Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 27, 2014)
For a new take on the alien invasion genre, we go to 2011’s Battle: Los Angeles. A meteor shower hits the Earth, but it quickly becomes clear that these aren’t ordinary space rocks. Instead, they’re vehicles used to transport aliens, and they contain armies here to take over the planet. They land outside of major population centers, all of which contain ample supplies of water.
While the entire world deals with this threat, we focus on attempts to rid Los Angeles of the aliens. Battle shows us the efforts of a Marine platoon led by 2nd Lt. William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) and Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) as they take their soldiers to rescue stranded civilians in Santa Monica. Along the way, they fight the aliens and hit upon many snags.
I hate to follow the broken record path, but until I stop reviewing movies with excessive hand-held camerawork, I’ll continue to beat the drum. The MPAA needs a new rating to let viewers know that they’re entering a Shakycam Zone. Who shoots these films, bobblehead dolls?
Unfortunately, shakycam shows no signs of abating, and Battle gives us a new example of the style’s problems. Here’s the thing: filmmakers seem to believe that the documentary format lends a sense of urgency and vitality to their films, but the opposite is true. Some exceptions exist, but shakycam usually robs movies of their drama and thrills.
Battle re-establishes this. At its core, this should’ve been an exciting action flick. After all, it barely bothers with plot or character development. Sure, we get some hints of Nantz’s troubled past, and a quick prologue throws out some basics for a few of the other Marines, but these do little to allow us to invest in the characters. The Nantz thread is the only one that remotely goes anywhere, as the others just fill a little time; most go forgotten pretty quickly.
With little in the way of character information and a plot that never rises above the level of “shoot the aliens”, Battle requires vibrant action to succeed. I think it might’ve been able to deliver the goods if only it abandoned the shakycam. The cinematography makes it damned near impossible to tell what’s happening most of the time, and the style adds no realism or urgency. Instead, it just becomes a distraction. I don’t feel like I’m part of the action when I see all that bobbing and flailing photography; I just feel annoyed, as I can't figure out who’s doing what to whom.
Since Battle attempts to deliver almost two hours of nearly non-stop action, the lack of visceral thrills lands into the “fatal flaw” category. “Dull” isn’t a good word to attach to an action flick, but it fits here; a few sequences provide a bit of drama, but most just feel so confused that they fall flat.
Indeed, too much of Battle comes across like the filmmakers’ desperate attempts to make this a big old earth-shaking action movie. In addition to the pointlessly busy camerawork, it comes with virtually nonstop score. Does one second of this movie pass without music? Probably, but I left it with the impression that it delivered wall-to-wall score, and that became a distraction, partly because Brian Tyler opts for a “drama pushed to 11” sensibility. There’s no range to the music; it’s all climax all the time.
The same can be said for the movie itself. It allows for so little downtime that it feels like the entire film wants to be one long finale. This doesn’t work, as it throws off the pacing and threatens to harm the actual finish. I will admit the real conclusion does deliver the movie’s best punch, but that’s due more to the stakes involved than the staging; in terms of the manner in which the scene progresses, it feels a lot like everything we saw before it.
It doesn’t help that Battle never establishes its own identity. The plot clearly borrows heavily from War of the Worlds, and the movie includes so many obvious “homages” to other flicks that you’ll want to bring a scorecard. You can check boxes when you note the clear influence – that might be more fun than the movie itself. Derivative flicks can still be fun – I remain an unabashed fan of Independence Day - but they need to do more than act as an amalgam of other movies.
Battle: Los Angeles has all the prerequisites necessary to be an exciting, dynamic sci-fi action movie, but it fails on almost all accounts. It’s simply too much of a mess to deliver the goods.