Battles Los Angeles
I’m as surprised about this as anyone, but watching Jonathan Liebesman evolve as a director has been extremely interesting. I was first introduced to him by his film Darkness Falls, about a terrifying (or what Liebesman hoped was terrifying) Tooth Fairy gone rogue, in 2003. I still think my movie genius of a brother-in-law hasn’t forgiven me for dragging him to that movie in the name of my birthday back in 2003. It’s an awful, horrible film that no one should ever really bother seeing. I’ll admit, I skipped his next film, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. But at Sundance in 2009, I did watch his film The Killing Room. While I didn’t enjoy the subject matter of the film (several characters stuck in a room as they die one by one for a purpose unknown, only to be revealed in the final seconds of the film), the improvement of Liebesman’s direction couldn’t be denied. The Killing Room was tight, and exact. This time he was aided with the star power of Timothy Hutton and Chloë Sevigny. When it was announced that he would be directing Battle Los Angeles, I was intrigued to say the least. This was compounded two things: a pretty awesome trailer, and the film’s star, Aaron Eckhart. All of this was enough to get me to give Battle a chance, despite it’s poor ratings at ratings aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes.
The premise is as archetypal as any alien invasion movie. There are hostile beings, invading Earth. Colonizing, if you want to steal a word from the overly simplistic script by Christopher Bertolini. These aliens are an overpowering force, invading several of the world’s intensely populated cities across the globe. The range of the invasion is too much for a single film, so Battle settles on the struggle to resist occupation in Los Angeles. More specifically, it focuses on a troupe of Marines in the area, fighting for their country and families.
The troupe is lead by Staff Sargent Micheal Nantz, an aging man, played by Aaron Eckhart, who has difficulty keeping up with the younger Marines. It’s made clear that he’s struggling emotionally with some things that went down on his last mission to Iraq, or Afghanistan where he lost some of his men. It’s as painful as it sounds, and it’s absolutely nothing new, or interesting. The film takes a very short amount of time dedicating an equal amount of emotional duress each soldier is suffering for one reason or another. One of the men Nantz is commanding is the brother of one of the soldiers that died under Nantz’ command. One of the men seems boardline mentally retarded. Another is about to marry the woman of his dreams a few days after the invasion starts. None of this is new, or done particularly well.
As with invasion movies of the past, Independence Day, The Invasion, etc., etc., you can figure how the rest of the story plays out: a rag tag team of patriots fight an unlikely resistance battle that ultimately results in a ridiculously satisfying ending. Since there’s not much to say of the story, other aspects of the film demand close inspection. The problem is, there’s nothing really to break down here. The effects in the film are fantastic. There are some genuinely thrilling moments, albeit far and few between. Eckhart’s performance is as complex as he is allowed to see. And I must admit, it’s refreshing to see him outside of the confines of a film tied down by too much gravitas, like Rabbit Hole. Though there must be some middle ground between pretentious, and sci-fi suck fest.
There is a real glimmer of hope in the filmmaking. The gonzo-style of the camera makes you feel as if you are really there (warning to those sensitive to constant and violent camera movement). The camera shakes with every explosion, it zooms in and out as if it were being held by a talented war photographer. But ultimately, the cliched script, the appearance of a stiff and boring Michelle Rodriguez, never let you forget that this is a soulless, moneymaking machine, carelessly thrown to the audience at the beginning of summer when everyone has their expectations set at the lowest level possible. Liebesman may have hit the mark with the tone of the film, but it doesn’t matter, since Battle Los Angeles never wanted to be anything than mediocre.