I have a problem with a lot of sci-fi movies of recent years. The irony is that I’m a huge sci-fi fan. I love it. I can’t get enough.
When Battle Los Angeles came out I was impressed by the trailers, but I’d just seen Predators, Monsters and Skyline and… well, the trailers for those pictures were deceptive.The films were pretty terrible. So, when I sat down to watch this movie I was more than a little uncertain. I wanted to love it, but my recent sci-fi movie experiences had been really disappointing. I also wanted to compare it to Aliens- a group of marines fighting an impossible battle against an incredibly powerful enemy. In a way I think I was hoping that it would be the Alien movie that never was, the one where the battle was brought right back to Earth.
So Battle had a lot to live up to, and a lot of disappointment to fight against.
I have to say that, for me at least, Battle does a brilliant job and lives up to the high expectations that I have of sci-fi films. It isn’t perfect, but it hits so many marks that many recent films have missed that I came away thinking what a brilliant job they’ve done. I realise that might come across as diminishing the cast and crews efforts by comparing them to invasion films that had high budgets and were awful (yes Skyline, that’s you I’m looking at), without judging the film in its own right… But on both counts, the film is a great one. It renewed by appreciation and love of the genre, and stood up to my expectations in every way.
It follows a Staff Sergeant in the US Marines who, after being placed in a training position after a previous mission resulted in casualties, is brought back into active duty. The aliens are landing on our coastlines and wading inwards, destroying everything in their paths to ensure that the one resource they really need is their’s to take – liquid water. After being assigned to a unit to clear civilians from a Los Angeles police station before the heavy artillery hits, the Sergeant and his team find their path blocked at every opportunity. As the enemy pulls out bigger gun after bigger gun, their only chance is to try and escape with their lives, and save their civilian charges while they’re at it.
For a start, I’d like to ask a question. What do you want from a sci-fi action movie? I think, as with any drama, you want to care about the characters. You want to actually want to hang out with your heroes. You want to feel sorry for them. You want to identify them. Battle gives you this, plus the hunky hero Aaron Eckhart (either a hunky hero or ballsy heroine is good), that you empathise with, without the script going overboard with schmaltz and everything appearing so clichéd. There are traditional sci-fi set pieces in there, and they are recognisable, but that’s part of what people want. Originality is a good thing, but being truly original is very hard. There have been so many stories told over the years that all that can be truly orignal now, I think, are the details of the events, the particular voice that the script writer gives and the believability that the actors lend.
The next biggest things (and I realise that some people might think they are more important, but without good characters that you want to really care about and see battle through events to live in one piece I think everything else feels very empty) are action, guns, competent heroes that can fire a gun and hit their targets and special effects that are absolutely right for the story and the cinematography through which it’s being told. You also want a great, convincing cast, explosions, ‘puppies’, and for the characters to be in constant danger.
That’s the basis of drama, right? Bad things happening to people that we like. Really bad things. That keeps us gripped and wanting more bad things to happen, but so wanting them to live through it. It’s astounding how many films just can’t manage that. Skyline had a group of offensive shits locked in an apartment block, and I felt that most of the movie was about them watching what was happening. The danger wasn’t constant, and the tension certainly wasn’t. I wanted the characters to die, if I’m honest… now you know hard Battle had to work for me.
From the outset, the characters are in danger, and continually so. Things go from bad to worse and even worse still for them, yet they hold their ground, grit their teeth, admit they’re scared and battle onwards because that’s what they have to do. The heroes’ aims never change – to save the civilians – even when they abandon all hopes of rescue and just want to get the hell out of there to avoid the heavy artillery. They want to escape the nukes, but the nukes never come – that last resort that should never be used unless completely necessary, and in its eventual absence the heroes are forced to struggle. Excellent!
There’s the issue of death and how a commanding officer is held responsible, and how a real leader knows that any choice might lead to disaster… and how they are haunted by the faces of the dead knowing that someone always lives and dies. Battle handles this well, if a little by the numbers, but considering my recent experience of my beloved genre, it handles them well and as viewers we get to see the emotional consequences of those choices.
I’m not really a fan of the handheld-camera style of movie. It can detract from showing us the monsters by showing us only what the characters see. We want tentacles. We want razor sharp teeth. We want creatures with acid for blood. It can be just too damned confusing. You can get to the point where you don’t know what’s going on, who’s still alive, or what they’re aiming for.
The one point in the movie where I was starting to get a little bored was in one such handy-cam scene: a protracted battle scene that ended on a LA freeway. The camera was moving so quickly, switching from one close shot to the next, giving brief, blurred shots of the enemy that I didn’t have time to take it all it. It was moving too fast. I admit that I got confused… and then it struck me. One of the best aspects of the modern age in which telecommunications, video and the internet can provide us with live footage from battlefields across the world, and haunting videos of heroic men and women who put their lives on the line to save the lives of people, is that we can se it. We are no longer disconnected from events. They are there for us to watch as either amateur footage, or professional reporting from journalists who also risk their lives to tell us the tales. One may not agree with the current wars, and it can be very easy to be cynical about the true motives of these conflicts, but one can’t ignore the heroism of men and women that agree to fight for what they see as the right reasons or, for the more cynical, those who’s jobs it is to simply follow orders.
I would never say a film accurately reflects a battle situation. I’ve never served in the armed forces and hopefully will never have to. I simply wouldn’t know. But, the confusion in Battle’s action sequences gives us at least a small glimmer of how it might be to fight in such situations. Fire coming from all directions. The difficulty in tracking an enemy that moves too quickly to shoot. Knowing that your life is on the line and the lives of everyone you represent may end should you fail. The confusion of the environment that we are so used to in everyday life, even those of us who are familiar with the territory. It might sound trite, I realise, and I don’t mean it to be. But with Battle, it places you in the action and for that, if nothing else (and I think there’s much more to praise about it) it deserves a viewing. It is competent. Its characters are flawed as everyone truly is, but they too are competent and struggle with their fears.
Battle is an action sci-fi movie that gives us a good ride. Sci-fi is meant to be about how people cope/manage/survive in unusual circumstances, and it deserves a viewing far more than many recent films of the same genre. You know what you want from a movie of the genre, and Battle delivers. Its flaws are forgivable because, I think, it does a great job at all other times. I highly recommend it.
It even has a nice reference to Aliens in there. With Michelle Rodriguez from Lost confronted with an alien that is forced through the windscreen of her vehicle commenting, “I’ve got all this nasty stuff all over my mouth,” there are occasional laughs. It also has Jim Parrack from True Blood amongst an additionally excellent cast.
And, if you really want to know, I’m a little bit in love with Aaron Eckhart. You probably didn’t… but perhaps I just had to say.