Battle: Los Angeles is shot and edited in much the same way as a realistic war movie – quick cuts, shaky handheld cameras, moments of action so blurred that it’s next to impossible to tell who’s doing what to whom – and aims to be emotionally draining as we watch scene after scene of death and destruction. It’s a visceral experience, one in which we’re made to feel immersed and vulnerable. These techniques did wonders for films such as The Hurt Locker and Saving Private Ryan, and they could have worked for Battle: Los Angeles had it depicted a real combat scenario. The problem is that it’s an alien invasion story, and alien invasion stories are innately preposterous. You know something is wrong when the filmmakers add weight to a genre that’s airy by definition.
Movies like this require a certain degree of amusement, a sense of summer popcorn mindlessness. Battle: Los Angeles is dreary and overwrought, and seems to have been made under the misapprehension that it should be taken seriously. Director Jonathan Liebesman labors mightily in an effort to make the film raw and relentless when he should have been aiming for comic book escapism. Leaving the theater, I felt physically and psychologically exhausted, as if I had witnessed a genuine war movie. This is not how I’m supposed to feel watching aliens shoot lasers while spacecrafts blow up buildings. I should have felt energized and entertained. I should have cheered and laughed and applauded. This movie is a lot of things, but fun is not one of them.
Making matters worse, the film falls into the same trap disaster movies often fall into: It goes all out on special effects, but it skimps on compelling human drama. At the start, we’re shown the names of several characters, and this is problematic for two reasons: (1) Because there are too many for an audience to keep track of; and (2) because most of them will be dead before we have the chance to really know who they are. What little we do learn about them is limited to tiresome war movie clichés, including the soldier who leaves behind a pregnant wife. This harkens back to the World War II movies of the 1950s and ‘60s, in which soldiers carried pictures of their wives or girlfriends in their pockets. If you don’t know what inevitably happens to characters like this, I don’t have the heart to tell you.
The plot is ever so loosely based on actual events. In February of 1942, less than three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, an aerial barrage of anti-aircraft artillery illuminated the skies above Los Angeles; it was initially thought to be an attack by the Japanese, but was quickly deemed a false alarm. This did not prevent an onslaught of sensational claims, ranging from a government cover up to extraterrestrial activity. The film, which makes no mention of the incident, technically takes place in the future – this coming August, if I remember correctly. A series of strange meteor showers bombard countries all over the world, heralding the arrival of a hostile alien species looking to steal the Earth’s supplies of water.
One of the cities under attack is Los Angeles. It’s here we’re introduced to Marine Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), who, despite being a twenty-year veteran and ready to retire, is placed under the command 2nd Lt. William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), who quickly realizes that all his training never prepared him for a battle of this magnitude. Because of the life-and-death decisions he made during his last mission in Iraq, Nantz is deeply mistrusted by his platoon. The film is essentially his journey towards redemption; this would have been acceptable had it not come at the expense of hopelessly contrived scenarios, none more obvious than his rescuing of a civilian father and his young son, who Nantz eventually calls “the bravest marine I’ve ever known.”
When the film pauses long enough for the characters to have conversations, we’re hit with awkward dialogue that finds no middle ground between jokiness and melodrama. But these moments are few. Most of the film is an unpleasant roller coaster ride of shootouts and character deaths and a wealth of special effects; I suspect they were spectacular, but alas, the camera rarely lingered long enough for me to notice them. I understand that the intention was to make a realistic movie, but Battle: Los Angeles is not a realistic story, and the filmmakers should have treated it as such. On a personal note, I’m getting tired of films in which Los Angeles gets destroyed by aliens. Between Independence Day and Skyline, you’d swear some filmmakers are holding a grudge. Maybe I’m biased because I live there.
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