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Review: ‘Battle: Los Angeles’

Aliens 2, Hollywood 0

Above: Aaron Eckhart stars in "Battle: Los Angeles."

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!

Human under attack in "Battle:Los Angeles"

Sony Pictures

Above: Human under attack in "Battle:Los Angeles"

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.

Extracting civilians while aliens take over the planet in "Battle: Los Angeles."

Sony Pictures

Above: Extracting civilians while aliens take over the planet in "Battle: Los Angeles."

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.

Michelle Rodriguez in "Battle: Los Angeles."

Sony Pictures

Above: Michelle Rodriguez in "Battle: Los Angeles."

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!


Dead Island Announcement Trailer

Trailer for video game Dead Island

Companion viewing: "District 9," "Monsters," "Independence Day"

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | March 11, 2011 at 8:13 a.m. ― 6 years ago

Kill! When I first saw the posters or the trailers, my first thought was a sequel to SKYLINE. If you recall, that movie, which now seems like it was out long ago, ended with a set-up for a possible or obligatory sequel. Why would two studios release two so similar projects so close together? Not that it hasn't been done before. I haven't seen the film but the trailer looks pretty exciting and kind of in the dark vein of SKYLINE which I would add to the "Companion viewing." (MONSTERS, though less commercial lower in budget, was more honest.) As to your comment about going into the backstory--yes it probably could have been omitted (I haven't seen it yet) and instead have the audience learn about the characters as the story developes instead of taking a time-out. The filmmakers should have gone the the Walter HIll School of Filmmaking!

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | March 11, 2011 at 8:37 a.m. ― 6 years ago

Ah Walter Hill. He knew how to deliver action. If memory serves me, Sony tried to sue Universal and prevent SKYLINE from being released because they felt it ripped off BATTLE: LA and would take away from their box office. I left SKYLINE off the companion viewing because I can't really recommend it. It's so bad as well. But it did have the human yanking alien brain out that I love. Thanks for the comment.

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Avatar for user 'randolphslinky'

randolphslinky | March 11, 2011 at 8:38 a.m. ― 6 years ago

I thought Will Smith already took care of this problem in a previous Hollywood release. I'm sure, I distinctly remember that while the aliens were capable of tossing other people around like rag dolls Will Smith was able to sucker punch one in the face and knock him out cold. How is it this is happening again?

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | March 11, 2011 at 9:46 a.m. ― 6 years ago

Perhaps those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, or to translate into Hollywood terms: if something made money before, do it again... and again... And before Smith, didn't Gene Barry and Tom Cruise give aliens a cold to get rid of them? Enjoyed your comment.

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Avatar for user 'dubbio'

dubbio | March 11, 2011 at 10:41 a.m. ― 6 years ago

I guess I'll save my money and watch the Syfy movie "Battle for Los Angeles" instead. Or save my time and skip them both. :-)

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | March 11, 2011 at 5:14 p.m. ― 6 years ago

How about go and watch The Day the Earth Stood Still or District 9?

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | March 13, 2011 at 6:52 p.m. ― 6 years ago

I'm crossing my fingers and hope you mean the 1951 original--which would also put it light years beyond District.

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Avatar for user 'To_Tell_you_The_truth'

To_Tell_you_The_truth | March 14, 2011 at 12:24 a.m. ― 6 years ago

Why is it so easy for Hollywood to churn out these movies about Aliens attacking Earth and being our enemy???! Why is it that Stephen Spielberg seems to be the only one in my memory who has the wherewithal to do something positive such as "E.T." ?

Why not show aliens interacting with humans on some kind of benevolent or uplifting way? I guess that won't get ignorant masses into the box office.
I mean , if aliens could travel light years across the universe , I hardly doubt anything short of a nuclear bomb would even put a tiny dent in their armor. The whole concept is totally not plausible.

They would either travel all this way to do something like bring humans up to the next level psychically or they would annihilate us in a split second because we are in the way some super interstellar highway as in "Hitchhikers guide to the Universe"

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | March 14, 2011 at 12:04 p.m. ― 6 years ago

TO TELL YOU, didn't you ever see THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (either version), ALIEN NATION or DISTRICT 9? Heck, if you really wanted to get technical about it, I would throw in any of the SUPERMAN movies!

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Avatar for user 'alain_j_perez'

alain_j_perez | March 14, 2011 at 12:47 p.m. ― 6 years ago

I'm going to be straight to the point. I went to see this movie on Friday night. Usually I will not go watch "video game" theme movies; to me they are just movies for teen kids to bring a date to the theater. But I was surprise with this movie, because it actually turned out to be a really good movie, at least in my point of view.

I'm a former Marine myself and I feel like the director knocked it off the ballpark with the actors imitating the Marine life and attitude. To all those civilians out there, this is just like it is in the Corps, and I don't expect you to understand it. The story to get you to know the characters of the movie will help out by developing the characters even more, I think it was just enough for the audience to care and understand the person but not too much to make the movie boring; and who cares if your favorite character gets picked off by the aliens ten minutes into the movie. In real life bullets will hit who ever is on its way. The enemy doesn't stop to think about how much you care for your buddy, an enemy will not point his/her arms to the new guy in your team that nobody really cares about.

I was happy with the amount of character development the director devoted to the aliens. I think that’s really what makes an alien movie really bad and almost unimaginable, think District 9. The bad guys were there to kill the inhabitants (us humans) and we didn’t need to know anything more about them, except perhaps how to kill them.

This movie is a WAR movie, and it excels at it. The action is non-stop and gut wrenching. I couldn’t stop to look away for one minute. That is just my opinion and I understand that everyone will not like this movie, but I would question their remarks and opinions about this movie. Not every movie needs to be a love story, tear jerker, how the selfless turn their life around etc etc. This movie has plenty of great things going for it, including a great war movie, self sacrifice and great inside into how Marines live, work and play.

By the way Beth is not serial numbers, they are Social Security Numbers.

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | March 14, 2011 at 10:31 p.m. ― 6 years ago

Yes missionaccomplished, I was referring to the original DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. I forgot about the remake...

Alain- thanks for the info on serial numbers vs. SNN. I appreciate your insights into the film. I don't have your background and maybe if I did I would view the film differently. I'm glad you were able to enjoy it. I was just hoping it would have delivered more.

Thanks for all the comments.

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