Friday, March 11, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles - Theatrical Review




Release Date: March 11, 2011

Up until now alien invasion films have always focused on a global scale and had some rather one dimensional or cookie cutter characters populating them. Battle: Los Angeles solves one of those problems while only mildly addressing the other but at least when it decided to step into this over crowded genre it put both feet in and went for broke without ever looking back.



Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC 30 at the Block in Orange
Time: 12:01 am March 11, 2011
Projector Type: Digital 2D

Biases:
Loves: Aaron Eckhart, alien invasion movies
Likes: Michelle Rodriguez, serious war films
Neutral: War film cliches
Hates: Nothing actually
Finally: Somebody made a realistic alien invasion war film



This is a pulls-no-punches type of  movie, it comes at you with such a ferocious energy right from the get go and doesn't ever really let up until it is over. I have heard from different sources all over the Internets that this was going to be our alien war film...but done as realistic as possible (which even sounds silly as I write it). I had heard the names Black Hawk Down mixed with Independence Day passed around a lot which sounds amazing and horrible at the same time. The question then became whether or not they could dissect the good parts from ID4, the few there were anyway, and fuse that together with everything that made the Ridley Scott war epic as hard hitting and raw as it was to make the quintessential alien war epic. The answer to that isn't as easy as I would have liked it to be but I can say without a doubt that for me it hit every note that it shot for and gave me exactly what that trailer promised, a gut wrenching battle against an unknown enemy in the urban battle zone known as Los Angeles.

After getting a quick glimpse of the initial attack we are taken back by 24 hours to get introduced to the stereotypical soldiers that we will be spending the next two hours with on the battlefield. They are all dealing with their daily lives such as preparing for a wedding or coming to grips with the death of a loved one but we end up following Staff Sergeant Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) mostly as he prepares to leave his military career behind him after dealing with a tragic event while in combat, which hasn't made him too popular around the barracks. The entire time we are watching these men go through the paces of life though there is the impending threat of the meteor shower heading towards Earth and what it brings with it.

The battle for Los Angeles has begun.

Once those meteors enter the atmosphere they begin to plummet into the oceans just outside all the major cities around the world. As we watch the local news reports from the beach we begin to see some shadowy figures appear out of the surf and everyone watches in horror as innocent civilians are suddenly fired upon. It doesn't take long before everyone realizes these are not meteors, our soldiers are suited up and heading out in no time to confront whatever this extraterrestrial threat is. After assembling at the Santa Monica Airport, Nantz's squad led by a fresh graduate out of military school, Lieutenant Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) is quickly given orders to proceed to a police station deep behind enemy lines that had been overrun but still has civilians trapped inside. They have a time table though, within three hours the air force is going to do a bombing run over the city to try and wipe out any and all enemies they can. It is up to their squad to go in and get those civilians air lifted out before that happens.

As I said, this film isn't trying to be campy or lighthearted like your Independence Days or even the more recent atrocity Skyline. If I had to compare its tone to any related films in the genre it would have to be War of the Worlds (2005). But where that film focused squarely on the personal drama involving a father and his children with the war mostly off screen, Battle: LA gives us the perspective of the soldiers on the ground that are fighting what almost seems like a lost cause with the war right in our faces.When our marines hit the streets to make their way to that police station they are put into an urban battle environment that comes off as completely authentic and horrifyingly real. The fact that they are up against alien creatures almost seems like a non-factor at some points as they fight for their lives.

Nantz looks on in horror as attempts to deal with the situation.

But it is a factor because these are aliens and we learn just as quickly as Nantz and Martinez do that their tactics aren't going to cut it. Some how their position is almost always compromised, they unload massive amounts of ammunition into them but they just don't seem to die and most importantly they have no clue as to the true size of the alien enemy's forces. This is a war film about soldiers being in a battle against an unknown adversary that has invaded our homeland for the single intent to wipe us out. Lives are lost just like in any war and the impact felt here in a film about aliens invading is no less potent that if it were lost to a human foe. I think that is where the brilliance of this film lies for me. It is in the approach and execution of such a well worn genre that won me over in the end.

The whole film plays out in a series of skirmishes as we follow our squad of marines from one point to another. As they proceed on their mission they are almost forced to become experts on what they are fighting. I appreciated that these marines are professionals but given their circumstances are forced to adapt and think outside the box for immediate solutions to their problem. One of those moments occurs early on when they retrieve a wounded alien creature and through a rather gruesome dissection process try to learn where its vital organs are so they know where to shoot it. It is ideas like that where I began to really feel the intensity of their situation, that if they don't learn as much as they can about their enemy none of them will survive the fight.

The civilians aren't as safe as they think they are with their armed escort.

Another aspect that the film nails is the intimacy of following a single group and learning things as they do. Thankfully there are no shots of iconic structures from major cities around the world being destroyed (how many times can we see the Eiffel Tower and the Rome Colosseum be blown up anyway). We hear random news reports informing us of key information throughout the course of the film but we never know any more than our marines do which only helps us identify with them and their situation. It isn't until they join up with a lone tech officer Sgt. Santos (Michelle Rodriguez) that they realize the true scope and magnitude of everything that has happened since they left base camp. Once they know they are on their own it becomes a whole new ball game. But nevertheless we never cut away from them and we only discover new Intel on the aliens as they do.

Which leads me into the aliens themselves, I mentioned before that at some points it feels as though they are more window dressing and not really the central focus. That is a good thing for those keeping count because any time an alien film starts to get wrapped up in the creatures themselves and feels obligated to over explain things it tends to get silly and drain any tension that has been built up. That is one of the major strengths of how Battle: LA works, we know next to nothing about them and any hidden tricks they have for our marines usually comes out of nowhere. Most of the time I was just as confused as the soldiers themselves and as strange as this may sound I kind of liked that. The look and design of the aliens and their war machines were also a breath of fresh air. Some of the things that are thrown at our marines are pretty crazy cool and the sound effects, oh my...make sure you see this in a theater equipped with a good sound system. The fact that there was always something new to discover about this alien menace made each consecutive encounter with them that much more intriguing and dangerous.


The battle scenes are simply amazing and intense as all hell.

Now, since the aliens aren't the main focus that only leaves our marines to pick up the slack and that is where things slightly start to fall apart. I have heard complaints that these characters basically embody every war film cliche you can think of and I suppose that is true for the most part. It is a conceit of the genre to have your characters all on the verge of a life changing moment or dealing with some personal problems just before the fireworks start. I cannot defend that choice because I think that is a fairly lazy way to create your characters but I do think it worked for this film. I found some of the character beats to be predictable but thought they were never over played. Any time one marine would start to emote it mercifully was either cut short by a sudden burst of violence or they got distracted by something else.

There is one moment about midway through the film though that felt like it was trying just a bit too hard to drum up emotions. I didn't outright hate that the filmmakers felt like they had to go there but it was the actual issue that is brought up that just didn't make a lick of sense given their predicament. As for the civilians they pick up along the way, they were handled perfectly. You have the Veterinarian Michelle (Bridget Moynahan), the single dad Joe (Michael Pena), his kid plus two others. Normally that is a recipe for cliche pie in a film like this but they are surprisingly limited to their involvement with the ensuing battle. Even the kids are mostly in the background as we stay focused on the marines doing their job and I not only appreciate that choice but applaud it. Too many times have I seen the "child in danger" scenario where everyone risks their lives to save them, call me sadistic but I could really give a shit. And I am glad that was nowhere to be found here.

There aren't very many moments of celebration to be found here.

Any other issues I had with the film all fall under spoiler territory and quite honestly are not worth ruining the experience by bringing up. Probably the one area that just about every single alien invasion movie fails though is its ending, even the good ones. You are left with only three possibilities, either we win and all the aliens die, we lose and the human race is wiped out, or it doesn't end and the battle continues to wrap up one way or another off screen. I thought this film found a good middle ground for its conclusion and I didn't feel cheated or mislead by its conclusion. I think a lot of that credit goes towards the filmmakers for wisely deciding to stay focused on that one squad of marines. Instead of wondering if the world is gonna survive we end up more worried if this small group of marines will come out alright. As for what happens to them that is up to you to find out.

If you have watched the trailer for the film and like what you saw I cannot believe you will dislike what it serves up. The film matches the tone and intensity of that trailer better than any other film in recent memory. It has some pretty amazing battle sequences where something new is always being thrown at us, an extremely alien foe that is as menacing as it is perplexing, and some solid performances from some very capable actors that make you buy into all the craziness we are asked to believe. War film fans will dig it for all the reasons associated with that genre and Sci-Fi geeks will get a kick out of the aliens and their toys. As long as you are aware of what this film is trying to be you will come out of that theater fairly pleased if not more so. I have to say then to...


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Reactions:

2 comments:

Leo said...

I was debating whether or not to see this. After reading your review, I think I may. Thanks Dave!

David Weaver said...

Yes, go see it. It was a really fun flick and I had a great time watching it.

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