Perhaps the strangest aspect of the Battle: Los Angeles screening I attended was Danny DeVito’s presence. Danny DeVito – a supremely underrated actor and director – is just about the last name that comes to mind when I think of derivative science fiction – especially the kind of derivative science fiction that makes Roland Emmerich look like Aeschylus and Battlefield Earth look like Kitchen Sink realism. But there he was, walking out the doors just behind me and archly humming the theme song – his response to this remarkable cinematic travesty. Since Danny DeVito is a professional, and cannot speak ill of a terrible movie, I don’t wish to suggest that Danny DeVito didn’t enjoy the film. But I put forth to you that when a man of his talent reacts like this, this is probably not a sign that Battle: Los Angeles is the 2001 of our time.
What the hell was Danny DeVito doing at the screening? What the hell was I doing at the screening? I obviously can’t speak for Danny DeVito, but I suppose I was there for the cheese. Then again, the closer I get to forty, the less this answer feels legitimate. Even though I still enjoy laughing at terrible dialogue, which Battle: Los Angeles has in droves. “No promises in combat,” barks Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (played by Aaron Eckhart as if Nantz were more of an easily ignored plastic chair rather than a flesh-and-blood character). “This is insane,” says another marine, who has not been given adequate dialogue to express what we already fucking know is insane. “I miss him….every…..day,” wails Eckhart later in the film. He may have been referring to Neil LaBute. “They ambushed us like they knew our frickin’ addresses,” says Tech Sergeant Elena Santos (played by the now officially typecast Michelle Rodriguez). Santos, by the by, is the only woman soldier here. And she’s not even an interesting soldier like Private Vasquez in James Cameron’s Aliens. (In fact, being a tech sergeant, she doesn’t even get to gun anybody down until the end.) If that gender disparity isn’t troublesome enough, consider that Nantz gets to say “fucking” while poor Santos only gets “frickin’.’ Where I come from, real women say “fuck.” Alas, this is a 21st century reality lost on writer Christopher Bertolini and director Jonathan Liebesman, who seem to have confused a relentlessly shaky camera for authenticity.
I pretty much lost it when Aaron Eckhart shouted, “Marines never quit,” in his gruff, here-for-the-paycheck bark. But, hey, I had to find my pleasure somewhere. The pleasure certainly wasn’t there in the explosions, which grew tedious, or the characters, which proved to be forgettable despite the X-Files-like captions, or the feeble explanation for the alien invasion, which involved using fuel for water, or the weak military system the alien race sets up, which involved a laughably stupid command center to generate power, or the dialogue, which only served to repeat obvious points.
Given such wretched qualities, cheese is a decidedly immature draw. I should know better at my age. But Danny DeVito is well over forty and he probably came for the cheese too. I was sitting too far away from Danny DeVito to hear if he was laughing. But when I started laughing, during a remarkably terrible and long Eckhart monologue attempting to rally the survivors, I noticed that others started laughing. Perhaps I gave a few audience members permission to laugh. Sony certainly did its best to pretend that this was a worthwhile film, being somewhat more aggressive with confiscating phones (who would pirate this piece of shit?) and even employing a warmup guy to get the audience to reply back “All right” before the screening. Since I had come to this screening as a reviewer, I felt that replying “All right” was inappropriate and not especially journalistic. Still, I can’t blame the studio for doing everything in its power to salvage a turd. On the other hand, a turd is still a turd. As turds go, Battle: Los Angeles is probably one of those turds well on its way to the sewer system by now. So it was probably an unwise decision for the filmmakers to include a plot point involving the Los Angeles sewer system, which only served to remind the audience that they were wading through shit.
Can I find one good thing to say about this failed hodgepodge of Predator, Independence Day, and Assault on Precinct 13? Well, I’ll certainly try. At one point, Nantz cuts away at an alien’s anatomy, trying to find the weak spot. My vast steadfast boredom dissipated for a few moments, and I wondered if the filmmakers would come up with something fairly creative. Maybe the aliens might have a unique digestive system. Perhaps a tentacle might emerge from the carcass and attack the humans. Perhaps the humans could morph into another form. But the only thing these hacks could come up with was a position to shoot at and weapons that were surgically attached to their bodies. And if you can’t be fucking bothered to come up with even some half-assed idea of an alien culture, then why go to the trouble of making the film in the first place?
If this movie had any real courage, it might have killed off its kid characters or shown one of the felled aliens genuinely suffering. Real war is more complicated than the simple-minded malarkey of blowing shit up. Is it too much to ask for even a small dose of All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, or Platoon in a movie like this? These days, it is.