Review: Battle: Los Angeles (2011)
There’s a moment in Battle: Los Angeles when a soldier, thinking that he and his fellow marines have finally defeated the aliens who just invaded L.A., shouts, “It’s over!” For a second I shared his joy and excitement, though while he was celebrating the aliens’ demise, I was merely happy that this awful movie was finally coming to an end. Then an alien spaceship rose from the earth, and his hopes, and mine, were crushed. The horror and consternation on his face nicely mirrored my state of mind throughout the film.
After a brief opening sequence in which a random general explains that “we can’t afford to lose Los Angeles,” the film cuts to “24 hours before contact” and to a nice establishing shot of L.A. (just in case the movie’s name had us confused about where it’s supposed to take place), set to 2Pac’s “California Love.” I took that as Jonathan Liebesman’s way of saying he wasn’t even going to try, though I guess there’s always a chance he thought he was being clever. But given that a minute and a half of “California Love” is by far the best thing this movie has to offer, I guess I shouldn’t be too critical.
We are then introduced to the characters of the movie (if we can call them characters), starting with Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), who is the only one to get any kind of real backstory. He’s been a marine for 20 years and is getting tired of it, and is said to have been somehow responsible for the death of his men during his last tour of duty in Iraq. Don’t expect much more detail; Liebesman’s got a dozen more characters to showcase before the real fun begins, he can’t spend more than a couple minutes on any of them, now can he? To make it easier for the audience (an honorable endeavor given the overall complexity of the rest of the movie), screenwriter Christopher Bertolini gives each one of his toy soldiers a defining trait to distinguish them from one another: you’ve got the Nigerian medic who signed up so that he could become American, the smartass from Jersey, the Asian rapper, the guy recovering from PTSD so well that it’s never mentioned after the opening segment, the 17-year-old virgin (just try to guess how many “dude’s a virgin” jokes Bertolini managed to cram into the first hour of the film, before getting bored with them himself and blowing his comic relief to pieces), the young lieutenant whose wife is pregnant, the guy whose brother was killed in the line of duty while under Nantz’s command (ooh, drama!), etc.
Liebesman seems to think that’s still a little too much information for the audience to take in at once (and he may very well be right, given that by the time the movie ended, I couldn’t remember half those people’s names), so he helpfully provides captions that give us every single character’s name and rank as they appear on the screen, as if Battle: LA were a documentary. Not that I would ever accuse Liebesman of putting that much thought into it; this is a pragmatic choice, not a stylistic one. When Tech Sergeant Elena Santos (Michelle Rodriguez) appears, some 45 minutes into the movie, she gets no caption–presumably because the screenplay simply referred to her as “the Michelle Rodriguez character” until the very last minute. (In what is perhaps the only surprising twist in the entire movie, Rodriguez actually manages to make it to the end alive).
Once we’re finally done with what Bertolini and Liebesman must refer to as “that boring introduction crap,” we move on to the good part, or what I refer to as “that boring exploding crap.”
So Eckhart and friends venture into the ruins of Los Angeles to kick some alien butt. As they do we learn, through carefully inserted news clips playing on the various TVs the soldiers encounter along the way (now that‘s an innovatice narrative device), that the aliens are invading Earth because having ugly-looking monsters as your bad guys means the audience will instinctively identify with the soldiers, thus letting you skimp on that pesky characterization thing. Also, they’re after our water. Apparently they use it as a source of energy. Does that remind you of anything? Well, it sure doesn’t Liebesman. Which is really for the best: the last thing Battle: LA needs is to have a simplistic, poorly thought out Iraq metaphor tacked onto its simplistic, poorly thought out plot. (That’s not to say that the film’s ideological content isn’t problematic as it is, though, but it’s more fun discussing the film’s other numerous shortcomings.) Liebesman’s aliens are ugly (the CGI looks awfully cheap at times), overly aggressive, and devoid of anything resembling a purpose save serving as targets for shooting practice. At some points the marines spontaneously start to refer to them as “ants,” possibly a misguided attempt at a District 9 shout out. But the point of Blomkamp’s film was to get inside its aliens’ heads, to ultimately strip the “prawn” nickname of any meaning; the only thing that’s getting in an alien’s head in Battle: LA is an M-16′s bullet.
And an awful lot of bullets are fired in this film. From the moment the marines set foot on the battlefield to the end of the movie, not five minutes go by without there being some kind of fighting. Bertolini and Liebesman seem to have very little understanding of the concept of pacing, which makes Battlefield: LA a physically exhausting movie to watch (that it clocks in at just under 2 hours doesn’t really help, either). What’s worse, Liebesman also has no idea what to do with a camera. Everything is filmed the same way, in extreme close-ups that make the action indecipherable–especially since Liebesman’s weapon of choice is, unsurprisingly, a badly misused handheld camera, which means you’re just as likely to be looking at a close-up of someone’s shoulder as at anything that would actually help understand what’s happening. To say that Battle: LA is a visual mess would be like saying that Transformers 2 was a bad movie; after a while, I just wanted the aliens to whip out a secret weapon that would let them wipe the surface of the planet in seconds just so that the movie would end and the pounding in my head would stop.
The one good thing about this film is Aaron Eckhart, who once again proves that he is a fine, fine actor, even when working with awful material. (The way he somehow manages to be convincing as he delivers the film’s one attempt at an emotional speech reminded me of Chiwetel Ejiofor in Roland Emmerich’s 2012, another preposterous but otherwise much more enjoyable movie.) Someone give this man a role in an actually well-written soldier film and watch him run away with it.
As the lights came back on in the theater, a group of people (all men in their 20s, unsurprisingly) sitting a few rows behind me clapped and cheered. Battlefield: Los Angeles cost $70 million to make, and made half that on its opening weekend in the US alone. If we are ever actually invaded and wiped out by aliens, they’ll be able to look back and point at this film as proof that we had it coming.
Postscript: Sorry about the lack of update over the past month. I was once again ambushed and beaten up in a dark alley by real life (still in the form of my thesis). I’ll try my best to have at least one other post up before the end of the month.