Saturday, March 26, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles (2011, Jonathan Liebesman)

Living in the Phoenix area, I can understand why a lot of people might jump at the opportunity to see L.A. razed on the big screen.  I mean, this is a town of real tinsel-envy: the red-headed step-child of sprawl with no hub.  Always a bridesmaid, never a Kobe Bryant.  That said, I wasn't expecting a lot out of the Transformers-cum-Skyline action of Jonathan Liebesman's Battle: Los Angeles.  And not a lot is what I got.

Strangely, in a movie so rife with post-9/11 action cliché, there were a lot of missed opportunities within the genre.  Sure, we get a mostly unknown multi-ethnic cast of soldiers with 'tudes.  Yes, it makes the most of its PG-13 rating by having hero Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) drop the signature, lone F-bomb in a pump-up speech going into the final battle.  The cinematography and editing are the now typical Paul Greengrass sans substance; the cuts and constant camera movement are mostly disorienting, trying to be so kinetic it actually becomes anti-action, nigh incomprehensible.

If Battle: Los Angeles were a drinking game, try and guess which of the following 21st-century action tropes actually come into play, adding enough buzz to make viewing an adequate (or at least indifferent) experience as our heroes traipse up and back L.A. country in order to possibly rescue a small number of unidentifiable civilians:

1) After a successful stint versus a mini-boss as the half-way point, Aaron Eckhart gives a bland adage that is recycled by a bleeding team member, over a swelling score, in a deciding victory blow at the end.

2) A spunky female Marine (Michelle Rodriguez) mouths off to an alien, kicking it while its down and, flipping the scripts, calls it a bitch.

3) The aliens are here because of earth's most precious resource: Water.

4) A platoon member has a tense moment, trying to spot aliens through the sight of his rifle, but can't see because of the dust of destruction.  The screen becomes silent... and then... false alarm.  It was only a dog.  BUT OH NO, THEN THE ALIEN REALLY COMES!

5) The iconographic Hollywood sign makes an appearance, but after a blast from alien artillery, it appears to read only "HELL".  Our team is pinned down by the aliens and, in an attempt to prevent the Air Force from making its scheduled bombing of the valley, rearranges the letters to read "HELP".

6) And with time running out, our troops and civilians literally count down to their presumed demise while staring at a clock on the wall.  Only, they are counting much slower than actual seconds.  It's O.K., the clock catches up with them anyway.

O.K., so only four of those actually happen.  Sadly the film takes itself  way too seriously with no opportunity for the self-referential or tongue-in-cheek, and #5 isn't one of them (and, strangely, neither is the first, though bland banality seems it should be a staple in the movie like this).  Where Battle: Los Angeles fails as an action film is in the battle sequences.  The aliens appear mostly at a distance, and much of our platoon's victories come from blowing up aliens with proxy explosions on a Michael Bay scale (grenades blowing up gas tanks, booby-trapped radios) rather than up-close-and-personal combat.  Coupled with its bearing-less geography, we feel like there are no stakes.  Sure, it tries to pull heartstrings by killing off well-meaning spouses and parents, but it comes across as a cheap ploy to give a meaningless project weight.  The enemy feels like a flawed machine, the threat never feels global, and the people don't give us anything to care about.

The film plays race as you would expect:  it expects a pat on the back for bringing together a cohesive team from different backgrounds, but strangely skirts the relevant immigration issue (in a movie about aliens no less).  Not one, but two Latinos sacrifice their lives for the good of mankind, but it reads as helpless and neutered.  Worse, African-Americans are used for comic relief, the jokes usually hinging on over-active libidos.

While searching for images to place in the review, I stumbled upon some rendered explosions in the skyline that were actually well-framed and made clear who the enemy was.  It was something I thought the film mostly lacked and was surprised by how crisp they were.  Then I realized these were screen-captures from the video game, and that pretty much tells the tale.  Like last year's Predators, Battle: Los Angeles is strange film you want to excuse as a bad video game adaptation rather than admit the truth: it would serve better as a video game.  There, soundbytes are soundbytes and characters are inferred.  In Hollywood, you don't get that pass. -- */four stars

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