Battle: Los Angeles – it’s actually pretty good

battle los angelesDespite the critical kicking it’s been getting, I went to see Battle: Los Angeles on the big screen last night. On the strength of the trailers, I thought it needed the total immersion of the cinema experience before I made up my own mind.

The critics have mostly hated it: “Will entertain only the most ardent action junkies”, was the sniffy dismissal from Rotten Tomatoes, “Pretty much cardboard”, wrote Kim Newman for Empire and “noisy, violent, ugly and stupid”, was Roger Ebert‘s verdict.

Given the critics’ comments, which are among some of the most brutal I’ve seen for a major film since Skyline, I wasn’t expecting much. But guess what? I liked it.

In fact, I really liked it. But as a war movie, rather than a sci fi movie.

(Spoilers)

Yes, it’s an alien invasion of Los Angeles (and the aliens are pretty cool – think mechanoid Jack Pumpkinhead only with lethal weaponry instead of the tattered clothing) but the focus of the film is on Aaron Eckhart’s Staff Sergeant Nantz and the other marines.

In his review for Empire, Kim Newman suggests that a more interesting film could have been the result if more had been revealed about the aliens. And I agree – this idea would make for an interesting but completely different film.
(Also, the game spin-offs would be a bit more tricky.)

But in Battle: Los Angeles the question being asked is: how would the US military, and more specifically, the soldiers on the ground react to a surprise ‘Shock and Awe’-style attack on US soil from an unknown enemy throwing overwhelming firepower and combatants into the assault? By keeping the action fast and noisy, using the shaky camera technique and following just this one marine platoon and the civilians they’re attempting to evacuate, director Jonathan Liebesman allows us a taste of the confusion, panic and fear that the characters are experiencing. We don’t have any more knowledge or understanding of the situation than the marines. Revealing more of the aliens’ characters and actions would take us from being an in-the-thick-of-it onlooker to critical observer.

Yes, this film is noisy and spends more time on the full-on action than on the dialogue or characters. But I liked that about it. I also liked the special effects which served, rather than dominated, the film.

I do have some criticisms however.

Number one is The Kid who seems to turn up in all these films. The main (only?) function of The Kid is to allow the main character (here, Eckhart) to show that he has a Big Heart and to display some non-marine regulation Emotion. It wasn’t necessary and I find this stock character irritating. Although, I have to say that, as these scenes go it wasn’t badly handled and mawkishness was kept to a minimum, mainly due to the quality of Eckhart’s acting.

Also unnecessary were most of the character establishing scenes at the beginning. There were too many of too short a duration to establish anything but the flimsiest of archetypes. Once the film got into its stride, between the smoke and the hand-held shaky camera, I lost track of who was who in the action anyway. Either give just one or two characters longer establishing scenes or even better, dispense with them altogether. Tech Sgt. Elena Santos  (Michelle Rodriguez) turns up once the action has started and her character becomes clear by her actions and dialogue without the need for prior establishment.

And finally the ending. This movie ends, as do all movies of this type, with the crowd-pleasing scene of humanity prevailing, the alien enemy being pushed back and the military re-taking Los Angeles. I understand why. I know audiences like to go off into the night with that feeling of resolution and satisfaction. And I know I’m in the minority here. But I would really like to have seen a more ambivalent ending. One where the marine platoon win that particular battle but their victory is set in the context of a war that has barely begun.  One in which the aliens have only withdrawn to regroup. And one in which the shell-shocked humans must now find the resources and tactics to deal with the continuing threat.

Now that would be my type of movie. But in the meantime I’ll happily settle for this one.

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