Last night we watched “Battle: Los Angeles,” which is a fairly bad movie about an alien invasion of the world, but which focuses upon the front in Los Angeles, mostly Santa Monica. At no point is the perspective of the aliens addressed, but we spend a great deal of time on the rather boring backstories of a number of the characters: a Marine about to retire with a shady past, a Marine who lost his brother (coincidentally, his brother was in the same unit as the retiring Marine) and who is about to be deployed for the first time, another Marine who seems to have PTSD, and so on. All of these, presumably, are to humanize the Marines and give us reason to identify with them. Throughout the movie–as the Marines find access to televisions–we are treated to updates from a talking-head expert on CNN who has hypothesized that the aliens are attempting to colonize Earth in order to secure access to water (but, of course, “Earth” is constantly reduced to “America”): the cyborg organic/machine hybrids which seem to do the fighting–whether they are centrally controlled drones or somewhat autonomous soldiers–appear to run on water.
We then have a rather crude comparison being made: Americans with respect to oil are the same as the aliens with respect to water. We are therefore being asked to identify with the colonizer-come-colonized. So long as the Marines are colonizing–that is, doing their traumatic tours of duty in Afghanistan or Iraq–there is no problem. But, once the colonizers are transformed into the colonized, there is a major problem. The point of the film, then, is to re-inscribe the lost role of America as colonizer and erase the aberration of America as colony. (Poignant, perhaps, that we watched it on what is the American Thanksgiving weekend which, among its ideological functions, is to represent America’s past as a partnership rather than a colonial invasion.)
While the main character–the retiring but called back into active service Marine (stop-loss, if you will)–is the one who is supposed to gather our attention: how he has been traumatized by the death of his team on the previous tour of duty, how he was the only survivor, how he was supposed to die, how everyone around him thinks he is responsible for the deaths of those Marines, and how his devotion to his duty has prevented him from having a wife and child (don’t worry: through performing his duty he will find a surrogate wife and a surrogate child). He is, by far, the least interesting character. Our attention should be focused on the one Marine–the team’s medic training to become a doctor–who has enlisted in order to gain access to America, to improve his life, and so on. This character is a Nigerian national who significantly says at one point, “I’d rather be in Afghanistan.” Again we are dealing with the play of colonized/colonizer: the colonized Nigerian wants to be the colonizer. The Nigerian soldier would rather be in Afghanistan colonizing than be in the United States resisting a colonial force.
Given the constant flip-flopping between colonized and colonizing, it is strange that we are being asked to identify with the colonized: the destroyed civilians and the rag-tag Marines who will single-handedly resist the alien occupation. But, this is illusionary because we are only being asked to identify with the colonized in order to re-inscribe the natural order of things; that is, we must resist the possibility that America can fall to a foreign force with unknown motives even though their technology is vastly superior and overwhelmingly powerful–no matter how strong the enemy, worry not, because we will prevail–and we must only see the truth of American exceptionalism. America is the uncolonizable; America is the only legitimate colonial force–even the colonized agree with that.
Now, this is a strange genre of film. The majority of stories about the destruction of the United States have auto-immune causes–losing control of military technology (“Terminator,” “Battlestar Galactica”–the killer robot hypothesis), a sudden viral epidemic (the various zombie and “contagion” movies), or a secret cabal or government within the government. The America-destroyed-by-aliens genre is comparatively narrow. Off the top of my head, I can only think of “Mars Attacks,” “War of the Worlds,” “Independence Day,” “Skyline” (which came out almost at the same time as “Battle: Los Angeles”) and, of course, “Battle: Los Angeles.” What’s particularly interesting about these films is that although America is easily invaded–initially, at least–by an overwhelming force of hostile aliens seeking to colonize us for various nefarious reasons and despite their vastly more advanced technology, the colonizers are always idiots: in the case of “Battle: Los Angeles” all you have to do to defeat the enemy is destroy each of the twenty command units. You see, the colonizers are so dumb that they’ve made all of their forces centrally controlled. Destroy the centre and you win. But, given that the point of the movie is re-inscribe the view that America is uncolonizable and that only America can legitimately colonize the world–that is, America is an alien to all others–doesn’t this suggest that Americans are profoundly stupid and their colonial power is rather fragile? Why, then, haven’t a rag-tag bunch of Muslims or Africans or whatever risen up and easily dispatched America? Likely because they haven’t embraced the American Dream. Who knows.
Regardless of how stupid the movie was, at least the images of destroyed cities were nice to look at.