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Entries in Battle: Los Angeles (1)

Saturday
Mar122011

Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

Trench War(of the Worlds)fare

It's not easy to admit, but sometimes a movie is so bad that I'll begin writing my review while watching it.  My critical mind is always buzzing, but if what's on screen is so bad, so dull, that I have to focus on something in order to avoid falling asleep, I'll compose and edit on the fly.  Yesterday morning, five minutes into Jonathan Liebesman's Battle: Los Angeles, I'd narrowed the title of this review down to either "Semper Sci-Fi" or "No Cliche Left Behind".  The first, sadly, was already taken; the second may actually be a cliche--but that's not necessarily a reason to dismiss it.

I was completely zoned, watching the same quick cuts to different soldiers gearing up for training exercises and kissing their loved ones good-bye during precious down-time that I've seen thirty times before:  From the guy kissing his pregnant wife before rushing out the door; to the world-weary staff sergeant counting the days until retirement; to the macho best friends joking about "chick stuff" in a flower store ahead of a wedding.  I kept flashing on Roger Ebert's half-star review (which I hadn't yet read), the abysmal Tomatometer rating, and my own mental clock, whose second hand crept like minutes as it eroded the nearly two-hour run-time.

Soon, meteors fall from the sky, all over the world.  News crews capture fuzzy footage of mysterious shapes crawling out of the ocean--that quickly open fire on boats and surfers while marching towards major cities.  A platoon from Camp Pendleton rushes to assist the effort at Santa Monica Airport, which has been established as a Forward Operating Base.  Led by a fresh-out-of-Officer-Candidates-School Second Lieutenant named Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) and his second-in-command's last-minute replacement, Staff Sergeant Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), they carry out orders to sweep the area around a local police station for civilians who didn't make it out during the evacuation.  Much of Battle: Los Angeles takes place during this mission; the men have three hours to get in and out before an air strike levels Santa Monica.

You probably won't be surprise to know that screenwriter Chris Bertolini includes every well-worn war/alien-invasion-movie convention in his script.  You might be surprised to know that this didn't affect my enjoyment of the film whatsoever.  Despite a weak opening ten minutes (and a saccharine closing five), I found Battle: Los Angeles to be a mostly excellent film that does right what so many recent attempts at both war movies and alien invasion movies have done wrong.

Is that a bait-and-switch?  You bet your ass, it is.  But so is Battle: Los Angeles.  If you take out the bookends, you're left with a fascinating bouillabaisse of fiction and documentary elements that combine to make something new and delicious.  In a way, the clichés hold everything together (there's something I never thought I'd write) and make possible this outrageous fusion of Independence Day, Restrepo, and District 9.

Independence Day is the most obvious place to start.  The 1996 mega-blockbuster is, some have suggested, ripe for a re-make/sequel.  Liebesman and Bertolini have rendered that idea moot with their film, lifting story elements directly from it (most obviously--perhaps unforgivably--the post-climax line about contacting military posts around the world with instructions for blowing up the command centers). The key difference is that Independence Day pre-dates both the War on Terror and the Blair Witch Project/Cloverfield era of filmmaking.

Liebesman wisely ditches the cute relationship side stories once the massacre starts.  The body of Battle: Los Angeles is comprised of chaotic street fights shot with the on-the-ground verite of an embedded news crew; though frequent perspective shifts remind us that we're watching a fictional movie--bringing it more in line with Saving Private Ryan.  We get a global sense of the invasion with the intimate perspectives of those fighting the war, combined with the new-century pop sensibility that mass destruction is something to be feared rather than fetishized.

Frankly, this is the movie I wish Restrepo had been.  It's practically blasphemy to suggest that a dumb sci-fi shoot-'em-up could be more compelling and real than an Oscar-nominated documentary about soldiers in Afghanistan--but I stand by that assertion.  Though archetypical, the characters in Battle: Los Angeles are interesting, funny and courageous.  Most of them die before the end credits, and each death--regardless of how far in advance we see them coming--sucks (some of them hurt, but most of them just suck).

Contrast this to Restrepo, which focuses on the soldiers who live while asking us to feel something for the ones who don't, even though we barely learn anything about them--it's the idea that we're supposed to be , by default, deeply affected by every soldier's death in this tragic, unjust conflict.  While true in terms of patriotic consciousness, the reality is that most Americans seem to believe the War on Terror ended the same week the iPad debuted.

We're a distracted nation of ADD narcissists; we need shit spelled out for us.  And the triumph of Battle: Los Angeles is that it's a sober reminder not only that there's a war going on (not against aliens, obviously, but one whose consequences are--or could be--just as dire) but that it's being fought by kids and shell-shocked old men who take the atrocities they've witnessed/committed to work with them every single day.  One can definitely see the pro-military propaganda in Battle: Los Angeles--particularly in the last twenty minutes--but rather than selling the glorification of war, it pushes an apolitical agenda of brotherhood and dedication to country.

This brings me to District 9, which has two major points of comparison to Battle: Los Angeles.  I'll start with visula effects.  District 9 proved that a filmmaker can make realistic-looking alien creatures convincingly share the screen with actors for a relatively nothing budget.  I'm sure the money behind Battle: Los Angeles eclipsed D9 by a country mile, but I was relieved to see that the effects artists employed the same attention to detail as those working under Neill Blompkamp.  Roger Ebert lambastes this film's effects; in particular, the aliens, which he refers to as "stick figures"; and while I agree that the few glimpses we get of the ground troops remind me of Lego's Bionicle toys, I never doubted their realism.

Ebert's weird sticking point suggests that every sci-fi alien has to look cool or conventional in order to be accepted by audiences; he derides the invaders' fusion of biology and technology as lame.  If those are the universal standards for quality aliens, I guess we can just write off the Borg from Star Trek and the visitors from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Ebert also takes a potshot at the look of the ships, which he doesn't feel were designed elegantly enough; again, this logic dismisses the effectiveness of the flying pie slices in Star Wars and Firefly's Serenity).

The second comparison I'll draw to District 9 is Battle: Los Angeles' political allegory.  Neill Blomkamp was so confused and yet so heavy-handed in his Apartheid allegory that I felt like I was watching a Michael Moore documentary from frame one.  On top of that, he abandoned any sense of resonance or purpose less than halfway in (along with the documentary style that opens the picture) in favor of a trite story about an unlikeable, spineless asshole.  Battle: Los Angeles scores points not only for consistency in its tone, but also for using subtext to convey its message.  You might think that watching American troops fighting a war in 2011 is just text, but the film's point--if it can be said to have one--is that the people of Earth are the insurgents in an occupation.

That, too, sounds trite, but it's kind of a brain tickler.  The aliens invade Earth, ostensibly because they need water to survive and fuel their ships.  They launch an unprovoked offensive using weapons that the opposition can't hope to outmatch and show no signs of opening a dialogue--aside from the unstated, "We want what you have.  You are irrelevant."  In our current, real-world global conflicts, it could be argued, America is the unstoppable, imperial force grabbing resources from nations whose populations we could wipe out with the flip of a switch--if only they weren't sitting on top of so much of what we crave.  Battle: Los Angeles paints us as the rebel freedom fighters, and if one were to switch on the news after coming home from the theatre, it's possible--not likely, but possible--that one might have a new perspective on the various riots and coups happening around the world.

Yes, parts of Battle: Los Angeles are cheesy; there are a few too many shots of Aaron Eckhart looking morosely or longingly into the camera; a few too many acts of harebrained heroism; and the scene where a civilian picks up a machine gun to fend off encroaching aliens could have used a bit more context (was he a munitions expert, or just a gangbanger in a nice shirt?).  But overall, I think this is the best, most effective assemblage of war and sci-fi genre tropes we've seen in a long time.  Perhaps if Columbia Pictures had sprung for Aaron Sorkin to polish the dialogue, the clichés wouldn't have been as distracting.  But as it stands, this is a solid film that deserves to be seen.

Note: I spent more time than I'd intended criticising Ebert's criticism, which I hadn't intended to do.  I was so puzzled by his half-star rating that I read his review shortly after arriving home.  I found it to be not just overly harsh, but also dishonest in light of similar films he's praised.  I can't speak to his mood, perspective, or any of the myriad baggage we bring with us into any movie; but there's a definite "someone shit in my cereal" tone to his write-up that I think undermines his analysis--hence my mini-review of his review.