‘Battle: LA’ isn’t quite the disaster one might expect
Directed by Jonathan Liebesman
Written by Christopher Bertolini
Before I attended the midnight screening of Battle : Los Angeles on the day of its release, the first couple of reviews had begun to trickle through onto IMDB from screenings earlier that day. One of them gave it a scathing 1/10 review, calling it the worst example of the evolution of Hollywood action-cinema. The other gifted it a very favourable 8/10 and called it a nigh-perfect blend of Cloverfield meets Independence Day and about as close as you’d ever want to get to being a marine in a real-life alien invasion.
So the lofty hopes instilled in me by that sensational initial teaser (scored gorgeously by Johann Johannsson’s heart-wrenching 2006 track ‘The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black’) had now eroded to a cautious anticipation. But I’ve long awaited Director Jonathan Liebesman to create the film that I know he has in him. His first feature was Darkness Falls – the bland but amiable horror-light flick based on the tooth fairy myth. Apart from its startling opening sequence, it was completely forgettable. His second feature, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning was a gorgeously shot but wholly soulless entry into the over-stuffed torture-porn genre and was one of the few horror films to actually sicken me. But then he redeemed himself with the straight-to-dvd concept piece The Killing Room, which was far from perfect but showcased plenty of talent and ambition. Amidst it all, however, he made the short film Rings, which was released on DVD as a stopgap between the first USA Ringu remake The Ring and its awful sequel. At only 16 minutes, it is far and away his greatest achievement so far, and I would argue the best rendition of the Ring franchise. It was also the only project that he wrote as well as directed -omething to perhaps bear in mind.
So then we arrive at the mega-production that is Battle : Los Angeles. Costing $100,000,000 to make and with a massive and effective advertising campaign, huge hype and little to no preview screenings available for press, it was something of an unknown commodity. Well now that it’s been released and has managed to become one of the most critically loathed films of 2011 whilst also topping the box office and launching itself into what could be a highly lucrative franchise I thought I’d share my two cents on the matter since my feelings are somewhat controversial it would seem.
Battle : LA is not a dreadful film. Let’s get that out of the way first and foremost. Many critics have chastised Liebesman’s directing, others the editing, calling it confused, messy and amateurish. Plenty have criticized the effects work and even the action sequences, the score, and the cast. All have lambasted the trite script. Well in my humble opinion they are wrong on every single count, except one.
It’s important to judge this sort of film for what it is and the problem with Battle : LA is that it clearly wants to be something far more than it has the capacity to end up becoming thanks to its root problem – the script, written byChris Bertolini, whose previous credits consist only of the mediocre 1999 John Travolta A Few Good Men wannabe The General’s Daughter and a tv-movie called Madso’s War. One would think that there’s possibly a good reason why Bertolini has not written a feature screenplay in twelve years and now we have the proof.
But more on him in a bit, first I want to look at what Battle : LA clearly wants to be – which is an earnest, honest, brutal, war movie set amidst an alien invasion. It wants to plonk the camera amidst a small band of troops and throw the audience as close as possible into the reality of the kind of experience a real alien onslaught would create. Almost a documentary, but without the faux-reality gimmick. So that earlier comparison to Cloverfield meets Independence Day seems rather apt about now.I think it’s actually more alarmingly close to Friday Night Lights (the movie) meets Independence Day, as it has the same style of the former and po-faced USA saluting patriotism of both of them. The thing that most reviewers won’t admit is that it actually comes so close to succeeding that it’s hugely frustrating when it falls on its face. This is not meant to be a fun, balls-to-the-wall action film. It shouldn’t be a character-driven piece either and it’s certainly not intended to be a brain-dead summer blockbuster. It essentially wants to be a very dry, realistic showcase of modern urban warfare with the twist being that the enemies are gooey, screeching creatures from another world instead of some arbitrary insurgents from the Middle East.
To this end, the direction is actually pretty fantastic and personally I found the editing to be superb. I watch a lot of movies these days where lazy, shaky camerawork melds with hasty editing to create a mess which makes action scenesimpossible to comprehend or enjoy. I know many reviewers found this to be the case with Battle : LA but not I. For me it was a miracle that the editors managed to create so many cohesive and well-paced battle scenes when there was clearly such a deluge of shaky camera-angles and footage. I understood clearly what was going on for most of the movie and found the style, verve, and look of the film to be genuine and it really appealed to my hopes for the movie in creating a realistic portrayal of this science fiction premise.
Likewise the special effects (oddly headed up by the Strause brothers, who wrote and directed their own LA alien invasion flick, Skyline, last year) are superb. The design of the creatures themselves is largely hidden from clear view thanks to plenty of long shots and the aforementioned shaky filming style. But we get just enough to keep us satiated without ever showing too much for us to find them un-threatening. The wide shots of LA in ruins and the mechanised airborne scouts zipping overhead are also gorgeous to behold and are all layered with just enough depth of field and grainy focus to make them feel as gritty, tangible and real as the rest of the movie.
I also have to give the actors a break. None of them excel and most hardly linger in the memory but they all do the best they can with the material at hand. Aaron Eckhart is worryingly convincing as a one-toned American Second Sgt. and it’s just a real shame his character wasn’t given any more depth or complexity to balance out the over-bearing pathos of it all. Michelle Rodriguez is as grimacing, angry and bland as always.
So then we arrive at the elephant in the room; the script. The narrative itself I have no problem with; it delves into the fray quickly and doesn’t really let up until the frenetic finale. It has little time for the characters and instead is more akin to watching a documentary in a warzone. Some may lament that but it sounds great to me for a unique sci-fi movie. The problem being it is perforated with a handful of truly atrocious ‘emotive’ scenes of supposed character development and expose that are the worst possible examples of pure cookie-cutter Hollywood tripe. I’ve no problem with the inane and juvenile banter that litters some of the incidental scenes and moments in the movie, I’ve watched enough real-life squad documentaries to realise that is just how soldiers tend to jostle each other, This Is War and even Restrepo showcase that with abandon. But the sporadic, supposedly emotional diatribes in this movie are so sickeningly cliché that they literally manage to sabotage everything else that this movie has going for it.
To be honest, when this movie is great, it’s brilliant, and when it’s bad, it’s actually so bad that it’s hilarious, which normally would make for a fun film in my books. But when the great moments hinge upon the entire set-up and style of the movie being gritty, realistic and unrelenting; then there is no room for such glaringly basic mistakes as allowing a churlishly sincere screenplay as this slip through the quality radar. I rarely single crew members out but Chris Bertolini should not be allowed to work in Hollywood again.
As I stated before – it’s massively frustrating as this is a thin sub-genre that I would love to see executed perfectly and this movie had the budget, the crew and the set-up to make a genuinely realistic alien invasion movie. Instead, thanks to the script, the result is a visually impressive war movie with little to no soul and some cringe-worthy scenes dotted (thankfully) sparingly amidst a barrage of well-made tactical warfare.
I can’t emphasize enough that this isn’t a thrilling action movie. It’s not a celebration of incredulous stunts or enjoyable set pieces; it is a gritty look at urban warfare in a sci-fi setting, but with a hokey screenplay it ends up more akin to watching an overlong trailer for the best First Person Shooter you’ll never get to play.
You’ll just be forgiven for exiting the cinema thinking you’ve just been brainwashed into joining the military.