Friday, March 11, 2011

If You Think You've Already Seen All Of Battle Los Angeles Already . . . You're Mostly Right!

The Good: Solidly entertaining, Decent character development, Decent acting, Good special effects.
The Bad: Derivative plot structure, Character cliches, Revealing previews, Pulls punches
The Basics: Battle Los Angeles may be shockingly derivative of Aliens, but it work . . . for anyone who has not seen any previews for it.

There has been an annoying trend in current cinema where previews for a film become more and more revealing such that one is left with the feeling it is not even worth bothering to go see the actual movie being advertised. I was actually getting quite excited about the potentials of Battle: Los Angeles up until the advertising campaign for the last few weeks stepped up how much the previews revealed. So when my wife managed to snag me screening tickets to the movie, I was a bit less excited about it than I had been months ago.

And now having seen Battle Los Angeles, the biggest surprise for me was how very much I actually enjoyed the film. Battle Los Angeles is almost completely ruined by the previews and this is an instance where the journey could have been filled with some real surprises, were it not for the previews. While virtually anyone with a brain who saw even the final movie poster to Battle Los Angeles could tell that the giant alien device rising out of the ground came very late in the film, the real disservice for viewers comes in how the advertising campaign for the film featured alien air support. Without beating that mistake by revealing too much, those who enjoyed the advertising campaign will find that they are just waiting for the characters to catch up with them based on the weeks of advertising they had seen in advance of the film. Even so, Battle Los Angeles is incredibly entertaining and is 2011's first legitimate blockbuster film.

Twenty-four hours before an alien assault begins - Battle Los Angeles opens with the bass of explosions and Spanish news reports revealing the attack as helicopters fly over a beach that is under attack - Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz is outrun by younger Marines and decides it is time to quit the military. Peppered in with introducing the young officers and enlisted men training at Camp Pendleton are news reports about a meteor shower which will be hitting various points on Earth the next day. When the next morning comes, Nantz, Stavros, Harris, Adukuwe, Martinez and Lockett (among others) are recalled to active service when the military realizes that the meteors are not natural occurring phenomenon - because they decelerate before impact - and that Earth is under attack. As the troops move out, CNN illustrates what the military suspected when civilians on the Los Angeles beaches are slaughtered wholesale by armored alien beings advancing out of the ocean.

Nantz and his team are dropped into the war zone that is Los Angeles with a simple mission: help clear civilians out before the Marines fire-bomb Santa Monica to destroy the alien ground forces. Nantz and his team are sent behind the advancing alien front to a police station where civilians were trapped when the firefight began. With three hours until Santa Monica is liquidated, Nantz finds himself and his men outgunned by aliens. And the news goes from bad to worse when a tech Sergeant from the Air Force, Santos, finds her way to the unit with news that her team was tracking a much larger alien force before they were wiped out. With time running out, the humans on the ground and in the sky above struggle to survive extermination.

I feel the need to reiterate two things before I go into more analysis of Battle Los Angeles: 1. I actually enjoyed the movie and 2. It was ruined by the advertisements. I feel it is important to reiterate that first point because the more I think objectively about the movie, the more I find myself nit-picking it. Throughout Battle Los Angeles, news reports feature scientists doing their best to explain the invasion and the conclusion that the aliens have come for Earth's liquid water. Given that, one has to wonder why the aliens are bothering to try to wipe out humanity at all. The middle of the ocean is much harder for humans to defend and it could be a much more powerful position for these particular aliens. Come to think of it, if aliens decided to claim a giant chunk of ocean, there wouldn't be much we could do about it ("Mr. President, I'd like to nuke the Pacific!" "Gosh Gary, that sounds idiotic, you're fired"), so the basic premise of Battle Los Angeles doesn't make that much sense. Or I'm just that much smarter than the invading aliens in it. But I liked the film.

But it doesn't take a very sophisticated reviewer to notice that Battle Los Angeles is plotted identically to Aliens (reviewed here!). If you're looking for the parallels, it's pretty simple. In Battle Los Angeles, the marines are introduced (like in Aliens), they go to the front, which is like when the marines in Aliens encounter the aliens on the colony, they find the civilians and Santos, like finding Newt in Aliens, drive a bus (like the all-terrain vehicle in the classic), and barricade themselves before a firefight which involves one of the people blowing themselves up and ultimately face the Big Bad (in Aliens it was the Queen). Battle Los Angeles lacks the quips from Aliens and the sense of mood is constant and impressive for the sense of futility that pervades the movie.

Unfortunately, the character arcs are almost entirely cliche. Harris is preparing for his wedding, Martinez is married with a pregnant wife at home and Nantz is plagued by his prior mission where the men he led were killed. The lieutenant leading the company is fresh out of officer training (hmmm . . . wasn't Gorman in Aliens on his first actual combat drop?!) and one of the men is the brother of a man who had been in Nantz's last squad. Battle Los Angeles makes a decent showing of attempting to insert some sense of individuality to the characters, but because many of them get glossed over, some seem like real cliches. The most notable of these is Martinez with his pregnant wife.

What the viewer is left with, then, is a pretty solid experience piece. This is The Hurt Locker meets Independence Day and the combat in it is intense. The dialogue is very military oriented - measurements are in "clicks" and the phrase ". . . asset fell off the grid" insinuates authenticity - so the movie feels like what it is supposed to be, a bunch of Marines fighting for the survival of humanity. The only truly disturbing aspect of the Marines buckling up and doing what has to be done is that in the closing credits there are credited members of the military (entertainment liaison), so there is a sense that this could be just one real long advertisement to go enlist with the Marines.

But director Jonathan Liebesman deserves a lot of credit for not making seriously annoying - and common - mistakes that his contemporaries make. Cloverfield and District 9 leap instantly to mind as films where the directors overused handheld cameras to make frenetic movies that ended up as just nauseating. Liebesman seems to have a strong grasp on the idea that if one is making a movie where there are lots of explosions, advancing aliens and realistically obscured eyelines, that the camera shouldn't make the movie more difficult to watch.

Unfortunately, Liebesman seems to be a Hollywood wh . . . um, director, of the caliber who is more determined to make a PG-13 film than a good one. Battle Los Angeles too frequently pulls its punches to make the movie kid-safe. The one use of the f-word comes late in the film and is used to refer to the aliens, as opposed to any of the Marines getting upset over either the casualties the squad is taking or the destruction of their homeworld. The bodies that are seen littering Los Angeles are not frequently burned, maimed or otherwise anything but window dressing and many of the casualties of characters happen very quickly and without too much realism to their demise. The most problematic way the film is cropped, though, is in a scene in the middle where Nantz, Santos and a civilian veterinarian find an alien and basically vivisect it to figure out how to kill it. The creature is never focused on enough to truly tell where the organs they are pulling out are coming from or what they are actually doing.

But for all my griping, Battle Los Angeles has some pretty decent acting. Aaron Eckhart is a favorite of mine and he does not use his trademark smile through the entire film. His smirk is only hinted at and it never reaches his eyes, allowing Eckhart to establish Nantz as a deeply serious and humorless character . . . which makes him the archetypal Marine. The others in the work are convincing, though Michelle Roderiguez seems to have landed in this niche ever since she finished on Lost.

Battle Los Angeles is not troubled by an oppressive or overly bassy soundtrack, so Bryan Tyler deserves some credit for defying expectations in that regard. The special effects do look good, even if there is frequently a lot of realistic warfare going on around the aliens and their vehicles to prevent viewers from actually seeing them clearly. There is no real sense of catharsis to the movie or the few victories that happen early in the film. Even so, Battle Los Angeles is entertaining, worth watching and captivating from beginning to end. And while the DVD release date will almost certainly be August 12, 2011, perhaps by that time viewers will have forgotten how much was spoiled by the advertising and rediscover it as something even more thrilling than it was on the big screen.

For other works with Aaron Eckhart, check out my reviews of:
Love Happens
The Dark Knight
Frasier Season Eleven


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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