RECAP: Battle: Los Angeles

Battle: Los Angeles (2011): Jonathan Liebesman

Only Hollywood execs would make a movie with “Los Angeles” in its title and set it in Santa Monica. In their defense, most people in the world have never heard of Santa Monica, not so the titular city. Point taken. Title passes.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A Marine squadron is the last gasp for humanity against an alien invasion off the coast of southern California.

Hero (6/10)

Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) is one day from retirement. No, that’s not a joke; his commanding officer signs the papers in one early scene of Battle: Los Angeles. And not a day too soon, because, as Nantz works out on the beaches of southern California, he’s too slow for an entire squad of Marines. He has to ice his knee after running because he can’t feel a thing.

By the time we see Nantz’s workout, we’ve already scene the alien invasion that opens the movie. Not so much the invasion as news footage of the invasion.

Having TV networks explain important events to a film audience does two things: 1) delivers background information without need of a omniscient narrator, and 2) adds verisimilitude.

Battle: Los Angeles leans too much on newscaster footage. The director’s stated goal was to make a documentary-style alien invasion movie. It needed plenty of fake news to pull that off.

To make a documentary, the movie introduces each squad member after the invasion, when newscasters gave surf reports and people listened to “California Love”.

Nantz is the first and most-defined squad member. Something bad happened in his last tour; he got a lot of Marines killed. Perhaps every one of his men except himself. Nantz carries much guilt for that, as well as all the names and numbers of these men.

Leaving men to die is something these Marines do a lot in Battle: Los Angeles. Nantz is prepared to do that, are they? One of Nantz’s brethren had a brother die in Nantz’s unit, and they nearly come to blows later.

After the invasion, Nantz joins a squad to fight under 2nd Lt. Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez, a Colin Farrell lookalike). Martinez is just out of officer school, and his first mission is to shoot up Santa Monica to stop alien invaders. A tall order. Nantz does not lead the squad with words–he’s often propping up Martinez with words of encouragement–instead he leads through action.

During a bus ride through Santa Monica, Nantz, often the smartest squad member, if only because he’s seen combat, realizes that alien drones can trace human radio signals. Nantz leaves the relative safety of the bus with a radio, runs to a gas station, turns on the radio to attract a drone, and lobs a grenade at the right moment. The gas station erupts in flame, killing the drone. Nantz returns to the bus a hero and genius. “That’s some real John Wayne shit,” Martinez tells him.

That ain’t all the smart stuff Nantz does. He’s the only person to figure out where to shoot the aliens, and he’s the man to discern the location of the drone command center. Perhaps he’s the only Marine anywhere to learn this information. After they destroy the drone command center, the US broadcasts the information to the rest of the world, exactly as the Yanks did in Independence Day.

Eckhart is game for this role. With a steely jaw that looks hand-drawn, he can play tough guys, preferably the geared-up machine-gun-toting Marine types.

A man who “wasn’t supposed to” survive his last tour, Eckhart makes Nantz a man with a death wish. Bravery and death wish can be hard to separate, especially in combat. Nantz leaves the bus to set up the radio trap. He’s last out of the police station, intent on learning the inner workings of these invaders. Nantz ropes down a helicopter to attack the drone command unit alone. He was unwilling to leave an injured Martinez behind to die until ordered to do so.

Give Eckhart a scene of tough guys squaring off and he will make someone cry. After the Marines return to Santa Monica air field to find all the other Marines dead, Nantz and company ain’t in a good mood.

One Marine, Lockett, whose brother died under Nantz’s command, challenges his leader, asking if they are all expendable like Martinez was. Nantz gets right in his face and asks him, “You think a minute goes by that those faces aren’t right here, seared into my brain?”

The camera gets in there as these men are nose to nose. Nantz spits out the names, ranks, and numbers of each dead man, including Lockett’s brother. It’s a good scene, probably the film’s best.

Villain (1/10)

Battle: Los Angeles being a sort-of documentary, we learn little about the invading aliens. Apparently, as TV talking heads speculate, they came to Earth to suck up our liquid water to power their war ships.

That’s all we know. The alien craft arrive masked as meteors, crashing around a dozen major population centers including Tokyo and Paris. And Los Angeles. We watch through grainy news footage as huge mech warriors sink a cruiser off Santa Monica’s coast. Then the alien foot soldiers walk ashore a la Normandy, except this time they fire grenades at beachgoers.

Seven feet tall, these alien have clam-shaped heads and guns surgically attached to their right arms. Inside, organs squirm and flex, and only one to the left of where the heart would be kills them. They don’t have brain lobes like we do. Also, there’s a tentacle because that’s scary.

The aliens hop around on roofs to shoot at Marines who cannot hop across roofs. Smart tactics. They also fly hundreds of unmanned drones to gain air superiority, but their command center rests in the center of the combat zone. Supremely dumb tactics.

Without the “command and control” centers, the aliens cannot operate their drone forces. Why would they place them in the center of combat? That makes no sense and undermines their scariness as enemies. Once the military learned that, the aliens, despite their technology, were doomed.

Action/Effects (5/10)

Kinetic and frenetic, Battle: Los Angeles uses the documentary style to get the audience as close to action as possible. That means lots and lots of Steadicam.

Too much Steadicam. After five minutes I was tired of it, and I watched this at home. Theater-goers probably puked like Private Virgin did after five beers. Most of this movie is running, shooting, dying, and exploding, so stay away if you are puke-prone.

These Marines navigate Santa Monica for about 24 hours, and that means the camera is in tight. The largest spaces for fighting are the area surrounding an apartment pool and amongst wrecked cars on the freeway. You can breathe a bit in these moments.

While driving a bus toward the Santa Monica safe zone (as if anywhere in California is safe when aliens strike), the Marines and their civilian passengers come under fire. A lone tank ahead is drawing fire from aliens staked out on a higher freeway. (These LA freeways are, I bet, the closest we’ll come to air cars.)

The only way off the freeway is to rappel from beside a downed helicopter. Nantz, after tying a kid’s shoes (he’s THAT tuned into the battle), accompanies Martinez to the front of the action as others line up atop a garbage truck and behind a .50-caliber gun.

That .50-cal and a chuckling Santos take out a few alien grunts. Until now, we’ve only seen the arm-fused rifles. The aliens bring out a walking rocket launcher. This thing is the heat. Firing a handful of rockets at a car, that car explodes and crushes a fleeing Marine. Next, the rockets kill the humvee and the .50-cal on it, but not the man behind the gun, who escapes.

Santos tries to flee the next target, a garbage truck, but is stuck. Another Marine saves her in time to explode, because they paid Michelle a lot more money for this movie and they’ll get their money’s worth dammit.

Meanwhile, the three children are rappelling from the helicopter to ground level. Two of them are down.

Nantz and Martinez, who has a few packs of C4 on him, sneak ahead to booby trap the walking rocket launcher. They stack some packs in wheel wells, only to leap from a rocket attack and drop the detonator.

Then an alien comes up on Michael Peña‘s character like he’s gonna kill his kid, and Peña gets heroic, picks up a gun, and shoots the alien SOB ***. Peña is also shot and will survive long enough for his kid to live, saddling him with enough therapy debt to prevent him from ever owning a home.

Someone kills the alien operating the rocket launcher, but Martinez is also shot as he and Nantz return to the bus to fetch the remaining C4. Nantz and Martinez have a scene where Nantz screams “NOT AGAIN” and Martinez orders Nantz to let him die so that others may live. Nantz agrees, but the others see it as leaving Martinez to die.

As the rocket launcher creaks by Martinez, the dad-to-not-be shouts the Marine Corps unofficial slogan HOO RAH and blows them all to hell.

Effects are limited. The aliens were not intimidating. I would prefer to know their motivations, or at least see them communicate or behave barbarically. Instead the are drawn as animate objects that shoot at humans, any humans. The alien ships are especially bad, looking as if assembled from a junkyard.

Sidekicks (4/8)

A whole bunch of squad members are introduced, but the important ones are Martinez and late addition Air Force Sergeant Santos (Michelle Rodriguez).

Martinez is not ready for the big time. He’s a few months from fatherhood when the aliens strike, and only one month out of officer training school. Before he and his men board one of the many Chinook choppers flying to the forward operating base, Martinez invokes his men to “show ’em how Marines fight!”

They certainly will show ’em, but Martinez will need Nantz’s help, the latter often telling the former that they are Martinez’s men to command. Martinez often has a deer-in-headlights look in his eyes, especially after losing several  men on the way to the civilians in the Santa Monica police station. Nantz shakes him. “You’re not the first to lose men. You won’t be the last.”

After that, Martinez gets his head in game, just in time to be mortally wounded in a firefight on the expressway. Shot in the gut, Martinez believes he will die from it, so he gives his life to detonate C4 and take out an alien mobile rocket launcher.

Santos is a late edition to the squad, joining it in Santa Monica after her squad was wiped out. She’s accustomed to drone warfare, and is exactly the person the military needed to stop the alien scourge. Nantz spots a black out zone as their helicopter flies above it, and Santos confirms that it’s likely the sight of the drone command center. “Ready for payback,” Santos gets it through hard fighting and a killer attitude. Michelle Rodriguez needs to break out of these sidekick roles.

Henchmen (0/8)


Stunts (4/6)

BOOM! Lots of booms in Battle: Los Angeles. I liked the booms because the camera was right there to capture them, and because I am a liker of booming. Make it go boom!

Plenty of running around and shooting and tossing grenades. I love tossing grenades in movies. Guys and gals never throw them like a baseball pitch, as I would, instead lobbing them forward like playing catch with your grandpa. The casual air of tossing makes the weapons seem innocuous. “Oh, here’s a little gift for you, Enemy.” Ka-blammo!

Compare grenade tossing to shooting a gun, any gun. The shooter has to stand the correct way, look the correct way, hold the gun the correct way, squeeze but not pull the trigger, and prepare for the recoil, all to hit a body, of which MAYBE 50% will result in a kill IF you hit it. If a grenade lands within 15 FEET of someone, they’re dead.

Several grenades are tossed and shot in Battle: Los Angeles. Other items explode as well, and the movie pulls its cameras back to show huge fireballs. I liked that.

Climax (4/6)

When a character says, “We’re gonna make our stand here,” you know the movie will soon be over. That’s what Nantz says in a rubble-filled street near the alien drone command center, most of which is parked underground.

The Marines don’t have the weapons to blow up the behemoth beneath them, but they do have comms and a big laser pointer. The plan is to get the missile people at Edwards Air Force base to send missiles about 80 miles through the air to destroy a target “painted” by the laser pointer. They have three minutes from launch to target, three minutes to fight off a host of aliens.

The first guy to go down is the big lug who volunteered to radio in the coordinates from high ground. This guy was dumb. He knew the aliens would find him in .04 seconds after calling it in, and that’s just what they did. Big guy thought he had time to potshot an alien on the ground, and when the drone inevitably faced him, he stood there like an idiot and got exploded. Point, aliens.

The squad uses C4 and guns to kill several aliens. Then the aliens unleash a spider-walking double machine gun contraption that just spits bullets in every direction, not unlike a blindfolded person throwing their arms about but with thousands of bullets instead of fists.

Rockets pour in and nearly kill Imlay, who has the bazooka, and Santos, who has charm. Someone grenades the big gun, and shortly after the first ground-to-ground missile streaks in and strikes the giant antenna poking from the ground. The humans cheer as it topples.

That ain’t enough. The command center rises from the ground, towed by smaller drones. Someone drops the laser pointer. Santos and a dude find an alien to jam their guns into and unload a clip or two. “That hurt?” Santos yells. Another missile streaks in, but a drone sacrifices itself to protect the command center floating away now like an island on Pandora.

Many drones fly by the Marines, but they hardly kill anyone. This is the last of the California defense, aliens, lay it on the line! Nantz finds the laser as the last “copperhead” comes in view. Santos, now holding the bazooka, fires at a drone flying to catch the missile. It’s a direct hit, just as Nantz lasers the target for the missile to detonate, which is also a direct hit.

Great cheers rise up. The Marines have done it again, and now the whole world will know.

Jokes (0/4)

The only joke came when Moynahan’s character said she could help parse the insides of an alien because she’s a veterinarian. BOOM! Ya burnt, alien scumbags. That’ll scar for a few years, until reinforcements arrive and slather our soon-to-be dusty planet with fire and drones.

Setting (1/4)

Los Angeles. The title says it all. Except the movie is set entirely inside Santa Monica, a beach community a dozen miles from Los Angeles.

It doesn’t matter much what city they were in, because it’s all war-torn. The Marines must run through scorched Santa Monica to its police station to rescue any civilians there before the Air Force lights up the entire city. Most of the city is already on fire, but the Domino’s sign is not scorched.

The sets are pretty good. One skirmish takes place on a freeway strewn with concrete and burned cars. On second thought, all the skirmishes are amongst concrete and burned cars. Like Afghanistan, but in America!

Commentary (0/2)

This documentary-style war movie makes little comment about the war it’s fighting. In the case of extraterrestrials, America doesn’t need an excuse for war. They on our turf!

Unlike most alien movies, the filmmakers don’t care how many landmarks are toppled, putting Battle: Los Angeles as far from Independence Day on the spectrum of recognizable destruction.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Roger Ebert roasted this movie, but I don’t think he watched it. Among his many complaints is the “usual buffet of ethnicities” and their very few lines. White people comprise about 70% of the Marine Corps at the levels of command shown in the movie, about the ratio achieved in the movie.

Many of Ebert’s criticisms are warranted, but I don’t understand this one. Here’s a case of a Hollywood movie accurately portraying a squad a Marines, and the movie’s pasted for it.

The squad leader is named Martinez, and later they are joined by a Santos. Ne-Yo is in this movie. They did a good job casting.


  • The most confusing part is why Michael Peña appeared in such a small role. He had few lines and died quickly, after doing about nothing. This guy was in two straight Best Picture winners. Head scratcher.

Summary (25/68): 37%

Battle: Los Angeles is not a bad movie. I admire the attempt to make a documentary-style fictional war film. Having aliens in it was a strange choice. I wanted to know more about the aliens–their motives, weaknesses, strengths, etc. We see their machinery more than their bodies, and that makes them less frightening.

Sadly, the squad seemed laden with cliches. Of course Nantz was days from retirement. Of course Martinez had a pregnant wife at home. Of course Ne-Yo wore glasses in combat, because they are guaranteed to get lost. Of course they had a virgin. (The virgin died, however.) That the aliens behaved stupidly is Battle: Los Angeless chief downfall.