– Summary –
Director : Jonathan Liebesman
Year Of Release : 2011
Principal Cast : Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Ramón Rodríguez, Will Rothhaar, Bridget Moynahan, Jim Parrack, Michael Peña, Bryce Cass, Ne-Yo, Adetomumboh M’Cormack.
Approx Running Time : 116 Minutes
Synopsis: Aliens invade, an a team of US Marines must fight to save a group of civilians caught in the middle of Los Angeles.
What we think : Tense, at times exciting alien invasion flick steals borrows liberally from other, better films, yet delivers the requisite amount of action and effects to make it worthwhile. While the film does lack genuine emotional content, instead relying on the Marine-grade “Hoo-rahh” camaraderie, Battle: Los Angeles delivers exactly what the title might suggest. Good, but not great, interesting, but often uninvolving due to an aloofness which permeates the script, leaving main star Aaron Eckhart to eke out a small dose of humanity amongst the bullets and explosions. Special effects are pretty decent, and the action sequences aren’t bad either.
Alien invasion films have long been the staple of Hollywood cinema, since the invention of aliens and the possibility that one day, we might be invaded by them. Orson Welles made an entire career out of such a concept, and ever since, cinema has been fascinated with our interaction with creatures from beyond the stars. Films like ET, Independence Day, War Of The Worlds, The Day The Earth Stood Still and others have dealt in some form or another with alien visitation, be they benign or malevolent, offering both thrills and excitement as well as the occasional moral message for audiences brave enough to watch them. Battle: Los Angeles doesn’t stack up as one of the best alien invasion films, including those I’ve just listed, but it does rank as one of the more exciting ones by comparison with some of the more anemic releases of late (Skyline, I’m looking at you!). It’s a film with a few definite problems, but the critical drubbing it seems to have endured upon initial release may be a little too harsh – I think some people take this stuff way more seriously than they should.
Battle: Los Angeles begins with aliens arriving on Earth and proceeding to wipe us out. They emerge from the sea and start killing everything they see, and it’s up to the military to fight back. Cue square-jawed US Marine platoon into centre frame, led by newly-commissioned officer Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez, whom audiences may find is a little better in this than he was in Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen) and controversial Staff Sergeant Nantz (Aaron Eckhart, providing the gravitas for this film). The young platoon is thrown into action against the alien invaders to round up civilians caught in a zone of Los Angeles marked for a bombing run: they must make it to an extraction point before the bombs fall, or they’ll be killed. What follows is an endurance test of US military jingoism and chest-beating testosterone – and that’s just from Michelle Rodriguez’ female Air Force character.
Battle: LA has plenty working for it; the concept of aliens attacking the Earth might have been done before, but I doubt it’s been as realistic as it is in this film. A crazy mix of District 9’s frenzied camerawork, the destruction scale of Independence Day, and the raw American patriotism in the face of unbelievable odds of any Michael Bay flick, Battle: LA is one of those film that raises the spirits and belief that, regardless of what threat to mankind may be faced, the good-ol’ US of A will come through every time. The cast of relative unknowns, Eckhart aside, all deliver believable performances, which is nice to see, and Liebesman lenses this film with the gritty determination of Paul Greengrass making a Bourne film. I mentioned District 9 before – Battle: LA borrows its desaturated and gritty, rapid-frame style from that film liberally, perhaps too much so. The alien attack is indeed quite frightening, and while we’re never really given the entire story behind it all (something about the aliens wanting our water) it probably doesn’t matter all that much. Point is, the aliens are here, and they’re mean sons-a-bitches. It seemed to me that Liebesman and his team have sat down and gone “what are the best bits of all the major sci-fi films of the last twenty years?” and made a film showing only that kind of stuff. Wanton alien destruction, cities wreaked by flame and explosives, humanity in disarray, all delivered in glorious HD in surround sound just to make sure we get the point.
I went to this film with a couple of Fernby Films alumni (Greg Bowden, Ange Eckermann, and The Strong Contender – all of whom appeared in, or assisted with, Thrash Bus II) and the resounding comment of the night (from Greg) was “It’s amazing what they can do when they throw A-grade money at B-grade material”. Never have truer words been spoken. Battle: LA is a B-grade film, from both the script and overall plot, but given major impact thanks largely to the fantastic use of the CGI effects, all of which look and feel as real as the surrounding environment. Each of us thought the film was good, but it wasn’t great – at least, not in comparison to other recent sci-fi outings. So where does Battle: LA go wrong? If it’s a single element of the film that undoes all the good work, it’s the obvious and often cliched military speak that permeates the entire film, as well as the horribly contrived “acting” between Eckhart and his team when things start to get a tad emotional. At one point, a young boy’s father dies and Eckhart promises the tyke that he’ll get him out of dodge, because “he’s a Marine at heart too” – God, are we all Marines? When the chips are down, are we all supposed to pick up a weapon and take to the streets US Army style to take on the enemy? Sorry guys, but if push comes to shove, I’m doing the hot-shoe-shuffle out of harms way, as fast as my tiny little legs will carry me.
The corny dialogue Eckhart and his team are forced to spout by way of emotion feels manufactured instead of natural: a byproduct of following the Marine SOP’s, no doubt, but a facet of the film which is hard to overcome. Military types always tend to be the “Hoo rahh” macho kind, and Battle: Los Angeles is no different. The dialogue consists mainly of Marines screaming at each other about “covering fire” and “hold the line” and “contact on your six Jimmy” the entire time, and it’s wearing after a while. The token female civilian character (whose name is so unremarkable I’ve forgotten it), played by Bridget Moynahan, is a major plot contrivance simply to help propel the story along (She’s a veterinarian, apparently, which allows the screenwriters to give us a slight alien-biology lesson midway through the film) and at the end of the day, is a character more meaningless than any of the others. Michael Pena, whose role of a harried father trying to flee the city is made to look somewhat creepy at the start, so that you begin to wonder if there’s more to this guy than he’s letting on – his story goes nowhere. There’s no interpersonal tension in the film, it’s just aliens vs humans, and with a lack of angst between the survivors in this movie the emotional core of whatever motivations people have is limited at best. Eckhart’s character is about as close to imperfect as we get – apparently he’s got a black mark next to his name because of a previous mission gone wrong, and while I can see how this might give his character more weight between the soldiers under his command, Liebesman can’t produce enough drama with it between explosions and gunfights to make us really care.
Battle: LA isn’t really about character development, if we’re to be brutally honest here. The film isn’t designed for it; character development is simply a way to get our heroes from point A to point B with some sort of logical progression, while the true focus of the film is on the frenetic battle sequences. Man, the film even has the word “battle” in the title, just to make the point. People expecting Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down should look elsewhere for their exploration of US military politics or heroic, man-against-the-tide development – these soldiers are in the shit, and they’re doing their best to get back out, and having a heart-to-heart mid-shootout isn’t what this film is about. Anybody expecting more than that is kidding themselves. This film is about aliens kicking our asses, and us kicking right back. And on that point, the film delivers.
While the disaster-porn of Roland Emmerich is eschewed for a realistic, Cloverfield-style ethos by Liebesman, Battle: LA lives up to its hype of giving us ballsy, gritty action sequences that really pack a wallop. The aliens, both as special effects and practical live-action elements, look surprisingly good considering, and the destruction of LA is rendered in gorgeous detail. The alien entry into our atmosphere is superb, with sonic-boom contrails and explosive compression affecting the Marine’s insurgence into coastal LA in a pretty major way: and it only gets better from there. The alien tech is just that: alien. Very little explanation or exposition is given as to their abilities or intent, except one suppository from a “leading expert” in what is obviously becoming the well-plumbed Hollywood School Of Alien Invasion cliche, that the aliens are here for our water. The reason behind the attack isn’t really important, however. The scale of the destruction, much like the lambasted and lamentable Skyline from late 2010, is enormous, with vast swathes of LA rendered obliterated by the alien war machines. The hopelessness of the situation too is extreme, with the alien forces outnumbering and out-powering the US military by an order of magnitude – however, human ingenuity is never to be ignored. I think filmmakers often rely on alien stupidity or arrogance a little too much I films such as this. The cop-out in films of alien invasion is usually to have humanity find some weak spot in the invaders’ armor, or have the aliens susceptible to diseases and airborne viruses and the like, or to underestimate the sheer square-jawed-ness of the USA military might to get the job done. Battle: LA does it’s best to overcome this dependence on contrivance, and while it succeeds mightily in the main, the underlying resolution is one of the three mentioned, even if it’s cloaked in explosions and bullets.
From a production standpoint, Battle: LA has some serious money thrown at it. I mentioned the CGI alien effects, which are superbly rendered, and I wanted to highlight that fact again – the alien creatures blend into the surroundings so believably you actually think they might exist. Their ships, their weaponry, their sound, is all realized wonderfully well: it’s all shown to us without pandering to the ignorant – they come down, shoot to kill and destroy everything they can, and Liebesman shows us just that. No loving, languid money-shots of a key alien craft or super-cool weapon, just balls-out action and speed. Ferocious, is a term I’d use to describe the action sequences here. Nerve jangling, fleeting glimpses of the aliens are all you get at first, before the soldiers get down and dirty with the invaders for the mother of all turf wars. The soundtrack is as bombastic as you’d expect, the pop and boom of ordinance exploding and zinging past your ear is effective and remarkable. Brian Tyler’s score, which borrows liberally from Vangelis and an early Hans Zimmer (as well as a more traditionally orchestral mode at various times) is excellent without being memorable – the score seems a cobbling of ideologies rather than a thought-out thematic piece, which presents a problem for Liebesman with trying to string everything together somehow. The music is apropos of the action, but isn’t creatively joined to it. If that makes sense.
I wanted to love Battle: Los Angeles, I really did. Instead of loving it, I only enjoyed it – which says more about the importance of strong characters and decent scripting than it does about just pooping out eye-candy every six minutes to keep the plebs happy. I’m all for vacuous explosions and derivative film-making; hell, I count Michael Bay as one of my favorite directors, but when a film is trying to be serious and “realistic”, it better deliver more than just one big-ass mothership and some gung-ho flag-waving soldiers amped up on adrenaline – it needs decent characters, characters you can care about, to keep the emotion of the film going. Otherwise, you’re just sitting there waiting for the film to get to the bit where the soldiers win, the aliens go home, and humanity is left to rebuild their civilization once more. It’s a PG-13 film with a R-rated style, and the balance works well to a point. A little more character development and time to build the rapport with the audience, and this film may have been destined for classic status. As it stands, Battle: Los Angeles remains a better-than-average mediocrity with plenty to say, just with little time in which to say it. Lack of script development will impede it’s re-watch factor over time. Go, enjoy, but don’t let your expectations get too high.