Saturday, March 19, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Everything spoiled ahead!

Battle: Los Angeles makes a great trailer, complete with mysterious music, shots of aliens blasting at buildings and helicopters, and screaming humans running for their lives. That must account for it’s boffo opening weekend numbers, as they say in the biz (38 million in three days). It’s one of those movies not screened for reviewers beforehand. Which usually means it’s trying to avoid inevitable bad reviews for its opening day.

So is Battle: L.A. bad? It’s not as good as the trailer suggests, but it’s not bad quite enough to hold back preview screenings either. The premise is kindergarten simple: what at first appears to be a meteor shower turns out to be aliens invading earth.

All narrative drive is shown from the view of a platoon of Marines stationed in Los Angeles. We are introduced to each character as if this were a documentary (or a disaster movie from the 70s) with superfluous name titles and ranks. But all of this means nothing when the movie deals only in cardboard characters and boilerplate plot-points.

We follow the wet behind the ears 2nd Lieutenant and his platoon, bolstered by Aaron Eckhart’s aging staff sergeant on his retirement day who, rumor has it, got most of his last squad killed in Afghanistan. The platoon gets its first mission: to evacuate all citizens from the Santa Monica coast. This while the aliens quickly show their fangs and start to, in the words of one faux scientist on the tube, colonize earth. Meaning, destroy all human beings so the bad aliens can harvest our water supply.

Sunny Santa Monica streets are turned into a war torn tableau thanks to the aliens on a rampage. These are nasty aliens. After we get a good look at them, we see that they act and move like fleet footed chrome soldiers from a Transformers’ sequel. There are various types: the grunts, the captains, and god-like ones that seem to almost float on tendrils like squids. All metal and gun power, they take orders from a centralized communications orb, the size of ten city blocks.

The first half of Battle: L.A. is bad. I groaned, I moaned, I wanted my money back. It was all superfluous setup details that were dated and hackneyed by the time they were used in movies like Earthquake and Airport ’75. But then something happened. I started rooting for Aaron Eckhart as the forty-something sergeant, helping the younger Marines navigate their way through their first war. Dead bodies litter the streets, shots of high rises getting leveled create a frightening backdrop.

The camera work is shaky, and not in a good way. During scenes where we are introduced to the characters, the composition jerks for no reason, reminiscent of this shaky-cam style introduced in TV commercials in the 80s, then co-opted by shows like NYPD Blue. It worked for Blue for a couple years, but quickly became a parody of itself. Here it’s incredibly distracting, even during scenes of chaos as the aliens blast away at anything that moves (how is it their weapons are nearly identical to ours?). I figure the quick cuts and camera shake mask a budget that doesn't have the scope to fully render the aliens throughout the whole movie.

Regardless of budget, there are some impressive effects. At one point the platoon, having picked up some civilians along the way, end up commandeering a city bus and get onto one of the many elevated highways in L.A. Of course they get stuck without a clear exit, surrounded by the deadly killing machines. It’s here the move takes on the not too subtle tones of a war movie and from here on Battle acts as much a movie about Marines on a mission then humans battling aliens.

In quick succession these Marines figure out not only the best way to kill an alien (“Shoot to the left of where their heart would be.”) to how to take out their communication centers. The aliens are not just attacking L.A., but are hitting all the major cities of the world. Each attack coordinated by those floating communications centers. The rest of the movie follows the remaining troops as they fight to take down the L.A. communications center.

The final battle is as exciting as it is preposterous. Perhaps just slightly less crazy than the ending of any number of humans vs. aliens flicks, topped by the daddy of them all, Independence Day. Where Independence Day was mostly about the fun, Battle is a grim, realistic take on what actual ground warfare would be like with an invasive species.

With images of destruction, and, in the beginning, a big wave overtaking part of a beach, it wasn’t the most calming movie I could have chosen for the weekend of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The movie’s images hit a little too close to home, are a little too disturbing, and a little too realistic at times.

Admittedly, since I was a kid I enjoyed watching destruction on screen: Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, Poseidon Adventure, Godzilla, Them. I like things when they blow up, I suppose like any strapping twelve year old. But those movies from my youth were G or PG rated outings. The PG-13 and R ratings of today's end-of-days disaster movies allow for breathtaking scenes of utter death and destruction, dead bodies rendered much too clearly.

The Towering Inferno
It’s no longer a fun time at the movies, but an overwhelming digital effects experience. Instead of recommending Battle: Los Angeles, even for you twelve-year-olds raised on video games and zombies, I suggest you buy the Towering Inferno instead. At least that movie offered some high rise thrills, star power, and a body count kept below two hundred.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Sunday, March 13, 1:00 matinee. Price $8.25. Viewed solo. Snacks-Lucky Country Aussie Style Soft Gourmet Strawberry Licorice (stale).

Coming Attractions:

Apollo 18. What really happened on this moon landing (scary stuff) and why we never went back (boo!).

Bad Teacher. Cameron Diaz is a sexpot teacher, a role she was born to play if this trailer is any indication. With Justin Timberlake as a hot, nice-guy sub.

Untitled Cate Blanchett Film. I didn't catch the name, just that Cate's in it. Lot's of special effects, but I didn't catch the plot either. I suppose you can google it (type in: upcoming Cate Blanchett movie).

Priest.I have no recollection of this trailer. Sorry.

Super 8. The kind of movie Speilberg (who produced) would have made when he was ten. It's about a bunch of kids making a little home movie, on Super 8 film, about an alien invasion. And then, guess what happens? Do I really have to spell it out for you? Let's just say, they inadvertently capture some cool stuff on film.

X-Men, First Class. An origins story, telling you how Professor X and Magneto met. If those names mean nothing to you, then maybe you should watch The King's Speech again. Takes place during the Cuban missile crisis.


Robin said...

Dell -- I agree that this is probably a bad time for an alien invasion movie posing as a disaster film! Too realistic. Actually, I'm looking forward to seeing "Jane Eyre." Nice review!

Dell Smith said...

Thanks Robin. I hope Jane Eyre doesn't turn out to be a disaster movie too. If you know what I mean.

Liz's Mom said...

I enjoyed reading this review.

It is amusing the way you combine innocent appreciation of any redeeming elements with scathing remarks about all the bad stuff.

The Towering Inferno was great.

Sorry about the stale licorice.

Dell Smith said...

Thanks Liz's mom. If I stick with a bad movie for 2 hours, I try to find something redeeming.

Full confession about the licorice: there was a hole in the bag when I bought it from a misguided boxcutter, and since I bought it from a mom and pop store in Lowell, I decided it was okay to eat some of it. It tasted alright, it was just hard. A reflection of the movie I suppose.

Off to another movie today: I'll prepare my own snack--better quality control.