Review: Battle:Los Angeles
The pitch was surely a good one: an alien invasion from a grunt’s eye view. I’m sure it came packaged with promises of a filmmaking pastiche straight out of the Spielberg/Cameron Book of Action, of large-scale extraterrestrial assault a la Independence Day with the soldier-level intensity of an Aliens or even Saving Private Ryan. Basically, a brash cobbling together of tried-and-true influences repackaged and set in the City of Angels. Which might have been okay, if even a single one of those influences had been brought to this project successfully. Instead, what we have here in the filmgoing netherworld of February/March is a cliche-riddled mess with no element worthy of recommendation.
Many films of this genre have scripts that aren’t exactly masterclasses in dialogue, but the wordcraft here is particular egregious, rife for Mystery Science Theater 300 spoofing if that show were still on the air. Shamefully expository “character development” occupies the entire first half hour, as we’re introduced to our appropriately multicultural array of Marines before they set off to fight those damn dirty aliens. We’ve got our “about to retire”/”hero in need of redemption” combo (poor Aaron Eckhart , he tries his best with what he’s given), our noble Hispanic lieutenant, our chatty Asian tech, and even a Nigerian corpsman thrown in for good measure. Ridiculous pseudo-patriotic speeches come out of nowhere in mid-action, making the battle cries of Independence Day look poetically inspiring by comparison. And don’t forget the clueless civilians whose only job is to look shocked and make us feel bad if they die…which I didn’t. I didn’t care if any of these people died. About halfway into the film, I was actually hoping they all would (except the children, of course). But that would have prevented one plucky squad of Marines from mozying behind enemy lines and taking out the command structure of a force that seemed to have little problem wiping out a massive human counterattack. This is Amuurica, after all, aliens. Best come correct.
But you often come into these things ready for a bad script. What we really come for is the effects, the depictions of carnage, hoping that the person behind the camera at least has a visual eye capable of providing the frights and thrills that should come from a film detailing the alien invasion of Los Angeles. But that isn’t here either. What in the trailer looked like a promising District 9-esque aesthetic turns out to be all the worst applications of the modern “hand-held” craze. The infatuation with hand-held camera movement, at least where big Hollywood action is concerned, can be traced the 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. But where Spielberg used the technique to bring immediacy and simulated veresimilitude to his war epic while maintaining his visual specificity and lucidity, the hacks who followed in his wake shake their cameras around like epileptic six-year-olds making home movies, apparently believing that the less coherent your mes-en-scene is, the more “real” your film will seem. But this isn’t real. It’s a movie, and we need to know what the hell is going on. It seems like half the shot sequences in Battle: Los Angeles are near-unintelligible, the framing arbitrary, and the editing so needlessly chaotic that a potentially interesting shot never has the chance to breathe. When the rare inspiring composition makes it onto the screen, it’s quickly whisked away, the director ignoring that what makes the Spielbergs and Camerons of the world so good at what they do is their clarity, their ability to orchestrate chaos like grand composers, masters of all that enters their frame even while they effectively drop their audiences into the madness of action.
At least you’d think the aliens would be cool, but alas, those pretty much suck too. The creature design seems lifted from any number of video games, with unimpressive animation and lame sound effects rounding them out as antagonists. And the design of the enemy aircraft and architecture is surprisingly dull as well, looking like giant magnets were brought through a scrap yard and then fitted with propulsion jets. Considering what District 9 did visually with less than half the budget, you’d think director Jonathan Liebsmann would have made use of the same tools as his fellow South African filmmaker and come up with a high level of visual accomplishment. This falls too far short in that department.
As I type this, I see that the film handily dominated the weekend box office, a tragedy of which I am sadly complicit. So the possibility of a sequel lies on the horizon, another opportunity for a low-talent imitator to try another limp impression of the masters. I won’t be complicit the next time.