Battle: Los Angeles ***½
If 2011 is the year of the alien invasion movie (and with no less than eleven alien themed movies being released year – including Paul, I Am Number Four, Mars Needs Moms, Apollo 18, Attack The Block, Green Lantern (okay, this one’s a superhero movie but it’s got aliens in it), Transformers: Dark of the Moon (and this one’s about giant robots but they’re from outer space), Cowboys & Aliens, Super 8, The Thing and the currently unscheduled Area 51 not to mention highly anticipated TV series Falling Skies – in addition to Battle: Los Angeles, it most definitely is) then Battle: Los Angeles is probably the centrepiece around which all the year’s other alien themed films revolve, seemingly positioned (after 2009’s District 9 anyway) as the film that perhaps kick started Hollywood’s current obsession with all things extraterrestrial, an obsession that already look set to flow over to 2012 as well.
Judging by the trailers many will already have come to the impression that this is a film that looks remarkably like last year’s critically maligned Skyline, just with a bigger budget and much better cast, and comparisons are entirely understandable as there is much evidence to suggest that Colin and Greg Strause, the directors of Skyline – which, interestingly, was actually shot in Los Angeles while very little of Battle: Los Angeles was, tax incentives bringing the production to Louisiana where sets of Los Angeles streets were constructed – may have stolen the idea for that film from the makers of Battle: Los Angeles. The Strause Brothers and their visual effects company Hydraulx Filmz actually did effects work on this film and legal action has been pursued against them due to the fact that their project only emerged following their work on this one and over possible allegations that they have may have utilised resources allocated to this film to render the somewhat too impressive visual effects (for a film with just a $10 million budget) in their film.
Additionally, with Skyline beating Battle: Los Angeles to cinemas, there has been major concern that the box office for the latter might suffer as a result – although this is a result that I doubt will come to pass. Skyline was a cheaply made sci-fi actioner that may have proven reasonably amusing and boasted impressive effects for the size of its budget but ultimately failed to be especially spectacular and was hindered by an all too limited setting and generally so-so acting from its cast. Battle: Los Angeles on the other hand is a whole other alien entity. Inspired by a real life incident known as the Battle of Los Angeles, which occurred during World War II on the night of 24-25 February 1942 and saw an unidentified aircraft enter the airspace above Los Angeles prompting a blackout of the city and the firing of over 1,440 rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition by the military – who believed the aircraft to be of Japanese origin, the incident coming shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbour – despite there being no evidence of any enemy aircraft and the event being declared a “false alarm” in the aftermath – although the event described above has very little to do with the events depicted in the film itself aside from the incident being incorporated into the film’s marketing, one of the first posters released for this film featuring the infamous image of the unidentified aircraft appearing over Los Angeles on that night in 1942 – Battle: Los Angeles is a film with much greater ambition than Skyline. Whereas that film was directed by a couple of filmmakers who may be well respected for their effects work but are generally considered to not be very good filmmakers, Battle: Los Angeles is brought to the screen by director Jonathan Liebesman, whose previous track record, including horror films Darkness Falls and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, may do little to suggest that he is the right man for the job but who has impressed Hollywood so much with his work on this film that he has already been hired to direct Wrath of the Titans, the sequel to last year’s hit Clash of the Titans remake. His previous films may not be especially encouraging but the amount of interest that is being paid towards him for his work on this film certainly suggests a job well done. But does Battle: Los Angeles actually live up to its hype or does it end up being simply a big budget version of Skyline that is every bit as so-so as that film was?
A meteor shower that no one can provide an explanation for is heading for Earth but it quickly becomes apparent that these are no ordinary meteors as they are slowing down on approach. The US military swiftly begins preparations for what they believe to be an attack by an unknown enemy and, as alien beings begin an all out attack on many of the world’s major cities, it becomes apparent that not only are these preparations completely necessary but they are also largely futile. The alien enemy is powerful and it has one goal in mind – wipe us out so they can take our most precious resource, water. Marines, however, don’t just give up when the going gets tough and a team sent out to rescue civilians in Los Angeles, the last city that hasn’t been lost to the alien enemy, is about to face the full force of the alien threat. Marine staff sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) must lead his platoon – including 2nd Lieutenant William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), Corporal Jason Lockett (Cory Hardrict), Corporal Nick Stavrou (Gino Anthony Pesi), Corporal Kevin Harris (Ne-Yo), Lieutenant Corporal Steven Mottola (James Hiroyuki Liao), Private First Class Shaun Lenihan (Noel Fisher), Corpsman Jibril Adukwu (Adetokumboh M'Cormack) and Technical Sergeant Elena Santos (Michelle Rodriguez) – on a daring mission to not only rescue a group of civilians stranded behind enemy lines – including Joe Rincon (Michael Peña) and his son Hector (Bryce Cass) as well as veterinarian Michele (Bridget Moynahan) and young girl Kirsten (Joey King) – but also face the full on power of the aliens themselves as they try to destroy the enemy command and control centre and give their comrades in arms a fighting chance of taking back Los Angeles.
The people who cut together the trailer for Battle: Los Angeles did a fantastic job. The trailer suggested a truly epic war movie that just might be one of the greatest alien invasion movies ever made, what might result if you were to cross Black Hawk Down with Independence Day. The film itself, however, falls far short of the high expectations created by that trailer, being nowhere near as epic as it has been made to look and not quite as spectacular either. This isn’t to say that the film isn’t good, though, as, while it may be far from being one of the best alien invasion movies ever made and is also a long way from being one of the most fun, it is without a doubt the most intense one seen to date, even if the score occasionally betrays this intensity slightly. From the opening moments which throw us straight into the midst of the alien attack in progress – although after these opening moments we are briefly taken back to just before the attack in order to establish each of the main characters before the action begins – there is an extreme level of intensity present that never dies down. This intensity makes for an alien invasion movie that is very different from many that have come before – even Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds which focused entirely on civilian characters as opposed to the military ones in this film – even though there are definitely echoes of Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 from time to time. With the film shot entirely hand held style, we are thrown straight into the midst of the battle, the film having an almost documentary-esque look and feel (one of the ways in which the film is reminiscent of District 9) and the action being shown entirely from the perspective of marines.
More of a war movie that features aliens as its enemy than an alien invasion movie per se, the action here is brutal, raw and real, not to mention being very very loud, largely comprising of full on gunfights between the marines and the alien antagonists. These action sequences, which prove far more realistic than those seen in other alien invasion films, are generally very exciting and build up to a large scale climax that ends the film on a high note. The visual effects are from the best you will have seen but nonetheless prove to be quite spectacular, the design of the alien ships, while clearly taking inspiration from District 9 at some points, being very cool and occasionally a bit different and director Jonathan Liebesman wisely holding off on showing us much of the aliens – albeit perhaps a bit too much as, for a film about an alien invasion, there is perhaps a bit too much focus on the marines over the alien aggressors – for most of the film, when we do see what they really look like – most of the film sees them fighting in mechanical suits (again reminiscent of District 9) – the aliens being appropriately icky and gross, while Los Angeles is made to really look like a war zone – although it’s obviously all CGI as none of the film was actually shot in LA.
The scenes of devastation depicted are almost harrowing to witness, even more so in light of recent global events which make watching this kind of thing considerably less entertaining. Suffice to say this film isn’t exactly light viewing and there isn’t much in the way of comic relief to lighten the mood either: hardly ideal escapism.
With the film mostly just being a series of action sequences – albeit very well done ones – there isn’t much of a plot to be found here, what plot and background there is largely being filled in through radio communications and television news footage that show us the bigger picture and the events going on in other cities around the world with the primary action taking place entirely in Los Angeles, the film being very similar to Skyline in this regard. Unlike that film, however, the scale and scope of the action is much bigger and the writing is also considerably better, with better characterisation, dialogue and plotting although this is not to say that this film excels in these areas either. The dialogue based scenes that fill in the gaps between action sequences lack the punch that the action scenes have and generally fail to engage the attention, the dialogue not being explicitly bad and generally being tolerable but being extremely unmemorable and typically very obvious, particularly in the typical marine banter. Early scenes establishing the principal marine characters one by one prove passable in making us believe in them as fleshed out human beings but largely the characters are just typical marine grunts given obvious back stories and the result is that the film lacks clear characters to root for.
This proves to be a slight problem as too much focus is placed on the marines in scenes that are clearly intended to give a dramatic edge to the film but aren’t interesting enough to really care about. The acting, which also betters Skyline by a huge margin, is nothing special but the cast members generally convince as military grunts facing a situation they are completely unprepared for and when they are called on to show emotion they prove perfectly able at it, particularly true of leading man Aaron Eckhart and Michelle Rodriguez, the latter being extremely easy to buy as a soldier. The roles of the civilian characters, though, really give the likes of Bridget Moynahan and Michael Peña little of note to actually do, the former’s character seemingly being written as a veterinarian simply so that she can assist in a scene that depicts the characters ripping apart an alien in an attempt to figure out how to kill it. So, Battle: Los Angeles is hardly the great film it could have been but the Los Angeles setting does make a change to the usual locations that are seen in alien invasion movies as does the fact that this film doesn’t showcase the destruction as famous landmarks (sorry if anyone was hoping to see the aliens taking out the big Hollywood sign) and the action and effects are proficiently handled, making for a film that certainly has the capacity to please as a movie for a fun night out, if not on any deeper level (although on an interesting note the film does prove to be unintentionally poignant in one scene showing a piece of news footage that features the headline “Meteors fall off the coast of Tokyo” which bears an uncanny parallel to recent events in Japan).
So, better than Skyline but still flawed, this is not one of the very best alien invasion movies ever made but, on its own terms, it proves entertaining and effective enough to give it a go and generally good enough that the sequel hinted at by the film’s open ending might be reasonably welcome.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)