A film review by Craig J. Koban March 18, 2011
BATTLE: LOS ANGELES
2011, PG-13, 116 mins.
2011, PG-13, 116 mins.
Nantz: Aaron Eckhart / Elena: Michelle Rodriguez / Michele: Bridget
Moynahan / Joe: Michael Pena
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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..