Movie Review: Battle: Los Angeles
The Charlotte Observer
The general consensus after the morning screening of “Battle: Los Angeles” was that it’s meant to be a recruiting video for the Marine Corps, though I hope to high heaven that’s not the case. Any “Marine” who thinks entirely in clichés, imagines his bullets will never miss an enemy – an enemy with superior firepower, who virtually never hits him – and has pure, endless testosterone flowing through his veins should remain at a video game console, where the makers of this movie have obviously spent a great deal of time.
The film begins promisingly enough, with unidentified aliens launching a joint attack on Earth’s major cities. We never learn for sure why they’re here, though a scientist suggests they intend to gather sea water for fuel. Instead, we’re plunged right into combat after a brief prelude, in which we meet soldiers we’ll never really get to know.
The film takes Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” as its model: American forces are fighting behind enemy lines to get back to safety, with no idea where the next assault on them may begin. They have a fixed amount of time to get to cover, they have virtually no military support, and they’re almost hopelessly outgunned.
As in “Black Hawk,” we learn a single thing about each enlisted man: One has a pregnant wife, one’s studying to be doctor, one lost a brother in battle and so on. But we don’t get to know them well enough to feel anything when they go down under the aliens’ incendiary bullets.
There the similarities end. Director Jonathan Liesbesman doesn’t know how to set up an action-lull-action rhythm the way Scott did, and he’s not helped by a musical score that rolls over us like a squadron of tanks.
Writer Christopher Bertolini adheres with absurd fidelity to soldier stereotypes: the unready lieutenant fresh out of training, the unerringly brave staff sergeant who rouses him to action – played by Aaron Eckhart, who brings sincerity to the underwritten roles he so often accepts – and even the wisecracking guy from New Jersey who hot-wires a bus. (“Newark! Represent!” he exults.)
For a while, the film sets pulses pounding. The handheld camera gives us the usual battle-as-chaos view, which almost always makes sense, and the action in the streets of Los Angeles has the right gritty, hand-to-hand feel. But the movie continues to ramp up the energy level higher and higher, long past the point of absurdity.
Nor does there seem to be any kind of subtext, as there was in even the silliest science fiction of the 1950s. In those films, creatures from outer space represented a vaguely defined menace to our way of life – usually Communism – that was beaten back by the American virtues of teamwork, sacrifice, courage and diligence.
I don’t think the “Battle” filmmakers are equating these aliens with any kind of terrestrial threat, such as al-Qaida. Nor do I sense any ugly metaphor about brown-skinned aliens who flood across the border and threaten to overwhelm Los Angeles. This is simply a case of providing something menacing as a target for our soldiers to hit.
This superficiality might not matter if the plotting were better, but the movie fails even there. The chief stumbling point is the one that undid Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds:” The alien command center on Earth is the size of a skyscraper, yet it was somehow planted under the surface of Los Angeles without attracting attention or leaving a massive crater in the ground. (Do these things grow out of acorns?)
So predictable is the script that we know exactly who will die and who won’t – and, in some cases, even when. (Any time a departing soldier is told, “I’ll see you soon,” that reunion ain’t gonna happen.) The biggest irony of this project is that it was made by a company that calls itself Original Film but has produced perhaps the least original movie of the year so far.