“Battle: Los Angeles” salvaged by visual effects

Steve Talbot, Staff Writer

Before I begin, allow me to give you an overview of my review style. For the most part, it’s fairly formulaic, with a very brief synopsis of the film, opinions on each of three aspects of the film (Story/Writing, Characters/Acting, and Cinematography/Effects), a summary, and a rating. It is in my rating system, however, that I differ from most film critics. Instead of the classic “one-to-five” format, my ratings are broken down into the following categories: Must-See, Full Price, Matinee, Rental, and Pass. Though there are five categories, they do not necessarily correlate into a number. 
With that out of the way, it’s time for my inaugural review: Battle: Los Angeles. 

SYNOPSIS
Battle: Los Angeles follows a Marine platoon in their efforts to stop a global alien invasion.  

STORY/WRITING
This film was the latest in a long line of great ideas that were poorly executed. A combination of a war film and an alien film is something fresh to Hollywood, and had potential to be great. In terms of the story, however, Battle: L.A. was extremely inconsistent. To be more specific, its only real consistency was its over-done, unoriginal war film dialogue; a lot of “Marines never quit,” and “We stay with our men!” To give this film the benefit of the doubt, I’ll break it up into halves. 

The first half of the film was great. A war-film environment was created right off the bat, introducing the various characters in their down-time, and despite the aliens and spaceships destroying the entire world, it was easy to suspend disbelief. The story was simple to follow right from the get-go. Without spoiling anything major, this platoon attempted to clear and secure a section of L.A. for an Air Force bomb drop. These Marines were noticeably nervous, not knowing who or what they were up against, and they didn’t know how to defeat these aliens. Unlike most movies of this type, it seemed as if the good guys just couldn’t win, and I bought into their struggle.

The film took a turn for the worse heading into its second hour. Just about all of this film’s major swerves and events occur during this half, so it’s hard for me to explain without spoiling the film. For lack of a way around spoilers, I’ll leave it at this: the typical, action hero stunts and situations were what really took me out of the film. This is a movie about technologically-advanced aliens invading the earth (in August of 2011, no less), and it was the humans that were the unbelievable part. 

CHARACTERS/ACTING
Though this film does a great job of establishing the brotherhood of the Marines, but does so at the cost of character development. So much time is spent focusing on the bond between the platoon that very few characters are effectively developed. This film focuses on upwards of 20 people, but really only three characters. There’s the scared civilians, the no-nonsense military men, and the youthful jokesters who can fire off a snappy comeback faster than a round of ammo. Only two characters were given enough depth that the audience could actually care about them, and one of them was such a cookie-cutter war hero that I simply wasn’t interested. 

The performances in this film were passable. Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight, Any Given Sunday) played the lead role, Staff Sergeant Nantz, and though his performance was nothing memorable, he seemed to suit the role. Ramon Rodriguez (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Taking of Pelham 123) gave this film’s best performance, capturing nervousness and masking it with confidence in the role of platoon leader 2nd Lieutenant Martinez. Not many people will remember his performance by the time the film’s on DVD, much less when awards season rolls back around, but the film was noticeably better when he was on camera.

CINEMATOGRAPHY/EFFECTS
With the success of last year’s District 9, alien films seem to be forever changed. Battle: L.A. appears to have taken pages directly out of District 9’s book, seemingly hoisting ideas and effects straight out of the Academy Award-nominated film. Though I felt as though I was watching less-civilized versions of identical aliens, they did not fail to impress. 

As good as the concept for this film was, the best example of a well-executed, new idea was the alien aircraft. One of the earliest aircraft we see is roughly 10-12 smaller aircraft that have the ability to link up into one unit. I’ve never seen anything close to this, and found myself leaning over to my father (with whom I saw the film), saying “That’s so cool,” every time it was on screen. The biggest antagonist in this film is the machine equivalent of an over-ruling boss. About halfway through the film, we learn that this underground behemoth of a machine (which looks oddly similar to the main spaceship in District 9) is the power source for the alien aircraft. These innovative machines, paired with more than enough explosions and gun shots for any film, did make for a very visually appealing movie.

Though the post-production effects were tremendous, the actual camerawork had its ups and downs. The “shaky camera” was utilized in this film, really adding to the feel of a high-adrenaline battle, and putting me into the film instead of simply being a spectator. Perhaps the film’s best decision was rarely giving a clear shot of the aliens. This certainly added to the eeriness and the mystique of the creatures, and helped me feel the sense of unknowing fear that the Marines were experiencing. The cinematography was poor, however, in the sense that the various Marines were seldom focused on once the battle actually began. If it wasn’t hard enough to get attached to characters with few discernible personality traits, the film forced me to distinguish between almost 20 people in matching uniforms. It wasn’t until about half of the soldiers had died off before I could figure out who was left. 

SUMMARY/RATING
Walking into this film, one would be a fool to expect anything short of an event movie. Any time a trailer skips any semblance of a story and focuses the entire thing on the effects, you have to know what you’re going into. In actuality, what was a great idea turned out to be a major letdown, a lost opportunity. The general consensus among critics is that this film is the ultimate Marine recruiting video, but while I see where they’re coming from, I refuse to accept that actual Marines are this bland. I think the more appropriate comparison for this film would be a film version of a Halo/Call of Duty hybrid game. Fortunately for this film, it’s weak writing is salvaged by visual effects that need to be seen in a theater to truly get the full effect. For that reason, I have to give Battle: Los Angeles a very low MATINEE.