In the cynical world of modern media “cliches” are can be a gift and a curse. Wielded deftly a play against or making light of them can elevate a film giving it a sense of erudition. On the flipside employing every one in the book without any wink or nod to the audience can sink any, otherwise, sea worthy picture. The latter is the case with the new alien invasion effects showcase, “Battle: Los Angeles.” If there was a way to cut out every painfully trite line of dialogue, leaving only the action sequences, the movie would have been about sixty-five minutes long, but it would have been a fun sixty-five minutes. As is half of the film stands as an intense sci-fi action movie, half a laughable melodrama.
Like a game of directorial telephone director Jonathan Leibsman coopts a verite style of shooting previously used by Peter Berg in “Friday Night Lights,” that having been clipped from Michael Mann’s masterpiece, “Heat.” There is a lot of fast cutting, stomach churning hand held photography, and tons of coverage aimed at creating a rich world out of the tiny details. At the get go Leibsman utilizes the style to introduce all of the main characters, mostly Marine grunts who all have various heart-string pulling reasons to live for. There is the guy about to get married, the guy with the pregnant wife, the guy with PTSD, and the virgin, all of which are a little too on the nose. Leibsman finally lands on our hero, Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), who is conveniently handing in his retirement papers the morning of the impending alien invasion. His commanding officer even says something like, “You had a lot of good missions… all except that last one.”
Then the attack comes. The marines are shipped out to Santa Monica in an effort to secure a couple of civilians rumored to be hiding out in an over run police station in an area slated to be leveled by an Air Force bombardment in three hours. Walking with the Marines through the devastation on the streets of Los Angeles Leibsman manages to fill the sequence with as much tension as he does smoke. Recalling both the Oscar Nominated documentary, “Restrepo” and the “Modern Warfare” games the anticipation creates a palpable fear written on the faces of the actors.
When the inevitable attack comes the action sequences are brutal, a chaos that is intimate and punishing. This is the area in which “Battle: LA” flourishes. Though derivative, the in-your-face hand held style Liebsman uses is effective in bringing an edgy realism to the alien invasion film.
Though they are still aliens, and usually the chink in the armor of any invasion film is the design for the attackers. In this film they sport a sort of bio-mechanical feel that is looks like a lot of function over form, but it is kind of hard to tell. We never really get a good look at the creatures, or even their drone aircraft, due to all that shaky camera work. There are no long, wide shots to get a real feel for the invaders, no interaction with the enemy. It works for the film in the sense that it is hard to pin down any terrible design decisions that would pull one out of the narrative, but after a while could be frustrating for sci-fi geeks wanting to get a real sense of the aliens.
And if the film were just gun fights with hard to discern aliens then “Battle: LA” would be a huge success. The point at which the film falters is the scenes between the fighting, overflowing with cheap dialogue culled from every war movie ever made. If he should be given props for his fun concept, writer Christopher Bertolini should be equally berated for the ten-cent lines he puts into the actor’s mouths. “You’re my little Marine,” SSgt. Nantz tells little Hector Rincon, one of the civilians that the Marines extricate from the police precinct, trying to give him courage. Some of the fault has to fall on Leibsman’s shoulders, however, as he dials the overwrought seriousness of the scenes way up to Sirk-ian proportions, without any of the intended irony. During Aaron Eckhart’s final speech to his men, rallying them to take on the enemy’s headquarters it feels a lot less “St. Crispin’s Day,” and more “Independence Day;” so much so that I kept waiting to see Barack Obama flying around in an F-14 during the third act. Which would have been really cool.
To its credit the film is fun, more so than a lot of the films of this type. The epic scale and the potent action sequences add up to a film that is worth seeing if you just go with it. Don’t worry about the sappy score, or the trite backstories of all the soldiers, just sit back and watch some aliens get blown up. But watch out for any parts when Aaron Eckhart starts talking about his previous battle tours. Those might be times to go relieve your bladder. Trust me you won’t be missing much.
El Luchador Rating:
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)