1. Introduction: From nearly the moment the theater darkened, I realized that a movie about the complete destruction of a city on the Pacific Ocean was maybe not what I was in the mood for and that I had very likely made a terrible mistake.
SPOILERS AWAIT YOU!
2. Setting: I stood in line at the movie theater on Saturday afternoon. Outside, warm weather and cool air and a very clear sky. In front of me in line a father spoke Arabic to his three children. They asked for popcorn and soda in English. The two boys fidgeted and pranced. The little girl stood still with her father, her hair in braids, looking up at the young woman behind the counter taking tickets. The ticket-taker smiled at the little girl and complimented her on her tennis shoes which lit up when the little girl walked. The boys pointed at the MPAA ratings poster, at the large R and giggled. The girl held her father’s hand.
3. What Have I Done?:Can a movie be an indictment of itself? Can a movie on one hand appear to be a critique of the the military actions of the United States around the world in the past ten years and on the other plainly pander to the mindless, macho grunting that leads to such actions? Battle: Los Angeles, a film about the invasion of the Earth by some nameless alien army is a horrific mess that was very unpleasant to sit through. I should have seen Red Riding Hood. Or eaten hot knitting needles.
4. Death Wish: I chose a seat in the next to last row of the nearly empty theater. A group of three young men speaking Russian and wearing Hollister hoodies considered seats directly in front of me for a moment and then wandered off to take root closer. Their laughter rattled through the room like a cup of marbles falling over on a hardwood floor.
Seven young men from out in the county trudged up the steps and sat directly behind me in the very back of the nearly empty theater. They too laughed and punched each other. They were electric with happiness. One kicked the back of my seat the entire time, but this ended up being the best part of the movie as I could close my eyes and imagine that I was in a pick-up truck that was flipping over and over and over into a ditch.
“Soon I will be dead and this will be over.”
5. What It Means To Be A Man: Aaron Eckhart plays a rugged staff sergeant named Nantz. Handsome, square jawed, brave but with a troubled past. He’d made tough choices in Iraq, maybe the wrong choices, and men died. Don’t worry, he didn’t really make the wrong choice, but he has a tortured soul nonetheless.
He is part of a platoon that must rescue some civilians from a police station in Santa Monica during an alien invasion. The platoon is a pan-ethnic group of brave and noble men. African American and White and Latino. A young medical student from Nigeria hoping to gain citizenship and a hayseed from the South and a virgin. Over the course of two hours, the Marines rescue civilians, save the world and die heroic deaths, just as real men are supposed to do.
Dear God, it is dreary to watch perfect people always being perfect. With the exception of a momentary freak-out by the platoon’s lieutenant, played by Ramon Rodriguez, every single character acts brave and confident and self-sacrificing at all times. The lieutenant, who betrayed the movie’s one fleeting moment of true humanity, makes up for it by heroically (and unnecessarily) blowing himself up.
This is what it means to be a MAN. If you are not strong and stoic and unrelentingly willing to fight, you are not one. Sorry.
6. NO NO NO: At one point, Michelle Rodriguez shoots an alien in the head. The creature explodes in a messy burst in her face. She says something along the lines of “Gross, I got this nasty goo in my mouth.” The Marine with her says, “You let them do that on the first date?”
This movie is rated PG-13. There were three children in the audience with their father.
7. What It Means To Be A Woman: Michelle Rodriguez is the one woman in the platoon. She is a communications officer, but figures out how to fire a gun because WAR. The price of admission to being part of the club of brave heroes saving the world is to have her face ejaculated on and then to be called a slut.
The other women in the movie are wives at home, pregnant with the brave children of honorable men, or fiancees who want to spend $300 extra on flowers for the wedding, dragging her husband-to-be around town and making him look at cakes while his friends laugh. Doesn’t she know: Men don’t look at cakes; Men eat them. Men eat cakes whole, in one bite while protecting this land and saving children and emoting stoically.
The only other woman with a name is a veterinarian, a civilian survivor played by Bridget Moynahan. She cares for the children that the platoon finds: two little girls who are always screaming (their only lines) and a young boy whose father dies. The boy takes the loss of his father, who died bravely, with a few tears but mostly just dignity and courage. Moynahan is immediately attracted to Eckhart and she flirts with him shamelessly while he is trying to save everyone. She squeezes his hand. Watch out for those children, veterinarian! The planet must be saved.
In this world, the place for men and the place for women is perfectly delineated: Women plan marriages, have babies, care for those children and yearn for men to save them. Men save the world and put up with women’s frivolity. If a woman seeks to enter the sphere of man, she must be debased and ridiculed and also be Michelle Rodriguez.
8. It Only Appears To Be A Digression: In high school, after PE, I never showered. I was too nervous to take off all of my clothes in front of the other boys, all football players and basketball players or stoners who wore green tiger print briefs.
One day, there were several people in the shower horsing around loudly after class and I looked to see what was happening. “What are you looking at? Are you a fag?” one asked. I said I wasn’t, but he continued to ask me about my sexuality nonetheless. Finally, he proposed a fight.
“Come on. Let’s fight.” I told him I’d rather not and I left the locker room. He followed me out and started to push me and beg me to fight him.
Our PE teacher, the head coach of the football team, was there and said, “Settle down,” but the boy kept pushing men and eventually knocked me down and put me in a headlock. “Come on, fight me. Come on,” he yelled and the football coach said, “Come on. Fight him. Be a man.”
Eventually, the boy got bored with me holding still and not fighting and the bell for lunch rang and he let me go.
9. On How To Kill That Which Is Not You: The film begins with what appear to be parallels with the American invasion of Iraq. At one point, someone on CNN discusses how the aliens are eradicating humanity so as to colonize the Earth and take its resources. Eckhart wants to retire from the services after a disastrous tour in Iraq. Perhaps the film wants to be a social critique of war, or at least American militarism, but I think this might just be a fata morgana of my own liberal mind.
Rather than reading the aliens as the United States and Los Angeles as Iraq, it is just as likely that Los Angeles is America and the aliens are aliens, but of a different kind–some Other invading our land, threatening our families, defiling our honor and dignity. Certainly, the platoon is diverse, but Eckhart’s white staff sergeant, who is not actually the leader, is the most brave, most self-sacrificial, most inspiring, most intelligent member of the platoon, a bright light leading the way, teaching everyone how to be a man and how to save humanity.
Consider: the Marines find it nearly impossible to kill the aliens. They shoot the monsters, but the monsters get up again. “How do we kill these things?!” the Marines wonder aloud through the gunfire. At one point, a wounded alien is caught and Eckhart proceeds to tear the living thing’s chest cavity apart with his hands. The alien wriggles and writhes and Eckhart stabs its strange organs over and over, unable to find anything resembling a brain or a heart. Vivisection is difficult to watch for fun.
This is how we demonize the Other: They don’t have brains or hearts. They can’t think. They can’t feel. They are less than we are. We must tear them apart with our hands as they bleed and scream so we can understand this threat and neutralize it.
The last image of the movie is of the ruined skyline of Los Angeles, the now-triumphant American Military in the air, ready to TAKE AMERICA BACK.
10. The Survival Of Humanity, Or At Least One Human: The lights came up in the theater. The seven young men behind me shuffled out without saying anything. They tossed their half-finished buckets of soda into the over-full garbage and retreated to the seven cars they came in. I sat in mine and enjoyed its warmth from sitting in the sun for hours.