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

Written by Anna Cooper Sloan.

Photo from the article It might be tempting to conclude that Battle: Los Angeles is another war film in which Americans envision themselves as unproblematically righteous defenders of freedom against evil aggressors - an exercise in self-congratulation, a la, say, Independence Day (1996). Yet nothing is as simple as it seems.

At one point in the film a young officer, wounded in battle, blows himself up to kill the aliens attacking his comrades; he uses the language of martyrdom, saying that his life was meant to end here. He becomes, in other words, a suicide bomber on ‘our’ side. Are we meant to accept this officer unproblematically as a hero? It’s difficult to say. While he seems coded in this way, giving up his life to save others, the sequence’s reference to suicide bombing is too direct: he uses explosives strapped to his own body and lures in the enemies with his radio.

Another moral reversal occurs when the sergeant (Aaron Eckhart) gruesomely tortures an alien, cutting it open and systematically puncturing each of its organs with a knife in order to learn how to kill it. The alien chirps and screams helplessly in horrific pain for several minutes as his body is mutilated. Although evidently not disturbing enough to merit a higher certificate, this is a bone-chilling sequence; it makes it difficult to accept that the audience is supposed to side unproblematically with the Marines. Eckhart, who played Two-Face in The Dark Knight (2009), has an equally split star persona, playing characters who are simultaneously all-American heroes and evil villains.

Then there is the issue of why the aliens want to claim Los Angeles (or in fact all of earth, though we don’t see any other of the 20 cities they attack) in the first place. It eventually becomes clear that they want the earth’s water, which they use as fuel for both their equipment and their bodies. Aside from being a quintessentially Los Angeles concern (look no further than Roman Polanski’s 1974 Chinatown to see how closely water is linked to political power in Angelino culture) this is clearly an invasion motivated by the search for natural resources. Does this, then, make the film a re-imagining of the Iraq war from the point of view of the Iraqis - in which Americans become helpless civilians invaded by a technologically superior force, so protected behind their sophisticated machines that they are almost invisible as individuals? Could this be a rare moment of sympathy for the victims of American military hubris?

The point is, this film’s relationship to the Iraq war cannot be pinned down in any simplistic way. It takes on flickering, vanishing positions, saturated with imagery but failing to contain any coherent position.

Yet there is one issue on which this film is strikingly coherent, although this is simultaneously where it seems the most divorced from reality: the sanctity of human life in a disaster. The Marines are sent into Santa Monica not to defend it nor to accomplish any strategic mission - the area has already been given up for lost, signed off as a buffer zone between the aliens and the American front - but rather to search for civilians. In three hours’ time, Santa Monica will be carpet-bombed by the Americans to help accomplish this, so any civilians still inhabiting the area must be rescued or face certain death. This is already far-fetched; when in history has a retreating army, facing defeat and death, sent its personnel back into an undefended front line just to save a few stragglers? What the Marines see when they get there doesn’t make matters any clearer: the streets of Santa Monica are already deserted, and anyone not dead has already retreated to one of the rescue centres set up by the military. There is nobody left to rescue here.

In three hours of searching, the Marines find only four civilians, plus two stranded soldiers. Yet not once do they question the logic by which their own lives are risked - and sometimes lost - to save such an insignificant number of people, when nothing less than the continued existence of humanity is at stake. They seemingly accept with God-given certainty that saving these four civilians is their highest duty. (It apparently helps that some of them are children.) The Eckhart character’s ‘inspirational speech’ in which he comforts a boy whose father has just died - ridiculed by A.O. Scott as the moment when Battle: Los Angeles “reveals itself to be a lousy movie” - is laughable not just because of its hackneyed dialogue and canned sentiment, but because the whole point of the speech seems to be to offer some comfort that ‘Marines don’t quit’ at saving the life of a single person, as though the military is a fire brigade that saves kittens.

The reason this is all so absurd is that we know exactly how the US military regularly treats civilian lives. In the Iraq war, along with most other post-WWII American conflicts, America has been notorious in its utter disregard for civilian safety. Millions of bystanders died in Vietnam; hundreds of thousands in each Iraq war.

Nor are prospects much better for civilians who have the advantage of being American. During Hurricane Katrina, victims of the disaster died in their thousands. This was the biggest terror for most Western observers: Katrina upset the assumption that being Western and affluent gives one’s life an intrinsic value. News agencies were chastised at the time for using the word ‘refugee’ to describe those displaced by the hurricane: ‘refugees’ are those distant, poor brown people whose lives are ultimately expendable. Western (particularly white) lives, we want to believe, have an irreducible worth.

This is the biggest fantasy of Battle: Los Angeles: that no matter how disastrous the situation, ‘we’ will always have a ready army of valiant warriors sent to save us. ‘Our’ lives are neither fragile nor expendable, but solid and assured. This is an assumption which has been disproven time and again. We all want to believe that our lives are of incalculable worth - this is why, for example, the story of the rescued Chilean miners captured the world’s imagination so readily, even as tens of thousands died around them. The chilling fact confronting the West is that human life, like everything else, has a maximum value. And that value plummets when one finds oneself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Battle: Los Angelesis ultimately an uneasy fantasy about the culture of ‘me’. ‘I’ am inherently of value; simply being alive serves a purpose of vital importance to the world. In a disaster, ‘my’ life, with its infinite value, will be preserved by a force of hard-bodied men, ever-ready to sacrifice their own lives for this great cause. This film at times openly shows itself to be deeply conflicted about this basic fantasy, and at others works so hard to preserve it that it finally undermines itself. Like the alien command centre emerging from the fissured Los Angeles earth, the film’s central illusion is revealed through the cracks in its surface.

This Alternate Take was published on March 25, 2011.

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