Review: Battle: Los Angeles
An alien attack has descended upon LA, with Staff Sergeant Aaron Eckhart leading his Marines to Santa Monica to rescue some civilians (Michael Pena and veterinarian Bridget Moynahan among them) from an area that is set to be bombed. They find themselves under heavy fire from the clearly superior alien force. Michelle Rodriguez plays a tough ‘Tech Sergeant’...or something, whilst the rest of the cast is ethnically diverse, yet strangely interchangeable.
Directed by Jonathan Liebesman (“Darkness Falls”, “The Killing Room”) and written by Chris Bertolini (“The General’s Daughter” from 1999 being just about his only other credit), this is one of two alien invasion movies that came out around the same time. “Skyline” beat it to the punch by coming out in 2010, whilst this one was released in early 2011. “Skyline” was roasted in most quarters, but I actually thought it was a solid B-movie, despite some iffy FX. “Battle: LA” earned slightly better reviews, but I honestly think it takes a minimalist approach to such an extreme that it’s something and nothing at the same time. It’s a complete and utter failure on every conceivable level, but particularly on the level of entertainment.
It’s not that I especially minded the film’s single-minded, pro-American approach so much. Most of these films are centred in the US, and it makes sense as they are a superpower who might well be the last best hope in a situation such as an alien invasion. I’m fine with that, even though I still say there’s an ethnocentrism and egotism in some respects. However, focusing solely on LA and not really giving us any information as to how large this invasion is, just reminds me of the Chuck Norris movie “Invasion USA” where the villains wanted to take over America...but never got out of Miami. Oh well, at least this is called “Battle: Los Angeles”, not “Battle: USA”, but surely the aliens had larger plans? Believe me, though, the film has many, many more problems than this, and I’m not referring to the odd fact that a film in 2011 begins with Tupac’s self-indulgent hot mess, ‘California Love’ (Really? In 2011, we’re still listening to that? Cool bass, but really?).
The biggest, self-defeating, cataclysmic problem with the film is that it has absolutely no clarity whatsoever. No clarity of story, character, or action. It’s a whole lotta stuff going on that adds up to absolute zero, especially if audience investment was the aim. The opening scenes in particular, for me, were far too vague in setting up the premise of the film. Even worse, however, are the cinematography by Lukas Ettlin and the action. This is one of the most incompetently shot and staged films I’ve ever seen in my 32 years on this Earth (and I’ve seen “Cloverfield”, people!). It’s way too busy with zooms, pans, cutting, and a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on. And this was just for a scene involving two dudes in a room talking. Stop it, Mr. Ettlin! Unfortunately, Mr. Ettlin does not stop, as there’s a scene where a dude is visiting someone at the cemetery and the camera is hiding behind a tombstone and wobbling like an old fart with Parkinson’s. Were the Japanese about to sneak attack or something? No, it was to add ‘realism’ and ‘drama’. Fuck off. I get the feeling that modern filmmakers think all sci-fi and action fans are also fans of first-person shooter games. They make me, and lots of others physically ill. Movies are movies. Learn it. Live it. Love it. This is such a nauseating film to look at, I got no visual pleasure from it whatsoever. And then there’s the dreaded Colour Filter Syndrome rearing its ugly head. Thankfully it’s really only in one scene, but it’s incompetent and stupidly done; There’s a bunch of tiny fires all over the ground, so the sky and everything else is bathed in yellow. Yeah, like it would be in real life.
But the characterisation is just as bad. I mean, the opening ten minutes give us about 20 names and faces, that we’re going to need to keep track of throughout the rest of the film. Liebesman and Bertolini fail to realise that giving us the peoples’ names and an introductory scene doesn’t really mean we come to know them and relate to them, or care about what happens to them. There’s too many of them, and we’re being thrown into the deep end. Even a film as overpopulated as “Armageddon” paid a little more attention to its characters and cast the film with actors who at least stood out, visually. This film has a couple of reasonably well-known faces and names (Bridget Moynahan and Michael Pena among them), but not enough to make up for the lack of clarity in character (let alone depth) or cinematography (The one possible exception is Michelle Rodriguez. In a way, her typecasting works because you know who and what she’ll play and so you don’t need any set-up for her character or much depth). A lot of the faces and characters just blend together. When some of the characters die, we don’t care, because we don’t really know the characters enough to care. One character is referred to by Eckhart (who, due to his experience in “The Core” is at least a reasonably acceptable hero) as having been brave, but since this was just a guy who turned up in a few scenes, said some stuff and died...I can’t relate this statement to any truth or falsehood. By the time Bridget Moynahan turns up it’s beyond way too late to be introducing characters. Meanwhile, just because the film is called “Battle: Los Angeles”, that doesn’t mean it has to focus almost exclusively on the military (though “Aliens” is a brilliant example of such an approach). Spielberg made a severely underrated movie called “War of the Worlds” and it focused almost entirely on one suburban family. Perhaps the strategy adopted here was similar to “Black Hawk Down”, where you were meant to have a visceral, in-your-face experience where it didn’t matter so much that things were often chaotic and the characters were 2D at best. The problem is, “Black Hawk Down” perfected this style, and also it was a film about a real battle. This film is just badly shot (it seems like Ettlin is deliberately trying to obscure the action and the aliens at every opportunity), and is about battling aliens, and so it’s a little harder to relate (Especially if you’re not in the mood for hoo-rah, USA! USA! USA! One-dimensional, Bruckheimer-esque pro-American military nonsense). If you want to look at an alien invasion film that comes really close to being realistic without forgetting about character depth, once again, look at Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds”.
The aliens are a problem too. You never get a clear or convincing picture of what they are, how they got here, and how they operate. As I said, the camera never manages to focus in on them, and if it is by choice, it’s not a good one. It’s all well and good to take the “Jaws” slow reveal approach, but don’t do that for the entire film, surely. Perhaps it was a budgetary restriction like with the ineffectual “Monsters”, but more likely, it’s stylistic. At times they look like robots, alarmingly like ED-209, which suggests the solution is simple- build an army of Robocops to do the job. So are they alien robots or robots built by aliens? Do robots exist and generate independently? Not on this Earth they don’t, so some explanation would be necessary. But then at other times they look more like Xenomorphs that simply have a metallic look about them, with a touch of “Predator” about them. Despite the vagueness to their design, they still look somewhat identifiable to us, which is always my problem with aliens. If aliens really existed, I think they’d look completely foreign to anything our imaginations can conjure up, so I’m almost always going to be somewhat disappointed by Hollywood representations of them (As I said in my “Skyline” review, I also think they’d destroy us in an instant, therefore the movie would be over instantaneously, so don’t ever ask me to write an alien invasion movie!).
Apparently “Predator” co-star Shane Black (writer of “Lethal Weapon”) did uncredited work on this script. Smart man that Mr. Black, I wouldn’t want an on-screen credit, either. Oh, and one final piece of amusing information: At one point Michelle Rodriguez makes a crack about Eckhart only having one facial expression. Really? Really, Ms. Rodriguez? Have you looked in the mirror lately, sweetie?
In the end, this film is appallingly made. None of it resonates on any level, it just washes over you. It started, it ended, I didn’t give a crap.