Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles / **½ (PG-13)

SSgt. Michael Nantz: Aaron Eckhart
TSgt. Elena Santos: Michelle Rodriguez
2nd Lt. William Martinez: Ramon Rodriguez
Michele: Bridget Moynahan
Pfc. Shaun Lenihan: Noel Fisher
Cpl. Kevin Harris: Ne-Yo
Corpsman Jibril Adukwu: Adetokumboh M’Cormack
Cpl. Jason Lockett: Cory Hardrict
Cpl. Nick Stavrou: Gino Anthony Pesi
Joe Rincon: Michael Peña

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Jonathan Liebesman. Written by Chris Bertolini. Running time: 116 min. Rated PG-13 (for sustained and intense sequences of war violence and destruction, and for language).

What would happen if you took a realistic war film, like Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down”, and applied the filmmaking and story telling philosophies from that movie to the plotline of an alien invasion movie, like “Independence Day”? You would get Jonathan Liebesman’s “Battle: Los Angeles”. Liebesman’s approach to the material is sometimes sloppy, but the notion of depicting an alien invasion from a military point of view makes logical sense and provides a new perspective on the invasion subgenre of sci-fi.

The first thirty minutes of the movie are the most tedious as Liebesman and his screenwriter, Chris Bertolini (“The General’s Daughter”) take us through the typical disaster flick character introductions, military style. We meet a ridiculous number of people in a matter of minutes, each in their own defining scenette that’s supposed to give us all the information we need about each of them. Liebesman tries to make the process easier by posting titles cards announcing each character’s rank, first initial and last name. But there are so many of them, all looking the same in their uniforms and crew cuts that we cannot discern one from the other by the time we actually get to the story. Further hindering these introductions is the use of steady camera work that gives us shaky images, even when there isn’t a battle going on.

Once the alien invasion begins, however, it all becomes quite intense and interesting. The filmmakers curiously decided to give us our hero unit’s approach to the battle of the title during the opening credits, before flashing back to character intros. In the immediate lead up to where we came in, we get what appears to be a very likely portrayal of how such an event might go down. The initial news reports suggest a meteor shower. Then the Marines are deployed to provide some sort of support. The infantry unit we follow will learn the same things the audience does as we learn it. So the news reports shift to some sort of worldwide invasion, as these “meteors” seem to be landing at strategic cities all over the world. And, they don’t appear to be space rocks any more.

The unit’s second in command is Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart, “The Dark Knight”), a twenty-year veteran who has just applied for retirement. He’s a war hero, but his last combat mission had a sketchy resolution with Nantz emerging as the sole survivor of his unit. His new unit questions their safety under his command. With his more complex background, Nantz provides the only emotional entry in the movie. Eckhart is the right choice for this, displaying the external toughness necessary to carry his men through their ordeal, but with enough acting chops to suggest much more underneath.

However, the commander of the unit is 2nd Lt. William Martinez (Ramon Martinez, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”). I feared the Martinez character would fall into the typical military leadership role of being clueless during a real combat situation. The script plays with this notion. He’s just out of OCS training, graduated top of his class. He wants a mission real bad, and he does have trouble adjusting once the bullets and lasers start flying. In the end he doesn’t turn out to be totally clueless or reckless, as a 2nd Lieutenant is typically portrayed in movies. That was a bit of a relief, but I’d hoped for a more realistic set up of the character.

I admired the filmmakers’ attempts to look at this plot entirely from a military standpoint. In doing so, many of the typical alien invasion clichés are avoided. You don’t get the pro-alien characters who are given no good reason to trust the visitors. You don’t get the big effects sequences where all the world’s best known landmarks are destroyed, because every one knows the most important place to take out first in an alien invasion is the Eifel Tower. I think we are given a glimpse or two of the Santa Monica pier, but there’s no undue attention given it by either filmmakers or aliens.

I also liked that they didn’t dumb down the military angle to the audience. The dialogue almost requires a military interpreter to translate it into layman’s terms; yet no one ever asks for that since they’re all soldiers. The alien attack is described in military terms as textbook strategy. It’s a tactical ambush. There’re no staged peaceful meetings, no lingering questions about the aliens’ intentions. They are here to wipe us out and we must use our military prowess to defend ourselves and defeat them. Simple.

There is a sequence that illustrates the directness of the approach. The Marine unit is pinned down in a police station. They find a wounded alien and pull it inside to determine just how to kill it. The question of how to kill the alien invaders is often a mystery of this type of film, but they’re usually thinking on the grand scale of things. How do we wipe them out? Here it’s a much more visceral and survival based discovery for the soldiers. They start tearing the creature open to find vital organs. They stab each one looking for where to place the kill shot. Without this information they won’t be able to leave the building, let alone win the war.

I find myself torn after watching this movie. There are great big chunks of it that I liked. However, the list of negatives I find in it seems to grow each time I go over it in my mind. It is fairly unique as an alien invasion film. It leans more toward its military combat film origins. Yet, even that angle provides some unattractive features. As a whole, the film lacks varied action levels, locations, and loudness levels. Although it may appeal to diehards of the alien invasion or military genres, it has too little for me to get behind it.

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