“Marines battle aliens in Los Angeles” cried the Washington Examiner Friday morning. As I hadn’t had my coffee yet, as I stepped on the Metro, I briefly thought to myself that there had been a military coup during the night. Unfortunately, it’s just a movie, and these aliens come from outer space.
As what used to be our country continues its decline into a barely controlled confederation of hostile ethnic fiefdoms, it is harder to make movies and games about villains that invade America without offending the hyphenated Americans that already invaded in real life. The only possibilities left are Nazis, zombies, Nazizombies, North Koreans, and space aliens. (And also, I suppose, Nazi space aliens.) As in Independence Day, the aliens in Battle have come to take our resources and kill us all, so we don’t have to do any soul searching or make any clumsy attempts to humanize the enemy. The aliens are a gooey machine-biological hybrid, and look like a slimy cross between Terminators and the robots from the crappy Star Wars prequels. With their unmanned drones and their cybernetic suits that look like they came out of DARPA, the battle scenes seem like a fairly accurate representation of the United States military today fighting the United States military of 20 years in the future.
Yet despite the futuristic alien weaponry and modern, diverse cast that seemingly stepped out of a college admissions brochure, watching Battle: Los Angeles, is like stepping back in time. As the American military in real life is transformed into a socially conscious welfare office for the Third World, the American military in the movies can return to its preferred role of waging war against wholly unsympathetic enemies. Aaron Eckhart, whose square jawed soap-opera looks normally conceal flawed characters, like Harvey Dent or Nick Naylor, here channels John Wayne’s Sgt. Stryker from Sands of Iwo Jima. Eckhart perfectly represents the ideal Marine NCO, exactly the type of blue-eyed fighting man that the U.S. military is trying to drum out of the service to make room for more Alvin Greenes. In this movie, the gay sensitivity training, nation building missions, racial gangs, and political correctness that characterize the modern military simply doesn’t exist.
In fact, the entire movie is simply a recruitment ad for the military. Every soldier, Maine, and airman is skilled, brave, and noble, selflessly sacrificing themselves to rescue trapped American civilians. All the war clichés are here, from the green lieutenant facing his first combat action to the fiancé who just wants to get home to his sweetheart (who, because this is 2011, is named “Shanice.”) Even the civilians somehow manage to be useful. Los Angelinos look gratefully to the Marines as their liberators, apparently reversing their stance from the last time the USMC set foot in LA, when they were rioting and shooting at them.
I expect any minute to see a review of the movie on National Review praising this movie for “supporting the troops.” About five minutes later, we can probably expect Lawrence Vance to condemn it at LewRockwell.com in the name of pacifist Jesus.
Insofar as there is an internal conflict in the movie (which there really isn’t), it is about the burden of command. Eckhart’s Staff Sergeant is haunted by the decisions he made in combat that led to the death of his Marines, including the brother of one of the Marines in the squad. The lieutenant ostensibly leading the Marines is a recent Officer School graduate, whose training and book smarts can’t help him make real decisions in combat. Eckhart resolves his conflict through the power of his example, assisted by some action movie heroics and a speech about what it means to lead men in combat. His Marines, their doubts assuaged, loyally follow him for the rest of the movie, though when the lieutenant compares him to John Wayne, one of the minority Marines comments, “Who is John Wayne?” The L-T, meanwhile, dies in an appropriately heroic way to save the lives of his men and thus redeems himself. Any internal conflicts are thus neatly resolved in such a way that the military virtues of courage, sacrifice and obedience to authority are reinforced, rather than questioned. Sometime in the future, some liberal arts major at an American university will write an unnecessarily long paper about how this movie reinforces The Authoritarian Personality.
More than anything else, Battle: Los Angeles is an ad for the Marine Corps. Once again, the Corps plays Hollywood like a fiddle and steals the march on its sister services, proving President Truman correct when he moaned that the USMC has a propaganda arm worthy of Stalin. As we learned in Independence Day, if aliens ever do invade the world, apparently the Army, Navy, and Air Force sit back and let the smallest of the services do all the work. Gradually, the movie transforms from a story about an alien invasion into an outright paean to the Corps and its values. In a pivotal scene, a small boy mourns his father who has died heroically (just like everyone else). Eckhart’s Staff Sergeant, with teeth gritted and manly tears, tells him that he needs to be brave and be “his little Marine,” because “Marines don’t quit.” While this sounded heroic at the time, in retrospect this seems like strange advice to tell a little boy whose father just died in his arms.
Despite the occasional interlude, the Marines press on from one objective to the next. After saving a few civilians, a small group of cutoff Space Marines probe deep underground to find the “Brain Bug” that serves as command and control for all the unthinking drones that have American forces on the retreat. If they can find it and disable it, they can turn the tide of the battle. Actually, wait, that’s Starship Troopers. Remove the part about space and substitute “giant flying computer” for “Brain Bug” and you have the same thing though. Once the regional command and control center is located, the heroic sacrifice of one of the members of the team, the alien craft is destroyed. The higher ups congratulate the Marine on his victory and notify fighters around the world how to bring down other regional command and control centers. Actually, wait, that’s Independence Day—or, more accurately, it’s both Independence Day and Battle: LA.
Of course, who cares? It’s an action movie, and if taken for what it is, it succeeds brilliantly and is well worth seeing. The lack of information about what’s happening in the rest of the world actually improves the story, as it creates real tension as the squad moves through smoky LA streets with no visibility, stalked by an unknown enemy. The movie succeeds in creating a feeling of dread as the Marines slowly patrol from block to block. The look of shock on their face when they realize they find out their air cover has been destroyed reminds us that the United States military has almost never lacked air superiority throughout the entire history of aviation. Unlike in Black Hawk Dawn or any of the movies or television shows made about Afghanistan or Iraq, the Americans could, at least theoretically, suffer military defeat.
Michelle Rodriguez has an inevitable role as the “tough Latina who can hold her own,” a member of the Air Force who tags along with the USMC. Other than that, there’s little overt politicizing, pointless romances in the midst of Armageddon, or left-wing navel gazing about the cost of war or how the aliens are actually fighting racism.
Unfortunately, there is no retreat from politics, even for shoot ‘em up action films. The multiracial version of the 1950s presented in Battle is itself a political statement, the equivalent of plugging one’s fingers in your ears to avoid hearing things that might upset you. As epic and entertaining as the movie is, one can’t help but feel sad as the Marines charge heroically into battle because the government they are defending is doing their best to destroy them and the country they are defending doesn’t really exist anymore. Nor does the United States have the social capital or infrastructure in place to win the kind of war presented in Battle: Los Angeles. In real life, lacking air superiority, the military would be in huge trouble, and it would take more than movie heroics and our strategic Diversity advantage to win the day. We can also expect urban police and “communities” to abandon their posts and start looting the way they did in New Orleans, rather than rallying behind the Stars and Stripes. Finally, and most importantly, this movie takes place in a fantasy world where Los Angeles is just another American city. When a reporter in the movie notes sullenly that Los Angeles and other cities are being “colonized” by the aliens, I couldn’t help but think, “So what else is new?” In the post-American age, it’s hard to watch a movie about heroic Marines that pretend that America is still here.
In the last scene of the movie, USMC choppers fly into the burning city of Los Angeles to begin the counter-offensive. Such a scenario doesn’t require space aliens. Aaron Eckhart says grimly, “Let’s retake Los Angeles.” If only it were that simple.