Battle: Los Angeles is a belaboured attempt to recoup American exceptionalism via the redemption of USMC SSgt. Michael Nantz, 2/5. This attempt fails: American exceptionalism loses the battle, badly, though America wins a war thanks to Nantz.
Nantz has been a marine for twenty years. He has a file full of commendations and a box full of medals, including a Silver Star earned in Iraq during his most recent tour. Everyone knows the “grimy details” of this tour. Nantz kicked ass, “he went into that compound alone and killed ten insurgents.” But he also got the men – “Kids” – under his command killed. It wasn’t his fault: “There was no right call. You went left you go right it didn’t matter.” When extraterrestrials attack Earth on August 12, 2011, they give the begrimed marine a chance to prove the purity of his character, and they give almost post-Iraq America a chance to prove the unique quality of its military.
Hours before the attack, Nantz submitted his retirement papers, but when the aliens arrive it’s all hands on deck, and the staff sergeant immediately falls into line under the command of 2ndLt. William Martinez. Nantz guides Martinez as the 2ndLt. discovers that graduating first in his class has not prepared him for leading men into alien ambushes; Nantz performs a hasty vivisection on a wounded alien to discover where the invaders might be vulnerable; Nantz pulls some “serious John Wayne shit” to save the platoon from an enemy aircraft; Nantz takes command when Martinez dies; etc., etc., until Nantz coordinates the destruction of an alien command and control center, receives a hero’s welcome at a temporary operating base in the Mojave Desert, declines breakfast, reloads, and heads out for more. Forget Iraq: the guy is a paragon, he’s perfect, his character is unimpeachable.
Except that we can’t forget Iraq because the movie depends on Iraq for the same reason that it depends on shaky cam: it wants to be realistic. And so it turns Los Angeles into Iraq (Fallujah, specifically), which makes marines insurgents. Which makes the warmongers, the invaders, the aliens: Americans.
When Nantz returns from his John Wayne escapade, he tells Martinez “That aircraft was unmanned…Drone.” This syllable evokes horror in those who hear it, it confirms the aliens’ otherness, their evilness, their total lack of scruples. When the protagonists’ platoon is stuck on a freeway, outgunned and about to be overrun, the marines make a car bomb. The car bomb fails to detonate, so 2ndLt. Martinez makes himself a suicide bomber, he blows himself up on a bus. His death is honourable.
“IS THIS AN OCCUPATION?” asks CNN, and a talking head responds that “obviously [the aliens] are here for our resources. When you invade a place for its resources, you wipe out the indigenous population. Those are the rules of any colonization. And right now, we are being colonized.” Thus the alien invasion is a recapitulation not only of America’s imperial adventures in Iraq and elsewhere but of the very founding of America.
Anthony Lane argues that the movie’s battle is supposed to be unambiguous:
Politically, the film is calculated to a tee. The real America remains in the claws of two foreign conflicts that have been morally and practically contentious from the start, so what can fictional Americans do to heal, or temporarily conceal, such wounds? The answer is to engage a hostile force that can be assailed with impunity and without division or debate; to be blunt, it’s not possible to commit atrocities against extraterrestrials.
And yet Battle is a quagmire; American exceptionalism proves untenable; the aliens are us, i.e. they’re the U.S.
American exceptionalism proves untenable; human exceptionalism, however, lives to fight another day.
The marines’ mission is to rescue some civilians caught behind enemy lines: “You get those civilians and you get the hell out of there and you kill anything that is not human.” The first thing they encounter outside of Camp Pendleton Marine Base is not-human, is “Just a little doggy” named Glenn. Moments after Glenn’s appearance, the marines are under attack: the dog is at the vanguard of his fellow not-humans’ assault.
Lcpl. Kerns tentatively identifies with his enemies: “It’s like those things are on overwatch just like us. That one looks like the leader, so now they got leadership.” His fellow marine dismisses his observations as anthropomorphism: “So do ants, Kerns.” Meanwhile, as mentioned, Nantz experiments on a wounded ant-alien.
One of the rescued civilians, Michele, is a veterinarian. She helps with the vivisecting. And a few scenes later, when she notices that Nantz was scratched during his John Wayne shit, she tells him “You should have the doc take a look at that.”
“I thought you were a doctor,” he says.
“Animals and aliens only.”
Human exceptionalism is unimpeachable: Michele’s knowledge of the dog and the cat and the rest of not-human creation is applicable to the alien, any alien, but the human is a completely different kind of creature, and totally beyond her ken.
The identification between women and not-humans that enables male exceptionalism proves endurable, too. Pre-attack, Nantz walks into 1stSgt. John Roy’s office and asks “What happened to that picture of us in Iraq with that camel – I mean your girlfriend?”
Later in the film, the platoon speeds through L.A. in an LAV and a Humvee. Aliens appear up ahead. “You know what they say if you’re gonna hit a deer?” asks Nantz. The answer is “Speed up!” (This is not the answer.) When Nantz’ LAV speeds up and hits a deer-alien, the thing is tossed over the LAV and smashes through the windshield of Cpl. Kevin Harris and USAF TSgt. Elena Santos’ Humvee. Santos shoots it; its head explodes. “Are you alright?” asks Harris. This prompts what is arguably the movie’s most ridiculous line: “I’ve got that sticky stuff all over my mouth…Why are you laughing?”
“You let him do you on the first date!” Harris exclaims, exultant, exceptional.