Roger Ebert just gave Battle: Los Angeles a 0.5 out of 4 star review. I happened to enjoy the movie a considerable amount more than the old curmudgeon, especially when you take my low expectations into account. This is not a movie for the intellectual crowd: the dialogue is atrocious, most of the characters are under-developed, and the motivations behind the alien invasion are murky at best. But if you’re looking for some solid action and passable special effects, Battle: LA fits the bill.
This is one of the best summer movies that didn’t actually come out during the summer. It’s a broadly painted action flick, complete with the requisite explosions and action one would come to expect from summer fare. That may carry a negative connotation to some (depending on your tastes, of course), but I thought the film was actually pretty well executed. There isn’t much of a story – aliens invade, no one really knows why – but we’re given just enough of a basic outline to start pulling for the characters by the end. My roommate says it’s Independence Day meets Cloverfield, and I think that’s a really apt description.
It’s hard to tell whether the concept for this movie is lazy or brilliant. By not providing any legitimate exploration of the alien culture and concentrating on a small group of soldiers in the wake of a global event, it positions the film as the first of a franchise; the interesting part is not the straight sequels that will surely follow, but the potential of stories told at the same point on the timeline as this one. There was talk of a Cloverfield sequel in which the monster attack on New York City is told from the perspective of different characters, a similar idea that ended up not coming to fruition. The odds are no better for this happening with this franchise, but it’s not far-fetched to assume that we could see a Battle: Miami (or its equivalent) in the next few years.
Director Jonathan Liebesman has been making the rounds in the trades over the past year, at one point in contention for Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Superman film (a job which ultimately went to Zack Snyder) and actually securing the director’s chair for the sequel to Clash of the Titans. His tactic here was to attempt to replicate the dramatic documentary style used to such great success in the 10-part HBO masterpiece Band of Brothers: the handheld, snap-zoom happy, shaky cam feel most widely associated with Paul Greengrass and the Bourne films. To some degree, Liebesman succeeds; the style works best when we’re pulled into the action with the squad and following them through the charred streets of L.A. in search of a way out. But this style of camerawork really isn’t needed in the post-title sequence of the movie in which we’re introduced to all the characters. Snap-zooms and bouncing framing aren’t needed when two characters are having a conversation in a florist shop. Aside from this minor quibble, I like the look of the movie and think the cinematography has an immersive quality to it.
The first act of the film has a strong horror vibe. We don’t get a good look at the aliens until later, so we’re left wondering what they look like and when our heroes go searching through a dangerous zone on the way to rescue some civilians, we jump as they turn every hazy corner, waiting for something to jump out at us. There’s some legitimate suspense here, and it works well for the most part. When we finally get a look at the aliens, I wished we hadn’t. They’re terribly designed and awfully rendered, a jerky CG army that seems cobbled together by ideas from other films: biologically controlled guns (ahem, District 9), snaky tentacles (Independence Day, Predator), and the upright posture of your typical movie extraterrestrial.
The special effects need to be really special to kick a movie like this to the next level, but the same derivative design work we see with the aliens is replicated with their ships (smaller ones resembling Serenity and larger ones straight out of District 9). There are a lot of visual effects in this movie – especially in the final act – but if you’re looking for a stunning presentation, I imagine you’ll be disappointed. I thought the film’s biggest accomplishment was its depiction of the city of Los Angeles, since it was shot on location in Shreveport and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (The Santa Monica scenes were particularly evocative of their true-to-life locales.)
The dialogue is terse and bland, not allowing any character to step out of the shadow of his or her stereotype. Michelle Rodriguez and Michael Pena give supporting performances exactly in line with your expectations, but hip-hop star Ne-Yo rose far above the eye-rolling I’m sure you did when you read his name in the cast list. Aaron Eckhart carries the film, not because of his character (or the cheesy speeches he’s prone to give), but because of the actor’s charisma and screen presence. Eckhart commands the screen every second he’s on it and his defined jaw seems tailor made for action hero roles. To be clear, he’s way better than this film would indicate and if you’re unfamiliar with his work, check him out in Thank You For Smoking. (I also happen to think he’s one of the best parts of The Dark Knight.)
I’ve highlighted a lot of the things that I didn’t particularly care for here, but Battle: Los Angeles knows how to entertain an audience. The action (lacking in effects as it may be) is intense enough to make it worth a watch, and the sound design is effective and very well done. Though this movie takes cues from other films and doesn’t manage to equal any of them, this is passable entertainment and a good precursor to Summer 2011. Until next time…