Saturday, April 16, 2011

Nerdview: Battle: LA

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

Holy gorram frakking slag! Really long post ahead!

So things on here have been a little slow, but fear not. A few raging life issues cannot lay waste or dampen the enthusiasm of one nerd typing, not even if that issue aggressively pukes on said nerd at 6 in the morning. No sir. That said, on April 2nd and April 6th I did something I hadn't done in months--I went to see a movie in the theaters. What's more, I saw the same movie--it was just that much fun, folks. I'd been waiting anxiously for years for this film, and I wasn't disappointed when I finally got to see it.

That movie was Battle: LA.

I know what you're probably thinking. "Didn't that movie suck?" "It got bad reviews." "I heard it's cheesy..." And so on.

Well, can it, turd! It is a very solid movie, with all the elements necessary to keep a real nerd happy. In fact, most of the criticisms of the movie are the results of bad review rigor and improper literary perspective in modern criticism. As such, this nerdview will be broken into two sections--a proper review of the movie and a scathing criticism of the standards of the reviews themselves.

You see, a good public review has at least four parts: the reviewer's bias and expectations going in, whether the reviewer enjoyed the piece, the reviewer's appreciation of the movie, and enough information to decide whether you will enjoy the piece or not. For illustrative purposes, I call these the odor, beef, gravy, and cheese of a meal. The odor is your first impression of the meal, and it tells you what to expect. Sometimes, a meal that would be otherwise tasty is unpalatable if it smells unappetizing. The beef is the edifying, nutritional content of the meal. Having enough protein and iron can make up for an otherwise bland meal in certain cases. The gravy is the individual flavor of the plate--highly subjective and easy to change from one plate to another. And the cheese--everyone loves cheese. In this usage, if the plate has enough cheese, just about anyone should like it. If it has a specific type of cheese or a small amount, then maybe only a particular person will enjoy it.

This last element is important, largely because it is rare. The average modern reviewer tends towards a sense of enfranchised tyranny, who believes that you ought to have the same opinion of the subject that they do. Sometimes, this is unavoidable. Some crap steams up the room too much for you to tolerate the thought that anyone else would want to sleep there. But most of the time a prescriptive review is a bad review. So with all that in mind I present to you...

Battle: Los Angeles
What's Independence Day?

Expectations 'the odor': I had originally heard about this movie in the context of it working hand-in-hand with the Defense Department for researching its military authenticity. Any time I hear about a science-fiction medium going to military source material, I get excited. My sci-fi maidenhead was lost to Robert Heinlein's Red Planet at the age of eight or nine. A few years later, in order to be properly disappointed by the atrocious movie adaptation, I read Starship Troopers, and have been infatuated with military sci-fi ever since. So when I heard that Battle: LA's motif was to be a gritty war drama centered on a marine unit in an alien-embattled Los Angeles, I began singing the hymn of the Roger Young and having dreams of finally getting a solid military installment in the invasion sub-genre of sci-fi.

I thought of Starfist, Old Man's War, and most especially Orphanage as I bought my ticket for the film. I took my seat wanting to get a movie with a realistically limited perspective, proper identification of military ranks, roles, and characters, and a nice appreciation for the chaos that would be violent first contact with alien life.

Appreciation 'the beef': This movie is a definitive actioner, and as it falls in the spring-summer period that normally houses the pop-culture blockbusters, Battle: LA has been given the pejorative label of 'popcorn feature'. This presumes that the film won't have much in the way of depth or interpretive content, but such assumptions only hurt the merit of the medium. If we keep expecting spectacular action flicks to be vacuous and shallow experiences, they'll never have any impetus to aspire to be more.

And yet Battle: LA has a few moments of depth that does give it at least as much nutritional value as a Chicago-style hot dog. Starting out with a chaotic vignette of the global situation, the film crashes through a mix of images and a dour general's report that LA has been completely overrun, and then settles on an aerial shot of an explosion-wracked hills shot as marines helicopter into the alien-occupied city. The rest of the movie then proceeds from the twenty-four hours leading up to that money shot. With the exception of the exposition and a brief scene in the first act, the entire story is what literary analysts would consider third-person-limited perspective--we consistently follow Aaron Eckhart's character, Staff Sergeant Nantz. This story-telling decision, ignored in all the reviews of the film I've read, helps to ground the film with the strongest of its actors, and supports the movie's theme that this military campaign is being driven by subjective impressions.

Case in point: in the first act of the movie, the marine protagonists are ambushed and pinned down in a dusty backyard garden. The cinematography makes the tension and confusion palpable as one of the marines falls and begins getting dragged into the foliage. Nantz rushes forward rushes over and fires wildly into the brush until the unseen enemy releases the marine, who then crawls free and continues to fight. We are given no sense of whether the attacker was killed, fatally wounded, or merely scared off, just that Nantz fired his weapon, and the marine escaped. Later, another marine panicked after a close encounter with an enemy combatant, claiming that they were invulnerable and that he shot the alien 'like a hundred times' even though he didn't shoot the alien nearly as much, and the marines had surely killed at least a few of the enemy before that point. This is a nice nod to the importance of psychology and impressions when dealing with new situations. The protagonists, as the only human venue of interaction with the aliens, have their opinions defined by the combat context, and you can very easily conclude that they have no objective experience with the aliens per se--only with the aliens' combat elements and doctrine.

This might seem like a tautology, or at the very least as a common sense conclusion, not worthy of note. But this kind of subjective honesty--recognizing that brief, immediate contact defined by a single activity type is a necessarily inaccurate picture of reality--is essential to understanding military fiction and, really, society in general. Tim O'brien might express this as the difference between truth and fact. The fact might be that the aliens are vulnerable, but for much of the movie the truth is that they are unstoppable.

Many other science-fiction stories, especially in film, fail to appreciate this dynamic. A menace doesn't need to be invulnerable to be unstoppable, and yet most sci-fi stories tend to assume this. In Independence Day, the alien shields are essentially impregnable until the third act of the movie, when negating a single advantage leads to their sudden defeat. Or J. J. Abrams' Star Trek, where the Narada wipes out more than twenty Starfleet vessels off-camera, but later on is unable to quickly despatch the Enterprise in a more-or-less straightforward slugging match. These are examples of sci-fi being dramatically simplistic and denying the reality of human experience--subjective and prone to leaps of conclusion first and foremost.

Secondarily, the movie focuses on the common theme of all military sci-fi: that exotic, alien threats, despite their obscure and frightening technology, can be overcome with a combination of preparation, logistical acumen, and military fortitude. Lots of people--men, women, and soldiers--die during the course of the movie, but the protagonists' ability to stick to coordinated behavior, honoring the chain of command and the tenets of their training, is depicted as their personal salvation. Since military sci-fi gets so little main-stream attention(I'd say there are virtually no good examples of it in a movie, in fact), it's nice to see one of the first pieces of true military sci-fi to pay proper homage to the sub-genre's anchor.

A minor example of this is the initial reaction to the alien arrival. As soon as NASA determines that the 'meteors' are impacting at less than terminal velocity--making a controlled descent--the military begins recalling its forces and mobilizing them towards the impact sites. Civilians are given evacuation orders, and there is some level of immediacy before the first ET kacks a human. In the superficially similar Independence Day, on the other hand, the government notes that the 'meteors' are slowing their descent and yet make no effort to mobilize until well after the ships park over the capitols of the world. The ponderous stupidity of people who should know better ends up taking up at least half of that movie, whereas in Battle: LA they quickly come to the only reasonable conclusion necessary based on that introductory piece of knowledge, and that quick response time seems to have helped the position of the human resistance in general.

Finally, there is a under-utilized ethical current in the movie that alludes to issues more cogently addressed by District 9. These aliens, while unrelatable due to their superficial differences, are supposed by one of the characters to be 'grunts just like them', presumably under orders and not personally malicious. This thought gets brushed aside, and in one of the immediately succeeding scenes Nantz begins digging into an alien with his ka-bar to try to determine the best way to eliminate them. Objectively, its a torturous scene of cruelty, and I felt that it is treated as such by the fact that it is the goriest scene in the barely PG-13 flick. The creature is killed, and it gives the marines an edge in the rest of the film, and I think the fact that the scene is unsettling enough to stick out in the mind alludes to the issue--it is easy to compromise one's ethics when expedient benefits can be had by attacking something we don't identify as human. This is a deadly pitfall, one that we fall into when judging other humans, and it's also the great province of good science-fiction.

After all, science-fiction is about applying the problems and concerns of humanity to exotic, technological extremes. The very best in the genre grapples with it in ways that allow us to reverse-engineer the moral qualms into our own lives. Again, this is certainly better handled in District 9, but Battle: LA does make a small stab at that theme as well.

This deserves a mention about acting, too. For an action movie, Battle: LA has a great selection of actors. Their talent likely gets denigrated because they play action-based characters, but they do a great job of playing up the combination of fearful reaction to an incomprehensible threat and being experienced, capable marines. The few civilians are portrayed extremely well by Bridget Moynahan, Michael Peña, and Bryce Cass. Bryce Cass, in particular, impressed me as a really good child actor playing stress, trauma, and uncertainty really well. Another one that shone out was Ramon Rodriguez, who plays an inexperienced Lieutenant Martinez with vitality and charismatic force that reflects the post-modern trope of young, well-educated officer with little battlefield experience grappling with his own command inadequacies--a long way from playing Leo in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Personal enjoyment 'the gravy': Battle: LA delivered on my expectations quite soundly. I wanted something where we weren't arbitrarily fed absolutely-defined pieces of meta knowledge, where the audience is given an experience that is raw and emotionally-charged, and doesn't unrealistically shoe-horn an entire global military campaign into one film. And if the alien invasion method, technology, and logistics seem interesting, that would be great, too.

I find it extremely grating when a sudden alien invasion is effectively understood. In Battle: LA, though there is a degree of certainty about what the aliens are going after once they are on earth, there is still a degree of uncertainty about the ultimate motivations of the invaders that isn't concretely addressed. I like this. The movements of a civilization, especially an alien one, shouldn't ever achieve historical certainty until they are, well, history. Especially in the first half of the movie, the protagonists' uncertainty heightens the first fights with the aliens.

The action-packed, jumbled cinematography of the film resembles that of war films like Blackhawk Down, Band of Brothers, and We Were Soldiers. Some people find it jarring, but I enjoy it as a grounded way of 'describing the elephant' for mass audiences. It's also a way of getting around giving us many close-ups of the aliens, helping to emphasize their mystique as the aliens are never seen directly and at close range. This is a motif of the film that has been criticized and falsely labeled as an accidental fault, but I latched onto it right away as effective and expedient to the theme.

To me, the title of the movie was a pledge that Battle: LA paid off on. The idea of resolving a planetary campaign in a single two-hour film is ludicrous. Even resolving a terrestrial war in that amount of narrative space is absurd. And this movie accepts that. The audience sees a small slice of the initial stages of one piece of the invasion. The plot consists of a key part in the global campaign, and the strides made by the soldiers in the film purchase solid set of tactics for engaging the aliens later on. But this isn't a global perspective, we don't know what the president is doing, or who's fighting to save New York City, and that works for me. Aaron Eckhart's Nantz is interesting and compelling, and if he was reduced to a sarcastic Steven Hiller character, that'd really be to the detriment of the movie.

The alien tech is tactile and enjoyable, too. Evoking crude cyborg methods that might remind you of the Borg of Star Trek, the Strogg of Quake, or other bionic tyrannies of sci-fi, the alien tech feels much more grounded and accessible than your average ray-gun-wielding enemies. Their implant-guns fire some sort of more-or-less conventional bullets, with an incendiary effect that made me think of white-phosphorous, and their big guns shoot missiles rather than lasers. It makes the combat feel more like a near-future incursion and much more real than I think it could if lasers were pew-pew-pewing around the screen.

My two biggest complaints about the movie are faint, small infractions against my suspension of disbelief, and probably irrelevant to most people's sensibilities. The first is Michelle Rodriguez's character, Tech Sergeant Santos. Since the protagonists compose a marine combat unit, none of them are female, but doubtless the desire to feature a fight-capable hottie in every main-stream action flick overrode that consideration. So they include the air force sergeant as a stranded survivor from a communications team that was wiped out in the city and joins up with the unit. This is a plausible, believable way to incorporate an extremely unlikely military character who fills a movie niche. After all, historic military action has involved devastated units forming ad-hoc units beneath ranking field officers from other units or other branches. But at some point, those absorbed soldiers should simply return to their parent units and traditional chain of command. When that doesn't happen in Battle: LA, it is simply because the warrior-woman niche still needs to be filled.

My second complaint is that the movie didn't go for an R rating. I don't have any problem with movies pursuing a given rating for commercial reasons. I understand that an R-rated movie will automatically take in fewer tickets than a similar film rated PG-13. It's an acceptable way to attune a movie to your target demographic. But if I know anything about the MPAA's standards, Battle: LA is literally one F-bomb and a splatter away from an R-rating. Toning down the violence I can understand, even if its kinetic violence evokes a timbre similar to Blackhawk Down, but I have a hard time listening to military dialogue that sounds authentic except for its dearth of coarseness.

A note about me: my father served in the Navy for over two decades, my grandfather was a World War Two marine, my brother serves in the Air Force, and I live and work near a major naval base. I've also done a research paper on the nature of military jargon. And you know what? Servicemen swear. A lot. With delightful creativity, I have found. I appreciate this, though I try not to swear myself, and when I watch a scene in which soldiers are in such stressful situations and they don't fill the air with a blue streak, it pulls me out of the action. I'd much prefer that if a movie is that close to a ratings threshold they'd just jump into an R-rating with both feet.

General enjoyment 'the cheese': This is a movie for fans of science-fiction, certainly, and so I think those who don't consider themselves nerds should be prepared for what kind of movie they are going to see. There are deliberately unresolved questions in the plot, both regarding the aliens and the main characters. I found that my own familiarity with the military helped to elaborate on the movie's plot assumptions. The constant deluge of action is probably about as prohibitive to non-violent audience members as the brief but much more intense intense violence of District 9, but the emotional tenor of the story also feels apt for military melodrama.

I found that, throughout the film, I was pretty constantly plotting out how this setting would be great for a role-playing game or a strategy wargame. To me, that makes for an enjoyable, engrossing experience that draws me into the creative reality of the film, so I'd highly recommend this film to nerds of the gaming variety, as well.

And though some skeptical reviewers have assaulted it, the movie features a neat theme that might appeal to those who enjoy strong family connections in their military stories. There's a couple of tear-jerking moments that fly based on the strength of Eckhart's acting chops. I found them moving, and I know my wife and parents really appreciated it as well.

It's not a perfect movie, but Battle: LA is certainly the best in the under-represented alien invasion sub-genre. Formerly, I enjoyed Independence Day for what it was--a fun us vs Them actioner where Them was a special effect-equipped race of space tyrants. But the aliens and humans were stupid, the ETs lacked a personal presence and threat, and the total perspective of the film--encompassing the entire story of contact, invasion, reaction, and repulsion--seems a bit contrived. But not Battle: LA, it does what it sets out to do with enthusiasm and thorough research, accomplishing a grounded, gritty feel that at its best moments feels like an alien-war documentary.

So, it might be too late to see it in theaters near you, but if it pops up in a second-run theater or at least when it comes out on DVD, I suggest you ignore the anti-hype and strongly consider watching this refreshing sci-fi action epic.

Next, I'll do a spoiler-filled breakdown of the movie, dissecting the shallow, short-sighted, and just plain bad reviews of the movie that have surfaced as precipitants of poor critical literacy regarding popular media today.

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