The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Battle: Los Angeles

Reviewed by Anna Cooper Sloan.

Director Jonathan Liebesman
Length 116 mins
Certificate 12A / PG-13
Rating ******----
Filmmaking: 3  Personal enjoyment: 3

Photo from the article Trailer.

An ageing U.S. Marine sergeant (Aaron Eckhart) and his squad of grunts are going about their daily, rather pleasant, business on their beachside base at Camp Pendleton, California. One soldier is about to get married; another is studying to become a doctor; the sergeant himself is filling out paperwork for his pending retirement. This life abruptly vanishes as the news channels begin screeching about global alien invasion. The boys suddenly find themselves patrolling a bombed-out street, which earlier that day was Santa Monica, fending off attacks by alien drones and searching for survivors.

Although reviews of Battle: Los Angeles (such as this one from Philip French) have predictably ranged from dismissive to downright hostile, this seems unwarranted for a number of reasons. The film’s depiction of a major disaster’s disruption of the everyday, and the disorientation and terror this engenders, can in fact be sensitive and touching, and manages to keenly represent the chaos and confusion which regularly attend ‘official’ responses to such catastrophes. Equally, the rupture and turmoil here is almost too timely: though the film is clearly in part a response to Iraq and Afghanistan, a viewer might also return home to find their TV showing strikingly similar images of panic and destruction coming out of Japan, Libya, Egypt... Few genres can tap so successfully into the anxieties of an age as the disaster movie.

I suspect that hostile critics are partly responding to the way the film honestly lays out its ambition to be a simple genre flick. Certainly, with its shoot-‘em-up mentality, videogame-like aesthetics and 12A/PG-13 certificate, it seems squarely aimed at an audience of teenage boys. (One wonders why it was released in March rather than waiting for the summer crowds.) The character types and plot are also fairly standard for this kind of movie, but when a genre film is well constructed, predictability can actually add to rather than detract from our viewing pleasure.

Parts of the film rankle, but I ultimately found these aspects more interesting than irksome. A potentially vexing aspect of the movie is the fact that the squad’s entire mission - nominally, to save civilians - seems pointless and wasteful. The streets of Los Angeles are deserted except for dead bodies, and the entire squad of 12 soldiers only find four civilians in several hours of searching - at enormous risk to themselves. At first I found this exasperating, but as the film went on I became more and more fascinated by it. For reasons discussed in the Alternate Take, this central incoherence may tell us a lot about our own anxieties regarding the fragility and expendability of human life in a disaster.

Battle: LA is flawed, no question: the dialogue is often plodding and the script contains moments of obvious nonsense. But this does not detract from its ability to engage fascinatingly with the culture of disaster gripping our contemporary world.

This review was published on March 21, 2011.

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