Battle: L.A. (2011)

Rated PG-13. Our Ratings: V-5;L -5; S/N –0. Running time: 1 hour 56 min.

Contend

, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me!
Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up to help me!
Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers; say to my soul, “I am your salvation.” Psalm 35:1

Sgt. Michael Nantz leads his men on a mission to rescue civilians.

2011 Columbia Pictures

Although I admit to enjoying this film while it was unfolding, I realize that it is basically a long exten sion of one of those Marine or Army recruitment video that are often shown in theaters before the trailers begin. The major difference is that stars such as Aaron Eckhat and Michelle Rodriguez portray the faithful and honor-bound Marines fighting to stave off the enemy—and yes, the enemy are not Muslim terrorists, but evil aliens, apparently bent on clearing out “the natives” so they can take over Earth’s water supply.

Director Jonathan Liebesman’s film combines the stock characters of a dozen or more war films (from The Green Berets to Saving Private Ryan, to name only a couple of post WW 2 films) with the old, old Hollywood sci-fi genre of aliens attacking the earth. The film’s biggest asset is the special effects showing panoramic shots of Santa Monica and Los Angeles in flames, whereas its biggest defect, aside from the already mentioned plot and characters, is the blasted hand-held camera that almost drives viewers to hold onto the arms of their chairs or seek out sea sickness pills. When used sparingly, the hand held camera can be an effective means for making us feel right in the middle of the action, but the operative word is sparingly (though exception might be made in the case of The Hurt Locker, to which this film at times bears a slight resemblance).

Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhat) is just a day away from retirement when the alien attack begins, and he is assigned to be the staff sergeant for a platoon assigned to enter the alien-infested territory and bring out a gorup of civilians trapped in a police station. His squad is multi-ethnic, making the film good for recruiting purposes. (Possibly this will be the main use of the film after its theatrical run. Reportedly it was well received when it was premiered at Camp Pendleton.) How they arrive and, with civilians in tow, including a young boy and an attractive woman veterinarian, manage to fight their way through a gadzillian alien soldiers will appeal mainly to young adult males. The latter will love it, as evidenced by the applause of the screening audience with which I saw it, because it so much like the military video games they play so often at home or in arcades.

The alien invasion genre is an old one, going back to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and a million or so sci-fi short stories and novels. In virtually all of them, we are the good guys and the aliens are the villains seeking our destruction or subjugation. This is why Robert Wise’s 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still was so refreshingly different. It starts out like the typical alien invasion story, but soon this old premise is turned upside down when the Army is called out to surround the flying saucer that has landed on the Washington Mall. When Klaatu, played in such a dignified way by Michael Rennie, emerges from the mysterious vessel, a nervous soldier mistakes his gesture and shoots him in the shoulder. Klaatu has announced that he is an emissary sent by a galactic alliance to warn the Earth, busily building nuclear weapons, to lay aside its fears and weapons. The nations must come together and work for peace, lest they be punished by a force far superior to themselves. Decades later Stephen Spielberg’s E.T. and Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind also broke with the usual aliens vs. us formula to suggest that extra-terrestrials might have benevolent intentions toward us—and that we might benefit if we can lay aside our paranoic fear of the unknown.

Thus this film could be the occasion for church leaders to screen one or both of these sci-fi films after the group watches Battle: L.A. (preffarably when it comes to a cheap seat theater or is released on DVD. You do not want to pay the high first-run cost for this—though admitedly its special effects do call for it to be seen on a big screen.)

For Reflection/Discussion

1. Compare the film to both genres mentioned above: the war combat film (The Green Berets or Saving Private Ryan) and the invasion of the earth film (War of the Worlds; Signs; etc.) Who are the heroes and who the villains? How are these based on our fear of the unknown?

2. What about the exceptions to the above sci-fi formula—The Day the Earth Stood Still and E.T.? How does Avatar fit into this genre? That is, in it who are the heroes and who the villains?

3. Another film, with a different perspective is District 9. This film has more political reference than does Battle: L.A. Many sci-fi writers have written stories in order to criticize society. Both the original story and the film it inspired The Day the Earth Stood Still were critical of the arms race between the US and the Soviet Union. Other, less insightful films, reflected the paranoia of Americans so obsessed with “The Red Menace.” One reviewer of a 1950s invasion film pointed out that you could replace menacing “aliens” with “Russians.” How could right-wingers interpret Battle as a parable urging us to deal more forcefully with illegal immigrants?

4. According to its press notes Battle for L.A. was inspired by a real incident that took place near the beginning of World War Two when fear of a Japanese invasion along the West coast was strong. During the night of February 24-25 in 1942 a report went out that unidentified aircraft were spotted over Los Angeles. Fearing it to be another Japanese sneak attack, the authorities blacked out the city, and the searchlights and blasts from antiaircraft batteries lit up the sky. Over 1,440 rounds of ammunition were fired, until at last it was realized that it was a false alarm, triggered possibly by the sighting of a weather balloon that had broken its tether.