After the first time my interest felt forbidden, something to not share in smart company. But with my second viewing three months later, I realized my reaction wasn’t just a quirk of mood or contrarian impulse, or the film version of one of those inexplicable crushes that make your friends smile politely and count the days until sanity returns.
No, I really, truly love the heck out of Battle: Los Angeles. And there are sound reasons powering my affection. For every knife the critics stabbed into the film–that it was a chaotic wreck of shakycam, Weed Whacker cutting, clichéd plotting, and even fascist subtext—I found an argument that not only answered these cavils but enriched my appreciation for South African director Jonathan Liebesman’s panoramic vision.
I don't expect to change minds or opinions—when was the last time that happened? But I know one thing and believe another.
I know that more than any film from 2011, Battle: Los Angeles barges through my defenses and just plain touches me in the same ways as Joss Whedon’s alternative family adventure, Firefly.
Meanwhile, I believe that all criticism is always filtered through, and colored by, the observer’s needs and desires. This is only an argument for aesthetic relativism insofar as it’s an argument from the gut that comes from living through the times when everyone agreed, no two ways about it, that Carpenter’s The Thing was an abject failure, that Mario Bava was a hack, and that Cronenberg was an artless freakshow dealer of literalized bio-erotic metaphors that just happened to happen at the peak of the AIDS epidemic.
And now we have Battle: Los Angeles, which is to Marines what Friday Night Lights was to football, and already I can see I have some ‘splainin’ to do, so here goes.
The POV character here is Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart). He’s about to quit active service as if in penance for a failed Iraq command where one bad decision led to the death of his entire, very young, squad.
While cable TV announces strange environmental irregularities, we meet a partying group of young Marines. They’re a racially mixed group, representative of LA’s Latino/black/white demographic. They all love the sense of belonging and service being a Marine provides.
Battle: Los Angeles (B: LA for short) offers a frighteningly pell-mell sort of invasion.
First, what look like canisters surrounded by smoke ring haloes fall on and obliterate a Navy destroyer. Liebesman sacrifices his own expensive/excellent beach-invasion effects so he can show a group of Marines watching and reacting to this on low res cable news broadcasts. Tokyo, not Manhattan, is the first city attacked. So much for American exceptionalism. The focus here is on the human reaction to the intrusion of wrongness into the everyday.
Nantz and a squad of freshmen Marines are given a mission: find whatever civilians you can before alien forces in LA are nuked in three hours.
What happens: Women and children are killed with no action-film taglines or Hollywood mercies in pitched battles with superior bio-mechanic alien forces.
By B: LA’s third reel, only an Air Force tech (Michelle Rodriguez), a veterinarian (Bridget Moynahan), a Latino named Joe (Michael Peña), and his small boy Hector (Bryce Cass) augment what’s left of the squad.
And as Joe dies of an alien-blast in Nantz’s arms, what “Marine” means—the simple notion of a branch of the US military united by Marine-specific, world-exclusive rituals–changes radically under the weight of Nantz’s guilt and the context of species extinction.
Nantz tells little Hector that his father loved him, that he has to be strong, that he needs him to be his Marine.
There’s no logical reason for this progression. But by now, we realize that “Marine” has already morphed from a traditional squad into a fluid Whedonesque alternative family group where a female Air Force tech with no field experience (Rodriguez’s character), a female veterinarian, a child, and a man (Joe)—the last three with no obvious military "worth" —now work as an effective combat unit according to their abilities and represent a stateless species patriotism. (I’m assuming the film’s lack of “USA! USA!”-style bellicosity helped with overseas box office.)
Eventually, our Marines manage to bring down a (not the) mother ship. Finally, they’re helicoptered to a functioning military base, are offered food and rest, and Nantz instead loads up on ammo. The others follow his lead. The war for the world continues.
It’s a realism-infused old school war story the critics largely hated because it was so old school. Never mind that nobody had seen this narrative style since Guadalcanal Diary, or that Drive’s hipster brand of ancient school noir-ness is celebrated (see: trend trumps quality). Or that the film plays with its own antecedents, as when a Marine jokes about one Marine’s brave actions, “That was some serious John Wayne shit!” which is followed by another’s meek question, “Who’s John Wayne?”
Otherwise, B: LA was universally and inaccurately despised for a shaky-cam style routinely compared to despicable, fun bloodbaths like Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and The Kingdom, where faux documentary shooting style comes off as the cinematic version of Tourette’s, meant to gin up verité on the creative cheap.
B: LA has nothing to do with such low fare. Liebesman’s mobile, subjective camera has the same intent as the Dardenne brothers following Rosetta in the way his camera, once interested in a character, will not leave them, will stay with them like a guardian angel with OCD, or like Lukas Moodyson in Lilja 4-Ever, except with breaks where it pulls back to medium shot to observe the world around that character, to see what she’s up against. Or most specifically, Friday Night Lights.
You can believe this last claim because B: LA begins with a hailstorm of FNL shout-outs.
Over Brian Tyler’s echoing guitar score theme, actionably similar (for three minutes) to W. G. Snuffy Walden’s FNL theme, we enjoy a FNL-like vibe of non-partisan Americana, even as the late-fortyish Nantz struggles to jog at his old pace on a setting-sun-lit beach. The camera mirrors his pains with a simultaneously rolling and halting gait.
Liebesmancuts to a young squad boasting and bullshitting, his camera excited, non-linear and lens-flared with youth, never just observing, always symmpathetic. (It’s around here that Liebesman stops with the FNL homage.)
When we meet a Marine (Jim Parrack) struggling with PTSD but trying to hide it from a shrink, Liebesman’s camera is discrete, occasionally showing clenched fists, or otherwise gently conveying tension. Even in the film’s most iconic, sci-fi-esque image, the slow, endlessly vast mother ship rising from the bowels of a ruined Earth, Liebesman keeps Nantz in the foreground, his focus on his men.
And so it goes. A director rewriting how you do this. Total character devotion. You’d think there’d be more love.
Meanwhile, here on Press Play, there a continuing discourse about “chaos cinema”, that frothy mixture of a shaky cam style B: LA doesn’t use, mixed with slapdash mise-en-scène and hyper-cutting meant to gin up excitement while disguising an ignorance of classic style.
This one is easy to disprove, courtesy of a sequence where Liebesman does go full metal bedlam. If what came before this sequence were nothing more than ‘chaos cinema’, this would be like adding more white to a paint mixture consisting of eggshell and ivory. Instead, it’s a gold standard nerve-wracker that shows Liebesman’s mastery in orchestrating multi-POV pandemonium and slowly restoring order.
After investigating the smoky ruins of Santa Monica during a lull in the action, our Marines are attacked and Liebesman’s camera takes the role of battle victim, always falling, getting up, and tumbling, with no sense of left or right as alien energy weapons alight in the fog in flash frames, and the audio becomes a Murch-ian soundscape of ring-modulated screams and clatter, and we glimpse the occasional mecha-alien in chiaroscuro, before a Marine finds a safe house by sheer accident, and the film, by degrees, calms down.
Is this cut too quickly? Is Moulin Rouge? Within certain parameters, you just cannot quantity too fast or slow.
I loved Rouge. But I also loved the glacial non-pace of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising. I’m also aware both spoke very directly to shadow parts of my own secret history, a thing defined by extremes of alcoholism-powered chaos and the bad quiet of madness. So are my assessments incorrect due to my biographical special needs? Or am I actually more attuned to certain velocities because of my history, and therefore a better judge?
What seldom gets questioned outside of academia is the fascism of Comic-Con-y action-hero cinema, the way we all bend over backwards for Iron Man, Batman, Superman. Part of the appeal is that we give it up to these, uh, men.
So it’s ironic that B: LA, the rare action film steeped in meritocracy, should be accused of fascist subtext.
The only explanation I have is that some Americans look at young people happily in uniform and fall into one of two traps, both occluding what’s on-screen.
It’s always been a Republican-pimped sell that liberals are anti-military pussies. This is bullshit except for the extremist fringes, where, especially during the lawless Cheney years, the creeps claimed soldiers were culpable.
But what also exists is the left’s dubious comfort with our Platoons and Full Metal Jackets. More on point, I think the way B: LA celebrates being happily in The Squad (oorah!) collides with the left’s greatest fetish–endless individuality (hence the old joke that getting Democrats to organize is like herding cats. Or getting Burning Man participants to dance in lockstep. You get the point). The same dynamic was at play with the contrast between being an individual and being on the Team in FNL.
But like FNL, B: LA strips away partisanship and finds people thrown together and struggling for one goal. Not much of a fascist vision.
Why this would attract me—well, you and I don’t know each other well enough.
But I have, in my articles here at Press Play, outed myself as a person dealing since the late 80s with the life-long effects of brain trauma, so it’s not surprising that, on some Pavlovian level, a film that limns an assaultive world would resonate with me.
Brain trauma, which at one point left me able to navigate Lacan and advanced audio engineering but unable to talk at a table full of people, renders fantasies of interconnectedness incredibly seductive.
So yeah, I’m pre-inclined towards this sort of narrative, where isolated people come together to create a family unrelated to the accident of birth. But that doesn’t make me more easily impressed.
No, because I desire or even need the real deal, whether it be Firefly, or SyFy’s Alphas or Battlestar Galactica, I’ll reject the bogus item—the list is too long–with great antipathy. But that’s just one angle. I could go on about Liebesman’s unique compression of depth, ‘grain’ and perspective (the upcoming Wrath of the Titansis instantly identifiable as a Liebesman film), his love of actors’ faces, and so on.
But what perhaps more delights me on a meta-but-real level is that almost everything about B: LA probably has something connected to it that’s connected to something else beyond the film that resonates with me. Something from when I was a kid. Or from an unrecalled painting, comic, film, toy or dream I liked. People throw around the word "awesome" too much. But this really is.
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out/New York.