There are better "scary" movies to watch for Halloween. Hell, this one isn't even the best "army versus aliens" movie that's been on Netflix in recent memory. But the underseen and underrated Battle: Los Angeles, however messy, is the movie you need to watch before it leaves Netflix this week on October 26.
Released in 2011, several months before the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Battle: Los Angeles follows an aging, nearly retired Marine staff sergeant (Aaron Eckhart) who leads a platoon against the very first wave of an alien invasion. There are no major stars in the movie, but we do get singer Ne-Yo as a Marine, Michelle Rodriguez in a surprisingly minor role, and Michael Peña acting as a serious father — unlike his two-bit, fast-talking Luis from Ant-Man.
The hook of Battle: Los Angeles, directed by Jonathan Liebesman, is that it's an ultra-realistic take on the alien invasion movie. Standing out from War of the Worlds and Independence Day is its eye-level view of the men and women in camouflage, who in most other movies only march and ten-hut in the background.
It's a change of pace how Battle focuses the camera on these soldiers. If you feel dizzy watching the first 30 minutes, that's because cinematographer Lukas Ettlin (who has also worked on shows like Daredevil and Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan) attempts documentary-like immersion with a severely verité camera.
The goal is realism. The cost is a firm grasp of spatial awareness necessary for action scenes to really work. There's a lot of yelling, a lot of gunfire, and a lot of confusion until the action slows to a crawl before the next sequence begins. Ettlin shoots with a long lens for most of Battle. Whether it was intentional or not, it often feels like we're in the breathing space of the soldiers. You can almost smell it.
Battle: Los Angeles is a lunkheaded movie. There's no intelligent or coherent design to the aliens who invade, and it's clear it doesn't matter. Battle isn't a thoughtful science-fiction world-builder. It's an action movie, with space aliens as targets because that's the least offensive enemy Hollywood can imagine for soldiers to shoot at haphazardly. It's Call of Duty without the war crimes, and that's why it's kind of fun.
The utter simplicity of Battle: Los Angeles is almost something to behold. It's soldiers against aliens, with the odds heavily stacked against the soldiers. If October means marathoning horror movies where protagonists feel helpless, Battle: Los Angeles is an injection of adrenaline and an armful of firepower. If the movie doesn't make you vomit from its zig-zagging imagery, it's a pretty gnarly thrill that hits all the right notes.
But Liebesman did envision more. In a 2011 interview with Birth.Movies.Death (then-named Badass Digest), Liebesman said there was a story bible that detailed more about the nameless aliens, fleshing out their military and culture.
"We behind the scenes knew what planet they came from, what they needed for that planet, the whole story of that planet," Liebesman said. "There’s a hell of a lot of stuff we wanted to know just in case it sort of seeped into the different actions of the aliens. There’s a hell of a lot of stuff that was pretty interesting that wouldn’t have made sense to put into the story. They’re Marines, not scientists, so they could only discover so much — especially since the movie is told from their point of view. And it’s not believable that in the news certain things would be discovered, you’d be like ‘How the fuck do they know that?’"
At the same time, Liebesman wanted to make a war movie through and through. He told Bloody Disgusting, "I want to make a war movie with aliens. Not an alien movie that happens to have soldiers ... there's an incidental-ness to the aliens."
Battle: Los Angeles was a surprise hit for Sony when it was released in theaters, where it grossed over $200 million. Liebesman confirmed in 2012 he had been working on a sequel, but quite obviously we haven't seen Battle: New York City by now. But I do know the movie was big with one group: soldiers.
Shortly after the movie came out on Blu-ray, I spent the weekend at my brother's place. He's an Army vet and had some guys over to hang out, drink beer, shoot the shit. He put Battle: Los Angeles on and these tough grunts hooted and hollered and oof-ed at onscreen deaths. It didn't take much to impress, but that it did at all means a mission accomplished.
Battle: Los Angeles is streaming now on Netflix until October 26.
Update 10/19: An earlier version of this article described singer-songwriter Ne-Yo as a rapper. This article has been corrected. We regret the error.