Friday, March 11, 2011
Aliens have been pretty busy invading LA. Last year the city was besieged in "Skyline." Now it's once again the site of alien invasion in "Battle: Los Angeles" (opening March 11 throughout San Diego).
"Battle: Los Angeles" opens promisingly with an alien assault in full swing on the city. I thought, "How cool is that to just jump right in and not waste any time with unnecessary set up." But my hopes were quickly dashed as the film jumped back in time for some obligatory backstory on its team of Marines. So now the film grinds to a halt as the filmmakers try to make us care about characters that will be picked off quickly and indiscriminately. Considering the amount of character development they get these Marines might as well just have a big number on their backs representing the order in which they will be picked off. That would be a more honest representation of how much the filmmakers care about them. Not only do we not bond with these characters but the action is so chaotic and the characters so interchangeable that we can't tell who dies when. (Although the film does make a very concerted effort to have as many racial, gender, and religious group represented as possible.)
The story mixes "Independence Day" (aliens invade earth) with "Saving Private Ryan" (sending people in to get others out) and then packages it all up to look like a Marine recruiting video. I half expected an end title saying, "The Few. The Proud. The Marines." And then a website address where you can sign up. Hoorah!
The film sends a group of Marines to go into heavily alien-infested territory and extract some folks from a police station while a massive battle for earth rages. Why a few human lives are important when the fate of the planet is at stake, who knows?
Aaron Eckhart plays a Marine staff sergeant agonizing over having lost some men in battle on a prior mission. Eckhart, an immensely talented actor, tries really hard to deliver his clichéd lines with conviction. But too often his lines come across like something that would have been written for one of those Zucker Brothers' "Airplane" movies. Take for example a scene where the action stops so a marine can confront Eckhart about the men he lost in battle. To which Eckhart rattles off each deceased team member's name and serial number, and then punctuates the scene with, "But that's not important right now." Damn. Where's Leslie Nielsen when you need him.
There's also silliness involving children ("You're the best little marine ever"), a feeble romantic interest, and John Wayne antics (to which a young soldier asks "Who the hell's John Wayne?"). The responsibility for this mess rests squarely with director Jonathan Liebesman and writer Christopher Bertolini, who have created little more than a video game movie. I guess they figured that since video games are outselling movies what better way to guarantee a good return at the box office than to make their film look like the popular "Call of Duty." But at least with a video game it's you that's in the game and you're engaged because you're fighting for your life. It's very different when you're watching a bunch of characters that you don't care about.
Now if the action in the film had been better I could have turned a blind or at least forgiving eye toward the film as a whole. But Liebesman delivers the dullest type of action – firing endless rounds of ammo. Yawn. This just gets old fast because Liebesman has no sense of style only relentless and numbing persistence. John Woo can create bullet ballets but Liebesman wants a gritty sense of action, which means a lot of shakycam and overcutting so you don't know what the hell's going on and don't really care.
This leads to another big problem I have with alien invasion films – if you make the alien enemy so powerful and indestructible then the film should be over in ten minutes with the aliens annihilating the human race. But Liebesman, like so many others before him, wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants an impressive alien enemy force but he wants the humans to be able to hold out and put up a fight well beyond the point of credibility. It just makes taking that leap of faith necessary for a sci-fi film all the more difficult to make. Plus, in the case of "Battle: Los Angeles" the aliens are not interesting in any way. Their design, from an effects point of view, is bland and derivative of so much we have seen before, and they have no personality.
"Battle: Los Angeles" was so bad that it almost made me long for last year's "Skyline." At least "Skyline" spent a mere tenth of "Battle" Los Angeles'" $100 million budget to put its silliness on the screen. And it had the one genius moment in which a human engages in hand to hand combat with an alien and then pulls the creature's brain out. Now that was fun. "Battle: Los Angeles" is too somberly seriousness for any such nonsense. It puts its nose to the grindstone and just keeps pushing forward no matter what.
There are a couple kind words I can spare for the film. I liked Michelle Rodriguez's character and I always like her. They don't make an issue of her gender, she just fights along side the men and proves her worth along the way. I like Aaron Eckhart and his sincere effort to make lame lines sound plausible. There's a fun in the field alien autopsy. I also like the fact that our press screening was interrupted by a fire alarm that caused the film to stop and the theater evacuated. That was probably the most exciting thing that happened during the film.
"Battle: Los Angeles" (rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, some language, and brief sexual content) is like watching someone else play "Call of Duty" so you're not very engaged in the action because you're not the one controlling it and there's not enough narrative to make it compelling as a story. Maybe video games are creating a generation of filmgoers and filmmakers who are not looking for stories just action. But the irony is that as Hollywood tries to imitate the video game environment, video games are trying to be more cinematic. Take for example the trailer (see below) for the video game "Dead Island," it has more storytelling in it than "Battle: Los Angeles," and more sense of cinema and style. Unfortunately, "Battle: Los Angeles" leaves off in such a way that we could have a "Battle" franchise with films highlighting other cities across the U.S. or across the globe. Around the world in 80 battles. Hoorah!