You’ve seen it all before, but why not again?
Mar 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 27 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Battle: Los Angeles
Battle: Los Angeles, which made a fortune in its opening weekend, explores new depths of meaning when it comes to the word “derivative.” Almost all movies are glosses on previous ones, but there is literally not a second in this one you haven’t already seen in another. It’s Independence Day and The War of the Worlds and District 9 and Saving Private Ryan and Transformers and Pearl Harbor and Starship Troopers and Black Hawk Down and The Green Berets and Rio Bravo and Assault on Precinct 13 and Battleground and The Hurt Locker and Red Dawn and I’m sure I’ve missed 40 others all rolled into one.
The nice part is that when it rips off a movie you didn’t like, you just have to wait a minute or two until it moves on to rip off a movie you did like. If Battle: Los Angeles were more knowing, it could have presented itself as a postmodern gloss on the power of cinematic clichés. Instead, it functions like Airplane!—but in reverse. For while Airplane! played its clichés so straight they became hilarious, Battle: Los Angeles is in deadly earnest. And oddly enough, that’s why the movie works, even though it has no business working. Battle: Los Angeles takes itself seriously, and in presenting its ludicrous and circuitous plot without a smidgen of irony, it manages to build tension, sustain interest, and even give you a little emotional zetz.
Battle: Los Angeles is the story of a Marine platoon from Camp Pendleton that finds itself caught up in a fight against an alien invasion. The aliens are destroying Los Angeles, and it falls to the platoon to rescue some civilians stranded in a police station in an L.A. neighborhood that’s been abandoned. The U.S. military beachhead is at Santa Monica Airport, and the platoon must trundle up Santa Monica Boulevard on foot and get the civilians before the military levels the area west of Lincoln Boulevard toward the ocean. The mission makes no sense unless you’ve seen Saving Private Ryan. But then, the mission in Saving Private Ryan made no sense, either; but you’re not allowed to criticize Saving Private Ryan because to do so is tantamount to spitting on the flag, so I guess I can’t complain about this mission.
The platoon is, of course, beautifully balanced racially and ethnically, the way movie platoons have been since World War II, though instead of Goldberg and Falconetti and Pulaski there is an actor-rapper and two dreamboat Hispanics. Fortunately along the way, the team picks up a Latina Air Force officer, so there’s gender balance and a little more ethnicity, too!
But there is also tension. Smoldering tension. The tough-as-nails staff sergeant is haunted by what happened in his last mission somewhere in one of those countries—Iraq or Afghanistan, you know, over there where Marines are fighting. Plus, the brother of one of the guys in the platoon was (wouldn’t you know it!) in the platoon commanded by the staff sergeant over there in the last mission. So the brother is kind of bitter. The staff sergeant doesn’t defend himself against the charge he got his men killed because he’s just too heroic.
As are they all. These Marines are tough, they’re resourceful, they’re fun, they’re a little wacky but not too wacky, and they’re completely self-sacrificing. There hasn’t been a portrait of the American military this unabashedly hagiographic since The Green Berets. Of course, it helps that they’re fighting an enemy that is seeking to exterminate the entire human race. Plus, the aliens are large bugs. I know Albert Schweitzer and Jains objected to killing insects, but almost nobody else does, and so writer Chris Bertolini and director Jonathan Liebesman don’t bother with existential debates about the use of force and the role of the military and harsh detainment measures and WikiLeaks and Andrew Sullivan going to The Daily Beast.
The Marines fight the aliens in the street. They fight them at the police station. They fight them on the Santa Monica Freeway. They’re outnumbered and outgunned, but they persevere. “Retreat, hell!” they say. And they do fight. And they are self-sacrificing. And brave. And tough. Battle: Los Angeles not only takes itself seriously, it takes its Marines seriously.
That’s why, no matter how ridiculous it gets, it still gets to you.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.