Battle Los Angeles (United States, 2011)

March 09, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Battle Los Angeles Poster

Perhaps it's a backhanded compliment to acknowledge that, as would-be "event" films about alien invasions go, Battle Los Angeles is superior to both Independence Day and Skyline. Nevertheless, the movie is likely to miss the mark for anyone in search of something more than a noisy, kinetic way to spend a couple of hours. Of the roughly 110 minutes of non-credits screen time accorded to the story, about 90 of those are taken up by a "you are there" perspective of firefights with aliens. That means a lot of shooting, enough explosions to make Michael Bay happy, and a fair amount of dying. It also means confusion resulting from an overreliance on hand-held cameras. If the intent is to convey to the viewer the chaos and disorientation that occurs in the middle of a pitched battle, Battle Los Angeles succeeds. If the goal is to unveil a coherent narrative, it does not.

Watching Battle Los Angeles is akin to observing someone else play a video game with top-notch production values. For a while, it's fun, but immersion is born of involvement. Take away the interactivity, and it's a considerably less entertaining experience. In that way, this movie is a bit of a tease; the viewer is never pulled in the way the filmmakers want him to be. For about 30 minutes - maybe a little more, maybe a little less - Battle Los Angeles is fast-paced and energetic, but the repetition kills the momentum and, by the time all the shooting has come to an end, the production has overstayed its welcome. It might be different with well-developed characters or a story that offers more depth or breadth, but the movie is predominantly pyrotechnics and, as impressive as some of those are, they don't warrant two hours worth of screen time.

To its credit, Battle Los Angeles gets off the ground running. The backstory is conveyed economically and the characters are introduced quickly and cleanly, without the soap opera-ish subplots that pollute a lot of disaster movies. Granted, clich├ęs abound, but at least we don't have to suffer too much through faux character building. The downside of this is that we never develop much interest in even the most prominent character, Sgt. Michael Nantz , who is only marginally more recognizable than anyone else because (a) he has more screen time, and (b) he's played by recognizable actor Aaron Eckhart. Beyond Nantz, there aren't many standout faces. Exceptions include Lt. William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), because he's in charge: Joe Rincon (Michael Pena), because he's a civilian; and Sgt. Elena Sanchez (Michelle Rodriguez), because she's a she. Everyone else blurs together and, if this was Star Trek, most of them would be wearing red shirts. When one of them is killed, we're not entirely sure which one he is. Someone should have studied James Cameron's Aliens for a primer on how to quickly give personalities to a group of marines in a bad situation.

Battle Los Angeles opens with a 20-minute "prologue" in which we are informed, mostly via TV news reports, that a cluster of meteors impacting Earth's oceans near populated shore areas are actually extraterrestrial invaders. Their weaponry is superior to ours but they appear to be ground-restricted (no air support). Forward military bases and civilian population centers are quickly overrun. In Los Angeles, Santa Monica is being sacrificed. The air force will begin a barrage of bombing in three hours; a unit led by Lt. Martinez and Sgt. Nantz has that long to get into the contested area, rescue survivors taking refuge at a police station, and get out. That element of the story takes up more than half the running length and unfolds much like a "quest" or "mission" in a video game.

With the exception of the occasional exposition-laden scene, there isn't much dialogue, which is fortunate considering how cheesy some of the lines are. The actors are all surprisingly good in these undemanding roles. Eckhart brings a gruff likability to his part and there are times when he almost transcends the one-dimensionality of his character. None of the other actors are as successful in imbuing underwritten individuals with more than a scintilla of humanity, but they try rather than merely sleepwalking through the part on the way to cashing their paychecks.

The special effects aren't as numerous or omnipresent as one might expect from an alien invasion motion picture. For the most part, the extraterrestrials are seen in the distance, silhouetted against the sky as they attack from the high ground. The use of shaky, handheld cameras allows the filmmakers to be less precise during action scenes than they would have to be if events were being recorded using a steadycam. This is director Jonathan Liebsman's first big budget feature, although he has titles like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning and The Killing Room on his resume. Whatever his previous endeavors might have taught him, one unlearned lesson is that the path to sustained suspense lies in putting a well-developed character in harm's way. No one in this film comes close to being partially developed, let alone "well-developed" so the relentless, non-stop firefights eventually grow tiresome.

Still, for those who are more interested in cinema that's purely visceral and visually energetic (albeit chaotic), there's some value in Battle Los Angeles. More importantly, it isn't as insulting as Skyline. Many of its lapses are consistent with genre-wide problems, where big concepts can have difficulty making the transition into strong screenplays. As alien invasion motion pictures go, this is a minor effort and its release in late winter, when multiplex audiences are only beginning to come out of hibernation, is well-timed. It's not a summer blockbuster but neither is it the complete garbage movie-goers expect in January and February.

Battle Los Angeles (United States, 2011)

Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Ramon Rodriguez, Ne-You, Bridget Moynahan, Michael Pena, Michelle Rodriguez
Screenplay: Chris Bertolini
Cinematography: Lukas Ettlin
Music: Brian Tyler
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:56
U.S. Release Date: 2011-03-11
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1