Nick Nunziata: If you would have told me fifteen years ago that we’d be inundated with alien invasion movies loaded with talent and treated with A-List technical treatments I’d have hugged you and thanked you for the news. I’d drive a little more careful. Be a little more discerning in my food choices. That’s a future I could get behind. One worth getting excited for. In some respects it still is, but it’s become very hard to experience an alien invasion film with the same open mind and interest in the wake of so many in recent memory.
Battle: LA is a well made movie. It’s not overly dumb. It has some good actors doing good work and a director who has obviously boned up on a lot of Ridley Scott movies, a lot of Michael Bay movies, and Neil Blomkamp’s exceptional District 9. It looks right and sounds right but like so many aliens in so many movies it feels sort of like a facsimile rather than its own living and breathing thing.
Renn Brown: Unfortunately there are a lot of elements hamstringing Battle: LA from being certifiably “great,” but I’ve got no problem calling it “good,” and whether or not it ends up being the most memorable of the in-progress wave of new alien flicks, it’s definitely a big screen experience worth having. From where I sit, this is a film with a lot of sophisticated action, a strong conceptual approach, and a whole lot of dodgy character and thematic work in-between.
The set-up to Battle: LA is as simple as an invasion movie gets: aliens land and unleash a wave of destruction on the major cities of earth, while the various armed forces scramble to combat them. Nothing about the logline even approaches originality, and yet Battle: LA does approaches this well versed material from a number of fresh and sometimes shockingly unique perspectives. The most important point of divergence from other such films is that Battle never leaves the perspective of the specific group of marines it follows- there are no cut-aways to the president with his cabinet, or teases of the alien’s evil scheme, or what have you. It’s a down-and-dirty, street level view of the alien invasion from the point of view of men bound by duty and orders to get in the thick of the mess, with the only views of the outside world or other cities coming through brief glimpses on television news reports.
Before hopping into the aesthetic novelty of the film, it’s also worth mentioning that it goes for an ambitious, if not wholly successful structure of character introductions that weave into the larger set-up of the film, and attempts to make you genuinely care about a group of marines, specifically centered around Aaron Eckhart’s character Sgt. Michael Nantz. Each of the marines that we’ll be sticking with for the film get their own brief scene of introduction, but from there more complicated relationships are established as they gear up and learn about the invasion. Matched with the film’s willingness to mercilessly whack characters that you thought might at least stick around to the third act, it almost works. Some of the cheesiest dialogue, line delivery and melodramatic posturing in recent memory makes a lot of that effort fall flat, but the effort is there. Still, it’s not nearly successful as the treatment of the alien enemy.
Nick: See, I didn’t like the aliens at all. Everything about them felt familiar. There was nothing to make more than things to be shot and because there’s really not a lot going on with them it’s hard to get invested. Mindless hordes work if there’s a nice variety of designs and the illusion of characteristics and traits. Starship Troopers, for example. Here it’s Black UFO Down with well executed but extremely boring combatants on both side of the skirmish.
And a camera that never sits still for more than a few frames.
Renn: Well I don’t think there’s going to be any convincing anyone who’s left unstimulated by the aliens and their equipment to suddenly be interested, but their physical designs and technology intrigued me more than usual. None of it is by any means revolutionary but the combustion-powered ships and projectile-based weapons are an interesting diversion from the typical laser and force-fields of most film’s alien invaders. Of course, it’s all geared towards turning this into a very straightforward Black Hawk Down-styled urban combat film that just happens to have aliens and worldwide destruction as a backdrop.
The aliens are never characterized much, and toning down the alien nature of the aliens may see counter-intuitive, but I found it refreshing. What we have are marines fighting against their own ignorance of the enemy, which pays off in my favorite scene of the movie, which takes places when they finally get their hands on a fallen extraterrestrial foe. It’s a gooey, gory scene that showcase that this production really was interested in going practical and visceral when the opportunity struck.
All of that said, such low-key aliens and exceedingly cheesy thematic work means that the film doesn’t have much chance of rising above being a competent action flick. It doesn’t, even though it is.
Nick: I liked that scene for its viscera but the whole setup, and I can’t imagine it’s a spoiler, is about finding a weakness in their adversary. Which is fine except the creatures are densely protected and even knowing whatever physical shortcomings they may have shouldn’t make much of a difference. These creatures have every edge in battle and that’s the one thing that helps the movie have the concussive impact it needs in the early scenes. Once the aliens become cans to knock over on the way to the objective it’s hard to stay interested.
It’s hard to stay interested for a lot of reasons. Though Eckhart tries his damndest and there are attempts to give the soldiers personalities, it just feels like someone very much wanted to do a mash-up of Ridley Scott and Michael Bay movies.
Renn: It definitely seems geared towards pleasing the fans of modern war video games, though I found it’s frenetic shakycam much more watchable and coherent than that shit usually is. This is as good a time as any to mention that I spent some time on the set of this movie (Part 1, Part 2), and when I saw the persistence of hand-held camera work, I knew right away this thing would be unwatchable without a good editor. Fortunately the film makes up for its shakiness with measured picture cutting- I typically find myself pretty sensitive to hyper-cut shaky messes, and I had no problem following each moment, scene, and shot in Battle. No moment of action really rings out memorably though, which further cements to me that this will be a nice palette cleansing appetizer for the bigger summer fare, and little more.
I really like Eckhart and I know for a fact that his heart was in this one, but man does he push the tortured, macho-posturing solider bit too far several times. He still manages to be a warm presence that centers everything, but there’s a climactic scene where he bears his soul and it’s almost painful. There’s some really good work in the middle as he figures out his place in the new unit, but his innate likability just isn’t enough to balance out the cheese.
Nick: Don’t get me wrong, the visual storytelling was fine. The editing was fine. I knew who was who most of the time and the craft on hand in almost every instance is excellent. The FX are very good. It just feels like an imposter. Frankly I think we’ve had enough of this for a while. No one will be able to do a large-scale alien invasion movie and it not feel like a retread. It needs to simmer a while until a new approach is taken. Battle: LA‘s biggest fault is its blandness. It’s desperate for an identity of its own, or worse yet it isn’t.
It’s not bad. I don’t even dislike it. I just find nothing of note to make it a contributor to the subgenre, just an opportunist.
That said, the fact this is a bloodless film hurts it. A lot, actually. This should have been an R and not because it’s the fanboy thing to say.
Renn: I would trade the film’s potential blood and guts for dramatic teeth any day, but the bloodlessness certainly keeps this from being anything beyond clean Hollywood action, regardless of all the dust and rubble.
Ultimately the film’s inability to stick the landing with it’s approach to character development, and a third act that treads too far into video game-plotting tropes makes it hard to defend as anything particularly notable. I’ll maintain though, that the alien aesthetic, hints of clever character work, and the strictly narrow perspective on the events of the film are unique enough to indicate that director Jonathan Liebesman and company were working with genuine passion. The benefit of that passion shows as Battle: LA captures a truly unique vision of alien invasion, filled with seriously gritty, hardcore action. That’s the good, and I’ll stand behind it confidently. The problem though is that all of the elements beyond that offer little that will stick with you, or even worse, drag the film down. The parts, the sum… none of it falls into place well enough to make this special, even if it’s not a bad excuse to get back to the multiplex and prime yourself for the summer movie season.
Nick: It’s a decent diversion but there’s nothing new here and though technically it’s a new IP rather than a sequel or remake, it really isn’t new at all. Entertaining? I suppose, but it really is Black Hawk Down meets District 9 sprinkled with Michael Bay dust. Can’t hate it. Can’t love it.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Out of a Possible 5 Stars