Sunday, March 13, 2011

In Defense of "Battle: Los Angeles"

I figured we had a couple of years before we were due for an "Independence Day" remake, but you know what? I don't mind. "Independence Day" was fun, dumb movie and "Battle: Los Angeles" is a fun, dumb movie, that the critics are savaging right now for not being more than what it is. Oh sure, "District 9" raised the bar for this kind of alien encounter story, and "Battle: Los Angeles" suffers by comparison on just about every level. However, there's no reason "Battle: Los Angeles" has to measure up to "District 9" when its ambitions are so much smaller. All it wants to be is a big, loud, entertaining summer action film, and that's exactly what it is - except, of course, this is the middle of March.

Story? Plot? There's not much of one to speak of. Alien invaders attack the earth, making landfall off the coasts of several major cities, including Los Angeles. Cue the panic and mayhem when they emerge from the waves and start shooting. "Battle: Los Angeles" follows one platoon of Marines as they set out to retrieve a group of trapped civilians before an impending airstrike levels Santa Monica. Characters? Your standard set of war movie types and tropes. The most prominent among them is Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), who is on the verge of retirement, and still haunted by his last mission, where he lost several of the men under his command.

And then there's Doc (Adetokumboh M'Cormack), an African-born doctor-in-training, Martinez (Ramón Rodríguez), straight out of officer's school on his first command, Lockett (Cory Hardrict), whose brother was one of those killed on Nantz's last mission, Lenihan (Noel Fisher), still wet behind the ears, Kerns (Jim Parrack), who has PTSD, Harris (Ne-Yo), who is getting married, and Stavro (Gino Anthony Pesi), a transplanted New Yorker. A late arrival is Sgt. Santos (Michelle Rodriguez), who fills the aggressive female soldier quota for the film, and also functions as a handy plot device. Is it an absolute certainty that most of these characters won't survive to see the third act? Yup.

I expect that a lot of the rancor directed at this film comes from the fact that a lot of the techniques used by director Jonathan Liebsman have been done before, and to much better effect. Good luck finding an original frame in the whole picture. The shaky-cam documentary style is pretty old-hat by this point, though the action isn't as difficult to follow as I've seen in similar films. Several segments appear to have been lifted from modern war movies like "Black Hawk Down" and "The Hurt Locker." Most of the visuals related to the aliens, especially the big command and control tower, are so similar to "District 9" that you have to wonder if "Battle Los Angeles" simply borrowed a few of their templates. We never really see much of the alien invaders, who are perpetually encased in battle suits, and really exist only as targets to be shot at.

However, the real Achilles heel of the whole venture is the script. The dialogue is absolutely awful. Multiple characters repeat the same line or tidbit of information several times. The moments of melodrama are so awkward and obvious, you'll find yourself mentally ticking off the common cliches as they come up. "It was only a dog"? Check. "That came out of nowhere"? Check. "I led us straight into that ambush"? Check. Going out in a blaze of glory? Check. The big, emotional, pre-battle speech? Check. That last one falls to Aaron Eckhart to deliver, and though Eckhart is a very good actor and was putting considerable effort into the performance, I had a hard time keeping a straight face. There's not a single thing in the film that isn't telegraphed far, far in advance, with the help of some incredibly corny orchestral music, and to call the story predictable would be a generous understatement.

And yet I liked "Battle: Los Angeles." I thought it was a lot of fun to watch, the over-the-top jingoism of the Marines was refreshingly earnest and positive, several of the action sequences were a blast (literally), and the film's intentions were always very straightforward. Here are the good Marines on one side, and here are the bad aliens on the other. Things go boom and the audience cheers. End of story. Would I have liked some more context and complexity in the plot, more character depth, and better lines for poor Aaron Eckhart and the rest of the cast (a notably multi-ethnic, well rounded one)? Of course I would. But did these flaws keep me from enjoying a solid, by-the-book genre exercise that was never meant to be more than a big, souped-up alien invasion B-movie? Nope.

This is not a great film in any sense, or even a very good one. But it's harmless. And it's so much better than some of the alternatives, like those creatively offensive "Transformer" movies. If all you're looking for is a good time out, I say turn off the brain for a while, see the film, and enjoy the carnage.

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