A film review by Craig J. Koban March 18, 2011

BATTLE: LOS ANGELES j
j
½ 

2011, PG-13, 116 mins.

 

Nantz: Aaron Eckhart / Elena: Michelle Rodriguez / Michele: Bridget Moynahan / Joe: Michael Pena

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman / Written by Christopher Bertolini

BATTLE: LOS ANGELES is a new sci-fi alien invasion film that is not as original or ground breaking as it thinks it is.  Obviously, the film concerns malevolent, humanity-hating extraterrestrials that come to many of the Earth’s biggest cities in order to eradicate mankind and take control of its resources.  There’s definitely a been-there, done-that vibe of this storyline.  But then there is the film’s much advertised artifice, which abstains from the traditionally composed and painstakingly executed shots that dominate Hollywood action blockbusters are instead opts for the you-are-there faux documentary approach, replete with shaky images, whiplash-inducing pans, and a disorienting sense of chaos and pandemonium.   

The film’s South African born director, Jonathan Liebesman, publicly admitted that what he was aiming for an overall style influenced by You Tube videos of marine combat in Fallujah that he viewed .   He also took more direct cinematic inspiration from modern day war films like BLACK HAWK DOWN and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, which were critically lauded for their sense of overwhelming realism.  Liebesman’s approach here of filming an old fashioned alien invasion film with New Age, reality-based camera work and setups seems initially crafty and superficially innovative: on a level of intending for viewers to viscerally feel the maddening level of bedlam and dizzying sensation of gritty, down-to-earth (albeit versus aliens) combat clashes, BATTLE: L.A. is certainly a technical triumph.   Yet, under even modest scrutiny it is not a technique that is all that pioneering; recent efforts like CLOVERFIELD and DISTRICT 9 beat this film to the punch. 

Yet, can a film that lacks novelty still be exciting and enjoyable?  That’s the thorny question I wrestled with all through BATTLE: L.A., but I ultimately found myself both applauding its stylistic choices (it does a legitimately proficient job of injecting pulse-pounding tension and relentlessly thrilling intrigue in its mimicking of Internet video-influenced combat coverage) while at the same time criticizing it (the film endlessly bombards viewers with its technique, so much so that it overwhelms and distracts us from any other potentially compelling elements).  A film like BATTLE: L.A. is all about sensory overload: it’s trying to convey the chaotic extremes of war, but beyond that, there is not much else the film has to offer but sound technique.   By the end, I was perhaps more exhausted by the film than I was entertained by it. 

I will say this about the film: it does not sacrifice too much time with wasteful exposition.  BATTLE: L.A. rather quickly establishes the particulars of it story and then thrusts viewers head first into the mayhem.  Through some well-placed and simple news reports shown on TV screens in the background of the opening scenes, we learn that dozens of meteors are about to impact the Earth’s major oceans near densely populated cities.  The military has been asked to come into the cities in question and assist with evacuating citizens that will be too close to the impact zones.   

It is at this point where we get the obligatory character introductions of the major players and some truly inert attempts at developing them as distinct personalities.  They are, more or less, stock military types instead of flesh and blood human beings.  We meet, for instance,  U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), who is getting too old for combat as a 20-year vet and is close to retirement, but he is being called in for one last mission, which the oldest of movie clichés means that it will not be a routine one.  We then meet a Platoon leader, 2nd Lieutenant William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) that is Michael’s superior, despite his greenhorn status, which means he will make mistakes.  Then we meet the proverbial wet-behind-the-ears rookie marines, the hotheaded ones, and so on and so on. 

It is quickly revealed to the soldiers that the meteors are in fact harboring alien invaders with advanced weaponry and firepower.   Within no time most of the world’s military bases and cities have been laid to waste, and it has been decided by the military higher ups that Santa Monica will be leveled in an attempt to stop the flow on the invaders.  The air force has opted to perform a massive bombing raid in three hours (the only thing the film does not have is a digital clock readout), but beforehand Lt. Martinez and Sgt. Nantz have to infiltrate the bomb strike zones and find and rescue potential survivors that are taking refuge at a police station.  Of course, the marines are thwarted at nearly every turn by the stunning lethality of the alien attacks (and their near-impervious invulnerability), but they do manage to find a small group of survivors (two of which are played by Michael Pena and Bridget Moynahan) and with the aid of an Air Force intelligence Technical Sergeant, Elena Santos (Michelle Rodriguez), they all attempt to flee L.A. while formulating a daredevil, last-ditch plan to whip out the foreign menace once and for all. 

BATTLE: L.A. is as technically strong as any modestly budgeted sci-fi flick that I've seen, and by modest I mean that it was made for under $70 million, which is peanuts considering the usual costs for other similar films.  Unlike other alien invasion epics, this one is narrow in focus: it basically takes place all on the battle-tarnished and rubble-laden streets of Santa Monica, and the film is exemplary for using cutting edge visual effects to transport us into the limited locales by giving them a sense of awe-inspiring scope (in actuality, Louisiana stepped in for L.A., but who cares, the film looks sensational and the illusion holds up).  Two other things are interesting to note: the basic thrust of the plot is about getting from point a to b without getting killed, whereas most other invasion films are concerned with heroes saving the world, so that dynamic is a bit different.  Furthermore, the film is ostensibly focused on the human POV of the calamitous events: we don’t get lots of lingering glory shots of the aliens, but instead see the strange visitors from afar, which reduces them sometimes to blurry and indiscernible humanoid abstractions.  This presentation of the aliens is in tune with the rest of the film’s stylistic choices: we should never get a chance to gain a strong impression of what the aliens look like because the marines and citizens, in the heat of battle against them, also don’t have that luxury. 

Nonetheless, for as much mileage as we get from the film’s creative choices, they begin to feel more redundant and monotonous as it progresses to a finale.  This is exacerbated by the fact that the script is awash with pathetically rendered characters and a laundry list of clichés as big as the alien mother ship itself.  The performers here do a thanklessly decent job, especially Eckhart, a gifted actor that is able to transcend the apparent limitations of his role by making it more emotionally relatable.  Yet, all of the military roles are so flatly delineated and follow the dime-a-dozen conventions of these types of characters: we get the retiring veteran coming back for active duty; the soldier that asks a fellow warrior to keep a letter to his wife for him, which means that the letter writer will never make it through to the end; a female “intelligence” officer that’s much better with weapons than her job title would illustrate; and a considerable amount of lame-brained and laughable dialogue between them all, like “get down!” or “we must move on!” or “don’t die on me” or “I need you to be brave for me now” or, my personally favorite, “what the hell was that thing?”   Uh, call me stupid, but…an alien, perhaps? 

BATTLE: LOS ANGELES is an intriguingly conceived, consummately well made, but ultimately empty minded and throwaway aliens-invading-Earth mishmash of the war, action, and sci-fi genres.  The film is certainly swiftly intense and it contains action sequences that are exhilaratingly full throttled and satisfyingly bombastic (BATTLE: L.A. is never boring for its humans vs. E.T. orgy of death and destruction).  On a level of its craft, the film is to be admired, for sure, but there is just not enough lurking under its craft to give it a fully affirmative recommendation on my part.  I will say this, though: compared to last year’s mercilessly atrocious SKYLINE (another Los Angelino themed alien invasion flick), BATTLE: L.A. is CITIZEN KANE.  Considering my near zero star review of SKYLINE, that’s arguably not saying much for BATTLE: L.A..

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