Now, I like seeing Los Angeles in flames as much as the next guy, but after seeing Battle: LA, I just couldn’t help but wonder where the rest of this movie went. It feels like the first part of a much bigger franchise, and perhaps it will be, but the characterizations are weak, and while most people probably aren’t expecting a deep plot, having something to root for — maybe something as simple as knowing the names of the characters — would have gone a long way to turning this hollow disaster flick into something more substantial.
Battle: LA, or Battle: Los Angeles, or even World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles is not a bad movie, but it sacrifices so much in the name of speed, and it relies so heavily on cliches, that you are left with no real attachment to anyone on screen. There is one section that attempts to artificially create a connection by introducing a situation that is supposed to be filled with drama and tragedy via a couple of kids, but when it is over you will not care in the least.
Many of us have had high hopes for this film. Even the most ardent and hardcore film critics have a soft spot for a good disaster flick, and when you mix in a battle on familiar soil against alien invaders, the potential for awesomeness is apparent. The idea of a movie set in a warn-torn LA just looks and sounds cool. The result though is an average, but mostly forgettable action flick that fails to grab you and does not live up to its potential. There are a a few cool parts, but not enough to save the bad ones.
Take THAT LA
If you have seen even the smallest and briefest of trailers for Battle: LA—or even if you have seen a single poster for the film—then you know the plot. Aliens invade the planet, and the film focuses on the fight in Los Angeles. Everything else is details.
The star of the film is Aaron Eckhart, who plays Marine Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz, a guy that has seen his fair share of action — maybe too much — and after hitting his 20 years he is planning on retiring to civilian life. But before he can move to Florida and play shuffle board, a series of meteors is heading for Earth, and the world is on alert. When it appears that the falling objects are slowing down, the military is mobilized and Nantz’s retirement is refused.
The movie speeds through this section, and within minutes of the opening credits, a full blown invasion is underway. Cities across the globe are under attack, and it is obvious that there is no peaceful solution. The invaders want our water and our resources (and our jobs, if some politicians are to believed), and they are prepared to wipe out all humanity to get them.
Battle: LA is about the fight, not the war. There is no real sense of scale, instead the action focuses on one particular group, led by a fresh out of the academy Lieutenant, and supported by Nantz who replaces the unit’s own sergeant that is gone for some vaguely explained reasons. But Nantz’s arrival is met with anger, and his past actions may have cost the life of the brother of a corporal in the squad.
The unit is soon tasked with heading to a police precinct to answer a distress call and evacuate survivors before an airstrike levels the beach areas. From that point on, you can expect a handful of clichés that will drive the movie until the third act, when things pick up and the mission changes.
Michelle Rodriguez also appears around this time as an Air Force Technical Sergeant who arrives with a vital piece of plot point. She and most the cast do good jobs, but they just don’t have much to work with.
The third act of the film is fairly fast-paced and entertaining, but the first two acts are slow and at times border on annoying. While jumping into the action and skipping a long buildup to the invasion sounds great, it also robs the film of any suspense. Sure, you know what will happen, but in films like these, or any film where there is a big battle, having that calmness shattered by the first moment of the attack is expected, because it works. Think Saving Private Ryan‘s push to the beach, or even Independence Day‘s countdown timer reaching zero. In Battle: LA, the emphasis is entirely on the small group of Marines, and the early parts of the invasion are mostly seen through news reports that people are watching. There is a flash forward which begins the movie, but putting aside the cheap nature of flash forwards in general, it screws with the pacing badly.
But, once the battle has begun, things are odd. As you would expect in reality, the aliens are well armored and difficult to kill. Sure, that makes for some tension, but it’s not much of a battle. Later, the soldiers and a civilian discover the weak spot on the aliens, and — as if by magic — the Marines then become the equals of the invaders. That is far more interesting for the action, and the battles are much better when it is an actual battle and not just one side getting murdered, but it doesn’t make a lick of sense.
Next Alien Invasion, Leave the Kids at Home
Once the squad reaches the station, two civilians — including the lovely Bridget Moynahan — join the film. Michael Pena also appears, but with the two come three terrible decisions on the filmmakers’ part: children.
The children in this film have one mission, and that is to be a problem later on. You know it is coming — you might hope it won’t but you know it is. Of the three kids, one has a few moments of development, while another is a weeping plot point, and the other literally disappears for most of the movie.
The children seem to be there for one reason, and one reason only—to put everyone in jeopardy which in turn is meant to humanize the Marines, who up to that point were mostly nameless.
The film tries to offer a handful of moments before the invasion which are meant to relate the characters to the audience. Those moments though are all generic, and most of the squad will be forgotten, as will their plot points. They are pretty thin to begin with.
Sergeant Nantz’s retirement is forgotten so quickly that you wonder why it was ever there, and the only remaining plot thread — that of the soldier blaming Nantz for his brother’s death — feels forced. In fact, almost all of the plot threads designed to humanize the characters feel forced. And then there are the kids. Ye Gods, the kids.
There is one reason, and one reason only to have the kids in the movie, and it is exactly what you hope it won’t be. In a moment of crisis, when the Marines are under fire and trying to escape, the crying, weepy kids are suddenly rendered utterly incompetent, and are so fear-stricken that people die trying to protect them. I hate them all, and most audiences will too.
Attack of the Action Movie Cliches
When you have a movie that is neither plot drive, nor character driven, you are left with a movie based on the setting. In this case the setting is an alien invasion, and unfortunately director Jonathan Liebesman (The Killing Room, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) and writer Christopher Bertolini choose to drive the action with clichés, which further highlights the weak characterizations. You have the green Lieutenant who does exactly what you hope he won’t, the grizzled Sergeant with a heart of gold and more courage than John Wayne, the civilian deadweights, and on and on. The Marines are also stereotypes in general, as they are all the bravest, toughest SOBs on the planet. And hey, Semper Fi, but without any character to go with it, the film feels shallow and forgettable.
There is also a cliché unique to alien invasion movies that is both ridiculous and powerfully dumb, but it is convenient so it keeps coming back. Say you are an invading force. Your military is 100 times tougher than the invadees, and things are going well. But then there is that one thing — be it a command center, or a mothership, or whatever — that “exhaust port on the Death Star” like design flaw, that leaves you vulnerable. Not just vulnerable, but totally defeatable. It is not the best of planning to have that one structure be the lynchpin of your entire operation, and if it is, defend the damn thing!
Sure it makes sense that in a movie with a superior alien force, the only way to even the playing field in movie terms would be to have one element that could shift the balance. In the terms of Hollywood it makes sense, but it has been done, and it is a bit dumb. Just had to throw that out there.
Now, while there are several bad plot decisions, no characterizations worth mentioning and clichés galore, there are several redeeming qualities to Battle: LA. Once the action picks up, it is fairly exciting. The dumb kids slow it down, but that doesn’t stop some of the fights from being entertaining to watch, even though you probably won’t really care too much when Private Thatguy bites it.
The final third of the movie is also fairly entertaining, as the Marines decide that if anyone is going to destroy LA, it is going to be humans (and possibly budgetary concerns), and so they decide to fight back. Again, the magical discovery of the aliens’ weakness is helpful here, and even though it doesn’t make a lick of sense to have the invaders who were just hours ago nearly invincible suddenly become average in strength, it makes for good action scenes. There is also a time jump from the middle of the night to mid morning, but that is besides the point.
The conclusion of the movie would be an awesome setup for a sequel, and now that the setting is firmly established, a follow-up movie might actually be a pretty decent.
The best way to describe this film is to say that it is basically a video game brought to life. In fact it would actually make an awesome video game, and with a few more enemies to shoot, you wouldn’t even need to change the plot even a little. The problem with that though is that video games make you buy into the characters by controlling them. You relate to them because you are them. In Battle: LA, you don’t control anyone, and no one really stands out that you can relate with, except maybe Eckhart. The result is a movie where you neither care, nor know most of the characters.
The effects are more or less solid. There are a few moments when the alien CGI looks weird, but the shots of LA burning are fairly memorable. The deserted and ruined streets of LA are also interesting, but you never really get a feel for the scale of the destruction. You either see the close up shots of a single torn up street or maybe the interior of a building, or a wide shot of the city in flames. There really aren’t any moments were you witness the destruction firsthand. There is a reason that disaster movies always pick on landmarks–it connects you to the action.
Battle: LA is a forgettable movie that has a few cool moments, but it just takes the easy path over and over again. The cast turn in solid performances, but they aren’t given much to work with. There are never any moments where you will be shocked, and as much as you might expect it, with maybe one or two exceptions, none of the scenes are really that cool to look at—and those that are, are all in the trailers.
So if you are bored one afternoon day, or you just have an intense hatred of Los Angeles, you might want to check out Battle: LA. If you are into little things, like a compelling storyline, good characters and originality, maybe Battle: New York, or Battle: Fort Lauderdale, or whatever, will be a better fit when it comes out.