Under the impression it had been universally panned by critics and audiences, I’d been avoiding Battle: Los Angeles. Also, I’d heard the words “shaky” and “cam” associated with the title which meant I had to wait until Mandi was out of the house to watch it.
Perhaps it was a case of low-expectations engendering a forgiving attitude, but I was impressed. It’s a by-the-books war movie though, not strictly an alien-invasion story. The enemy are aliens but they could easily have been Nazis, Viet Cong, Iraqi insurgents or even Red Dawn era Soviets. It doesn’t matter who they are. The film is really about a platoon of grunts thrown into a relentless FUBAR situation for about an hour and a half.
After watching the film, I wasn’t sure why it’d gotten panned so I looked it up
Rotten Tomatoes: “Overlong and overly burdened with war movie clichés, Battle: Los Angeles will entertain only the most ardent action junkies”.
Roger Ebert: “Noisy, violent, ugly and stupid… Generations of filmmakers devoted their lives to perfecting techniques that a director like Jonathan Liebesman is either ignorant of, or indifferent to. Yet he is given millions of dollars to produce this assault on the attention span of a generation.”
Time Out: “… flat military characters… hackneyed dialogue and corny sentimentality”.
Well, I can certainly see where these reviewers are coming from but I also have to cock an eyebrow at them. It seems almost like they were rating the film using The Hurt Locker as a standard and not summer popcorn movies like Aliens.
I think The Miami Herald got it about right:
“Not so goofy as Independence Day, not so terrifying as War of the Worlds, and it utterly lacks the imagination and emotional resonance of District 9.”
That last reference I think might be the key to understanding the derision. I remember seeing the posters and trailer and thinking, “Huh, District 9 rip-off.” But watching it now, a few years removed (and the bloom off the District 9 rose), I think it’s time to reassess.
I haven’t seen Hurt Locker and I’m willing to bet B:LA doesn’t stack up as a gritty, thought-provoking film about modern warfare. But B:LA is easily as good as Black Hawk Down or Saving Private Ryan which I have seen.
Yes, it does follow some pretty standard, clichéd and hackneyed templates for war movies. First, you’re introduced to an ensemble of marines and each represents a familiar character archetype. Then the film puts them in a blender and you take bets on which of your favourites is going to die first.
Will it be the kind-hearted one? The brash, arrogant buffoon? The green lieutenant? Yeah, it’s a bag of clichéd tropes, but at least they’re clichéd tropes done well. At times it’s a little too Full Metal Jacket meets Aliens (SPOILER: the “green lieutenant” finds redemption by sacrificing himself in the exact same way at pretty much the exact same point in the movie as the “green lieutenant” in Aliens).
In certain circumstances, it can be oddly satisfying to see these plot points coming a light year off. For me at least, B:LA was enhanced by these formulas, not lumbered by them.
If nothing else, Aaron Eckhart’s performance as the hardened but battle-weary Staff Sergeant Nance is worth the price of admission alone. Uh, yeah, since I watched this on Netflix that price was practically free, but still….
I’m not saying B:LA was all good. It was indeed shot in that horrible jump-cut, shaky-cam style which probably would have given me an aneurysm at the cinema. It’s fine on a small screen, but it’s a style that doesn’t make any sense at all in the establishing scenes before the invasion has even begun. The supposedly idyllic setting before everything inevitably goes to shit seems almost as frantic and horrible as it does once the aliens arrive. This is the same stylistic flaw The Hunger Games had. Instead of starting at Level 1, it starts at Level 5 so when things kick up to Level 10 the contrast isn’t as dramatic as it should be. Which is a shame since B:LA does a better job as establishing the soon to be tossed in a blender characters and making you care about them better than a lot of action movies have bothered to do since the 1990’s.
Bottom Line: If you go in expecting a summer movie about marines fighting aliens, then Battle: Los Angeles should satisfy you. If you go in looking for the perfect marriage of Hurt Locker and District 9, you only have yourself to blame.