Monday, March 14, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles (Jonathan Liebesman, 2011)

Alien invasions have been a part of American cinema for a long, long time. We don't seem to tire of stories of destruction reigning down from the skies, brought on by an extra terrestrial menace that seems insurmountable. Battle: Los Angeles attempts to write a chapter in that long and storied history.

Jonathan Liebesman did not have my full confidence as I was walking into this film. Having directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, the sequel to the remake of the 1974 classic, and the horrendous pile that was Darkness Falls, saying I was a little nervous about being subjected to two hours of really, really dumb with a side of narrative excrement is putting it lightly.

I'm going to start this review off by doing something I probably shouldn't, making a light comment about the other reviews I've been reading. Sometimes, films come along and the critical press lay upon them unfair praise or unfair criticism less due to the film's actual qualities or deficiencies than the over all atmosphere of the film industry and the film press. In reading a number of other reviews of the film, it seems to me that this is the case with Battle: Los Angeles.

I don't disagree that there a number of problems with Battle: Los Angeles. The script is laughably bad. There are sequences in the film which should have just had titles on them to tell the audience that they were about to experience an emotional "character moment." The dialog in those scenes is stilted, ham fisted and practically screams "I am a human being that you need to have feelings for and identify with." Growing up as a fan of genre films, I've seen more horror and science fiction films with absolutely horrible scripts than I can count, and there are moments in this film that are as terribly written as any of those second rate, B- movies I've suffered through. Aaron Eckhart is unfortunately saddled with the responsibility of handling the majority of that half baked verbiage. Eckhart was absolutely great in Thank You for Smoking, and was equally good in bringing Harvey Dent to the big screen, with all of that characters history and the moral dilemma it represents in The Dark Knight. There is a part of me that feels real sympathy for the man, because this script could discredit all of the goodwill he's accrued as a result of those two films. I also know that he would have had to read the script before agreeing to star in the film. The problems with the script are significant.

All of that being said, there are some elements of this film that work extremely well. The action set pieces are great. They manage to instill some real tension, to be exciting and well thought through enough to be able to keep track of everything that's happening without feeling staged and rote. I can't disagree more with the reviews I've read that have taken aim at the action scenes in the movie. They were well thought out, well executed, exciting, and the special effects aren't breaking any new ground, but there wasn't a moment during the film that I caught myself thinking, "Wow... that looks really bad," as I'm want to do when confronted with crappy C.G.I. (I'm looking at you Clash of the Titans.)

Battle: LA has some of the makings of a very good film. It's essentially the story of how the military would react to an alien invasion, told through from the perspective of one Marine staff sergeant, who is trying to retire (facepalm!) when assigned to a new unit during the reaction to the invasion. The military's reaction, as depicted in the film, is pretty believable. Throwing the whole, "he's trying to retire" cliché in there is a near perfect example of what's wrong with the actual script, where there are good ideas that could have examined further but are hamstrung by poor characterization. The underlying problem with the film is that it seems to be confused about what it actually wanted to be. If it hadn't strayed away from the action sequences and tried to run off into more "serious emotional" territory, it may have been a more successful film on both counts. Trying to use the stupidly belligerent moments to establish character and drama was a direct misstep. Those same things could have been established through the actions of the characters in the midst of the battles and the continuing travel. It would have made more sense, and seemed a good deal less forced to have used moments and elements during the action because these characters are professional soldiers, this is their element, and this is who they are. Stopping off to hide out somewhere, and using that time to get all weepy doesn't suit the characters or the narrative well. We'd be able to learn as much as we need about each of the characters by following them through the action and following their reactions, what they do well, what they don't, etc. Their relationships with each other could have easily given the audience the window into the humanity of each character without trying to pull us through that same window by the nose.

It seems the writer, and probably Liebesman, couldn't decide what previously successful film they wanted to rip off. Where they most succeed is with throwing Black Hawk Down and Independence Day into the blender and painting with what comes out. When they start trying to mix in a little bit of Saving Private Ryan and Platoon, it turns into a suicide mission and the audience is the enemy. It just falls apart when the action stops for too long, and there are a few long periods during which the audience is being bludgeoned with the blunt force stupidity of the script. If the film had stuck with the more relentless action sequences, and the roller coaster ride they provide, this could have been a great popcorn movie. I almost feel the "dramatic moments" had to be inserted in order to meet the movies budget or because someone involved with the film making process decided this beaten like a dead horse variety of characterization was the only way an audience could invest in the story. I know that the action has to slow down intermittently so that the audience isn't able to settle into that kind of heightened state, because that eliminates the exact purpose, but these are unnecessarily long periods, done poorly, that end up killing some of the momentum of the film.

As much of a mess as this movie is, I thought the action sequences were put together well enough to not completely hate it. I'm basically ambivalent toward it. What I liked about it, I really liked, and what I didn't like, reminded me of falling out of a tree and hitting many branches on the way down. True story. I was seven or eight. No injuries, just pain and fear. The pain in this case was inflicted by the script and the fear came from how long those long "dramatic sequences" lasted and the feeling they might never end. I don't know whether or not I can suggest seeing this in the theater. The action sequences are worth seeing on the big screen with a theater quality sound system, but shelling out your hard earned money for what amounts to half a film.

If you feel it necessary to see this film, in the theaters Fandango is the place to go.

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