What can you say about a movie that fails at the two things it was created to accomplish? Like a horror comedy that is neither or an action thriller that's sparse on both, Battle: Los Angeles is a military themed alien invasion blockbuster that can boast neither (or better yet, none of the above). Slam Skyline all you want it - any and all criticism is more than warranted, after all - but at least it didn't hide its attacking extraterrestrials inside a trite and formulaic bit of 'Hurrah' claptrap that trots out every known cliche in the book before deciding to steal from better films. Inside all its shaky-cam silliness, the desire to be both personal in perspective but vast in scope, director Jonathan Liebsman does everything a disservice. The stylistic approach doesn't heighten the excitement. Instead, it deadens the dramatic possibilities. Similarly, we don't go into a war of the worlds worrying about some middle aged military man's retirement, some grunt's impending nuptials, or a group of survivors and their whining demands. We want action, bad-ass spaceships and equally evocative spacemen. Sadly, this film can barely conjure up the first facet.
Within 24 hours of a reported "meteor shower", the Earth is consumed by an all out attack from an unknown alien menace. As part of the military response, we meet up with the Marines of Camp Pendleton in California. They include career man SSgt. Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), rookie officer 2ndLt William Martinez (Ramón Rodríguez) and the rest: LCpl Steven Mottola (James Hiroyuki Liao), Cpl Kevin "Specks" Harris (Ne-Yo), Cpl Nick Stavrou (Gino Anthony Pesi), Cpl Lee Imlay (Will Rothhaar), Cpl Jason Lockett (Cory Hardrict) and PFC Shaun Lenihan (Noel Fisher). Sent to Los Angeles to head up the evacuation of civilians, the soldiers soon learn they are fighting a ferocious, unforgiving creature. Eventually, they track a group of survivors to a bombed out police station. They include a father and son (Michael Peña and Bryce Cass) and a concerned veterinarian (Bridget Moynahan). Their mission is simple - get these people to safety. But as Nantz quickly discovers, man is no match for this outer space enemy. It will take more than firepower to conquer these invaders...if there is a way to stop them at all.
Ugh. Nothing is more disappointing than promise pissed all over. It's like anticipating the fisticuffs between two of your favorite prize fighters as they meet head to head, and then watching as both take a dive before the first blow is landed. It makes you question your competence. It makes you wonder where things went wrong. And it makes you grind your teeth in anger over being tricked, once again, by the studio marketing team. Battle: Los Angeles will argue that it doesn't lie to you. It will suggest that you set your sights a tad too high before settling into this gritty, down to Earth GI vs. ET smackdown. Now, said theory is not without merit. As the bar keeps getting raised higher and higher, as CG and a growing geek community has challenged science fiction to be both thought provoking and awesomely epic, we come to expect certain cinematic truisms. The F/X have to be breathtaking. The narrative has to balance spectacle with some seriousness. We have to get lost in the "what if" and suspend our otherwise cynical disbelief as to what possibly could happen. Add in a few good men, a competent job behind the lens, and lots of derring-do, and you've got everything covered, right?
Not so fast, space case. While it wants to compare itself to recent winners like District 9, Battle: Los Angeles can't compete. Hell, it's not even a Mars Attacks! Clearly, some of the creative choices made here were way off base, beginning with hiring Jonathan Darkness Falls/Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning Liebesman to sit behind the lens. This is a director who has managed to craft one - count 'em, ONE - iconic shot (the young Leatherface walking down a darkened highway, disappearing into a series of evocative street lights) in his entire career. The rest of the time, he relies on gimmickry and too many sessions on Final Cut to convince us he has talent. From the moment we see the Marines heading into the beachhead battle zone, explosions going off all around them while radio chatter amplifies the chaos, we realize we are in trouble. Liebesman isn't about to settle in and allow his visuals to win us over. Instead, this is a movie made via a blinkered belief in the video playback. Everything he saw in the small screen while filming is plastered on the big screen in bumbling, baffling ways.
We never get a feel for the proposed camaraderie of the troops (compare it to Aliens...), nor are we invested in SSgt Michael Nantz's crisis of conscience. We get that he lost men during his last tour, but who hasn't? And then, to make matters even more manipulative, the brother of one of the casualties (someone who specifically blames our hero for everything that happened before) ends up as part of the same division? Well, that's convenient. In essence, the cast are place holders, making room for some storyline before the otherwise ordinary action scenes step in to announce their purpose. Many are routine and unrecognizable, thanks to the horrid editing and shaky-cam technique. Others, like a freeway confrontation, are better staged and more solid. By the end, however, when Battle: Los Angeles has expended all its energy in being "real" and "authentic," it decides to do what so many before have done - borrow. It involves figuring out a way to disable a mothership - sorry, 'command center' - and then getting the rest of the world to emulate it. Sound familiar? Indeed, when you promise something fresh and original, mimicking Roland Emmerich is not the right way to go. Battle" Los Angeles thinks it's being cool and cutting edge. It couldn't be more wrong.
In keeping with its dialed down attempt to be realistic, Battle: Los Angeles is an exercise in desaturation. While the stock material and news feeds have a brightness to them, the rest of the movie is awash in the smoke filled ash of an all out apocalypse. The 1080p, 2.40:1 encode is excellent at maintaining such blandness, accentuating details and other visual elements that a movie theater experience might have muddied. The contrasts are sharp without being digitally altered and the overall feel is one of a Hollywood production playing at an authentic newsreel feel. Granted, some of the alien shots look incredibly fake once you have a chance to study them more closely, but overall, the film looks very good.
A movie like Battle: Los Angeles was tailor-made for a big, broad HD home theater audio attack, and this DTS-HD 5.1 MA mix does not disappoint. The multichannel lossless transfer takes all the speakers and turns your living room into an immersive space. You hear bombs going off in the distance, shots traveling across speakers and through your viewing area. Deep thuds accentuate the massive military movements - both man and alien - and the soundtrack (pepper with a few hip-hop/pop hits) comes across loud and clear. Even in the relatively few quite moments, the sonic situation delivers. From a purely technical standpoint, the Battle: Los Angeles Blu-ray is great. As for the film itself...
In place of a commentary, Sony offers up what it calls "Command Control." In essence, it's a picture-within-a-picture presentation that highlights interviews, storyboards, behind the scenes footage, making-of material, and occasional plot clarifications. This information can also be found in the accompanying featurettes (called "Battle Points"). There are also seven mini-documentaries covering everything from actor boot camp, alien character design, battle choreography, and F/X approach. While interesting, they are far from first rate.
Over at the crackpot Canadian knock-off factory, The Asylum, the always on top of the latest lame Hollywood trends production house created its own mockbuster of this overwrought alien apocalypse. With appropriate cheek, Battle of Los Angeles followed a similarly styled storyline, except it had the guy from Good Burger (not the one of SNL) as a neophyte grunt and Nia Peeples as a Black Ops Ninja babe fighting off the invasion with a sword - yes, a sword. Hokey and hacky, it still beats Skyline and this bumbling battle with ease. Earning a Rent It, here is the clear caveat - enter this often incoherent combination of war zone zombification and minor Martian menace at your own risk. From the ads and the advance word, Battle: Los Angeles was supposed to redefine the genre. Instead, it just sits there, shouting at you and show off, hoping that you like it. It doesn't work.