in Independence Day, the focus is on the characters. So it seems so much more realistic.

Seth Masket said...

Good points, Hans. The reason I suggested that Battle LA doesn't conflate local, tactical victories with winning the overall war is because even though the Marines figure out how to kill the command-and-control ships, they haven't yet won the war. In the end, the Marines are returning to a war that will likely be a very difficult and drawn-out one -- the aliens have superior weapons and armor -- but the circumstances have changed: the aliens no longer enjoy air superiority. I would submit that Aaron Eckhart heading back into this conflict is a much different ending from Will Smith showing his son fireworks.

Seth Masket said...

Meanwhile, I concede your point that this is a war film rather than a disaster film. It's a lot closer to "Saving Private Ryan" than to "Towering Inferno."

Hans said...

You're right that the movie doesn't end with a celebration, which is definitely a plus. But the story arc still goes through a single tactical victory -- completed by a team that was just supposed to be a rescue mission -- that turns the war around. And that's a space-invasion cliche. And I'm fine with it.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Re the role of the President:

One of the attractions of alien invasion movies is that they remove the moral ambiguity from war that politicians are charged with dealing with in ordinary times. Making war on aliens obiously intent on obliterating our species is even less morally ambiguous than fighting the Nazis once you learn about the Holocaust and are attacked yourself. Once the political objective is clear, there isn't much role for the President vis the military elite.