It’s been a while since we’ve had a proper alien invasion movie. Actually, to qualify that slightly, it’s been a while since we’ve had a film showing an alien invasion of proper worldwide scale. Sure, there were stuff like ‘Signs (2002)’, ‘District 9 (2009)’, ‘The Faculty (1998)’ and ‘Men in Black (1997)’, but they all depicted small-scale, localized invasions which, on-screen at least, only threatened a small group of people. The last mass-scale invasion in the cinemas was that mounted by the Martians in ‘War of the Worlds (2005)’, but, as the follow-up collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise to the now-seminal ‘Minority Report (2002)’, it left many punters unsatisfied (particularly since a sizable portion of them hadn’t realized that its ending is a faithful recreation of H. G. Wells’ source book).
So you have to go all the way back to ‘Independence Day (1996)’, a stupendously successful, much-maligned, often-mocked blockbuster that really deserves a kinder, more contextual retrospective 15 years on. It’s derided for its gung-ho, ‘let’s kick some alien ass’ mentality, for destroying the malign extraterrestrials with Windows virus, for having a US president piloting his country to victory (only in the innocent pre-Lewinsky and pre-Dubya days, this). We blame ‘Independence Day’ for dumbing down cinema, for allowing ‘Godzilla (1998)’ to happen, for briefly becoming the second most lucrative movie of all time, for giving Hollywood the excuse to churn out an assembly line of disaster movies and schlock sci-fi crap, and for a host of other problems we associate with bad cinema. No self-respecting critic will give ‘Independence Day’ an easy ride nowadays, which is a shame. It was the first film since ‘Jurassic Park (1993)’ that truly used CGI not only as its visual but also conceptual centrepiece, at a time when CGI was still finding its feet in the movies. More importantly, it was really the first major movie which explicitly showed, rather than implied, an alien invasion with global consequences. All previous alien movies were either confined to limited areas such as an outpost (‘The Thing (1982)’), a spaceship (‘Alien (1979)’) or a jungle (‘Predator (1987)’), or more insidious, internalized threat typified by the several versions of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. If ‘Independence Day’ did anything, it was to smash down, with the aid of technology and budget, the walls hemming the aliens in and truly break open their theatre of operation. Immediately after it, we had ‘Mars Attacks (1996)’ and ‘Starship Troopers (1997)’ that gave us much wider spectacles, although these films didn’t quite deal with direct earth invasion scenarios as such.
It’s rather puzzling, then, that the ever-improving technology wasn’t used to portray more films of similar ilk. After all, alien invasion is one of humanity’s favourite entertainment themes as well as its biggest fears. Instead, we had to wait nine years for ‘War of the Worlds’, and then another six for ‘Battle: Los Angeles’. Rather than being the harbinger of future large-scale alien invasions to come, ‘Independence Day’ ended up being their zenith, and so emblematic of the genre that it’s nowadays considered almost a parody of itself. Perhaps it casts a very long shadow on its kind, in the same way that any film with cyborgs will be compared to ‘The Terminator (1984)’ and raptors with the ‘Jurassic’ series.
Whatever the case, it’s a wait that has been almost entirely in vain, because ‘Battle: Los Angeles’ is irretrievably bad, a woeful effort that strives to marry the alien invasion movie with the military authenticity of ‘Black Hawk Down (2001)’, and makes a complete pig’s ear of it. Aliens are completely nondescript, and mostly so blurry and distant that you could watch ‘Battle’ ten times and still wonder who the U.S. Marines are fighting against. With the producers’ sights aimed firmly at the PG-13 rating, there’s no sense of physical danger or threat of bodily harm to the protagonists, severely diluting the excitement or catharsis of more mature gunplay in those films ‘Battle’ aspires to.
What really sticks in the mind – despite one’s best efforts – is the sheer gung-ho sloganism of the hero marines that try to save the day. Barely a minute goes by without someone shouting ‘Marines never quit!’ or ‘Who are we? The Marines!’. It’s not enough that the Marines are remorselessly panegyrized; other forces must be put down with equal vehemence. ‘Where’s the Air Force?’ asks a Marine after the promised air strike never materializes. Meanwhile, the Forward Operating Base (or FOB, as the cast constantly and lovingly repeats to the audience – exhibit 1: ‘Is this the FOB?’ ‘Yeah, it’s the Forward Operating Base, the FOB’; exhibit 2: ‘What happened to the FOB?’ ‘They took out the FOB!’ ‘You mean there’s no FOB?’) that the Army is supposed to protect gets overrun like a disoriented hedgehog in the middle of a superhighway by the unfeeling aliens.
There’s not one moment in ‘Battle: Los Angeles’ that distinguishes itself from its predecessors or competitors. It doesn’t have the scale of ‘Independence Day’, the desperation of ‘War of the Worlds’, or even the interesting alien design of the eighties creature features. On the military side, you can’t hope to emulate the impact of ‘Black Hawk Down’ or ‘Saving Private Ryan’ simply by making the movie look grainy. There’s no visceral, unforgiving and unmitigating violence that creates human tragedy out of every skirmish through the nihilistic reduction of the combatants, as seen in those two films. ‘Battle’ doesn’t even try. It wants the cool moments – heroic sacrifice, redemptive camaraderie, grudges overcome through teamwork, etc – without ever really working to earn them.
On the plus side, or at least on whatever side that isn’t completely embarrassing, we have Aaron Eckhart in his first lead role in a Hollywood blockbuster. He looks terrific – beefy, virile, authoritative, charismatic – and represents the only point of gravitas in the featherweight picture, but Eckhart really should be headlining better movies. He was brilliant in his debut for Neil Labute in ‘In the Company of Men (1997)’ and, while he’s had to toil in a series of dependable supporting roles for too long, ‘The Dark Knight (2008)’ reminded us that he could be a dashing, compelling, tragic presence in the centre of the screen too. One was hoping that Eckhart and his hypnotic cleft would be served with a meaty starring part, but his Sergeant Nantz just isn’t it. Michelle Rodriguez plays yet another tough soldier, but this time she is more subdued and reins in the ‘tuff grrl’ pout to good effect.
In the meantime, we are still waiting for a proper pretender to the ‘Independence Day’ crown, a global alien invasion that can do its description justice. ‘Battle’ is just too run-of-the-mill and banal to stake any sort of claim. Waste of good money and precious time.