OK, what’s a sci-fi flick doing in our war-movie theater? At ease, troops, let us explain. Battle: LA is to the USMC what Act of Valor is to the SEALS — a nonstop action-fest that also serves as a pretty decent recruiting film.
(Not that the USMC needs any lessons on that from Hollywood. If Hollywood had been paying attention to what the Marines are selling the young moviegoers of America, they wouldn’t have made money-losing turkeys like Lions for Lambs, Stop-Loss, In the Valley of Elah, Redacted, The Messenger, OK, OK, we’ll stop now).
Indeed, director Jonathan Liebesman made it clear that he was not making a sci-fi flick with Marines, but rather a war movie with aliens. The difference is subtle but real. Here’s the trailer.
The movie is so unabashedly pro-American and pro-Marine that the pro-fessional critics hated it. It had a 35% score at Rotten Tomatoes, less than RT’s audience rating of 49%. RT’s “top critics,” which is their term for the major, primarily legacy media critics, gave it only 19%. Roger Ebert, who flies his far-left politics and dislike of our forces in lieu of the US flag, and gave three-plus and four star reviews to several of the above mentioned dull and witless anti-military agitprop films, hated it in remarkable shades of purple: “noisy, violent, ugly and stupid.” He gave it half a star. (He gave Act of Valor, which he also hated, two and a half, and devoted a good chunk of that review to praising an obscure anti-war documentary).
Anyway, the movie begins with the everyday activities of a group of young Marines getting ready for a combat deployment. You see the kid lieutenant and his worried wife, the young guy about to get married, the confident guy they all look up to, the youngster who might be a Marine but still doesn’t have a real girlfriend… the old sergeant with a troubled past, whom the troops have heard bad rumors about, who’s been talked into doing one last thing before his retirement papers go through. Sure, it’s all stereotypical as anything ever filmed, but it’s actually a slice of real life in a combat unit, where you have a 22 year old lieutenant and an elderly-feeling 32-year-old sergeant leading a bunch of 19 year olds with the mistaken idea they’re immortal.
The enemy comes screaming in quickly, and little is known about them… but as information is gathered,the Marines react to it, and never give up even as the enemy seems invincible. At the end — is it really a spoiler to tell you that the Marines win, in part through the sacrifice of characters we’ve come to like and hate to see go?
The director Jonathan Liebesman is reportedly in the early stages of preparing a sequel, and Aaron Eckhart, who plays the battle-hardened and burnt-out Staff Sergeant Nantz, has said he’s up for it. Eckhart is absolutely great in the role, bringing depth to what otherwise would be a clichéd, dull script. Indeed, even Ebert, while bagging on the clichéd, dull script, also praises Eckhart: “Eckhart is perfectly cast, and let the word go forth that he makes one hell of a great-looking action hero.”
The science of the movie is abysmal. The enemy’s reason for invading earth makes absolutely no sense. We will risk throwing a spoiler at you: they’re here for the water. Chew this over in your mind: these aliens have mastered interstellar travel, but the only way they can get water is by raiding from planet to planet for it. They want Earth in particular because our water, you see, is liquid… it being more of a hassle for them to melt ice or condense steam than it is to pack up and travel light-years. What’s that you say? Hollywood screenwriters are dropouts who were majoring in English, not astrophysicists? Stipulated, but understanding that interstellar travel is a bigger deal than melting ice does not require advanced education, does it?
Still, you let the inane premise go, because the stuff happening on the screen is so gripping. (Kind of like the Matrix conceit that humans would be useful as storage batteries. No wonder there are people who think windmills and Chevy Volts will replace oil by next Tuesday).
The weapons and tactics are fairly accurate. Movie troops can never move like real troops, or you’d never have enough of them in the frame to know what’s going on. But these guys do a pretty good job of acting like Marines. They did the now-standard (thanks to retired Marine grunt and PAO Dale Dye, who revolutionized the industry) pre-filming boot camp and used real Marine equipment and real Marines as extras.
In a couple places, it’s the individual Joes of this platoon that have to figure out where the vulnerabilities of the enemies are and how to defeat them. This is exactly what American troops really do. In history, it recurs over and over, fighter pilots launching against orders into the teeth of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, individuals scrambling up the dunes and organizing to flank the bunkers at Omaha Beach, a cut-off advisor defending a bridge singlehandedly and holding it against a battalion of NVA tanks.
To see them do it against aliens is probably the price of Hollywood making a film in which Marines are good guys (in Ebert’s interview with The Progressive, linked above, he notes that the only acceptable Hollywood enemies are Nazis, now that Arabs have been taken off the table by PC — something which he approves, even though he laments the limits this places on moviemakers. I’d have thought he’d have stipulated that space aliens are OK, too, but in his review he actually complains that the motivations of the aliens are not sufficiently believable. Great Googly Moogly, Roger, we’re talking about a space alien movie, and do we need to remind you, you liked The Day the Earth Stood Still?)
If you’re not conflicted about the idea of Marines as good guys, and you don’t think “action” is a put-down in a movie description, you’ll never have a high-profile career in film criticism, but then, you’ll be able to enjoy Battle: LA.