Battle without honor or humanity
The onscreen title of Battle: Los Angeles lacks the colon. It is indisputably the case that this fact bothers me more than it possibly should. But it just doesn't look right. Specifically, it makes the title look more like an imperative rather than a description, and I also can't help feeling it would be better with an exclamation point. Battle Los Angeles! But, really, I shouldn't get this annoyed by something that occupies less than 0.01% of the film's running time. Or hey! maybe the filmmakers should have tried a little bit harder to make a movie good enough that I wouldn't spend the next 116 minutes thinking about the use of punctuation in the opening credits.
Because lordy, is this ever a crappy movie. Not for any single, overwhelmingly bad element (though at times the dialogue drops into "overwhelmingly bad" territory), but for the sheer accumulation of petty annoyances. The acting, the cinematography, the sound, the visual effects, the story, and on, and on: every individual aspect of the film is colossally irritating without being outright awful, like having a tag itching your neck. But combine a couple dozen of those tags, and wear them around for two hours, and you end up with something almost too obnoxious to bear.
Battle: Los Angeles takes place on August 11-12, 2011*, a date so specific and nearby that it cannot help but be distracting (petty annoyances! see?). Why those dates? What happens if the film doesn't come out on DVD until August 16th? But to move along: we get a quick introduction to a whole mess of Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton, each of them given an onscreen name and not quite enough personality for me to remember which one was which later on. Lessee, there was the Greek man who likes wedding planning (Gino Anthony Pesi), the one with a dead brother (Cory Hardrict), the one played by Ne-Yo (Ne-Yo), the one whose last name reminds me of a friend of mine (Noel Fisher), the African one (Adetokumboh M'Cormack). The character we're meant to care about the most is Staff Sergeant Nantz, and we know that he matters because he's played by Aaron Eckhart. Nantz has just turned in his retirement papers, but his boss wants him to do one last mission helping out with an evacuation of I forget which beachfront region of Los Angeles. He also has a dark past in Iraq that resulted in a lot of dead Marines, including the brother of The One with a Dead Brother. OOH CONFLICT. Don't get too excited thinking that this means Eckhart gets both the One Last Mission and Mission of Redemption stories, because after he agrees to postpone his retirement, the One Last Mission plot is mostly abandoned.
At the start of the film, there's a mysterious series of meteor strikes in the oceans just off the coast of "20 cities in 17 countries", which is already incompatible with "the 20 most populous cities in the world", which is, I imagine, what they were going with (also, one of the cities we specifically hear about is Paris, which, not to be a pedant or anything, is landlocked). With admirable speed, the film reveals these to be alien invasion forces, and ships our platoon of interchangeable Marines into... is it Santa Monica? I think it's Santa Monica. Alright, so the Marines pack off to clear Santa Monica of people before it is carpet bombed by the Air Force. There they find some civilians, led by Michael Peña (not his character name, but he's still basically the Michael Peña Character), and a stranded USAF Technical Sergeant, Michelle Rodriguez (ditto). Also many aliens, played by unconvincing CGI effects that clash rather badly with the deliberately lo-fi camerawork.
Basically, BLA - what a perfect acronym! - consists of characters walking from one set to another, screaming and shooting, an explosion, and the slightly whittled-down group walks to the next sense, rinse, repeat. It is staggeringly hectic, filmed with the jiggly camera that Paul Greengrass and Oliver Wood's work in the Jason Bourne movies made popular for a generation of directors and cinematographers who all lack the discipline and intellectual clarity of Greengrass and Wood; the editing leaves it nearly impossible to follow in even the most superficial way what is happening between the slow moments when the characters talk about what's going on, not that any of the individuals are so fleshed-out that we particularly care if this one or that one just blew up, and if the other one is about to be shot. Even the sound design is loud and crazy without being distinctive, or serving any particular storytelling purpose; I imagine that if you threw your car keys in a blender and started screaming at the top of your lungs, you could recreate the effect at home.
Director Jonathan Liebesman, who gave us both the limp ghost story Darkness Falls and the tedious slasher/torture remake-prequel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, is unable to do very much with this material other than copy better work by better directors: Battle: Los Angeles is deep down more of an urban war picture than an alien invasion thriller, with an aesthetic that recalls Black Hawk Down without the sense of tension and pacing (I almost thought of calling it a more self-consciously gritted-up version of Ridley Scott's film, but then I recalled the bad case of Teal & Orange that BLA suffers from, and concluded that it is a gritted-up version of nothing).
The combat scenes are so grating and loud and annoying, in fact, that they're actually even worse than the talky, maudlin character moments, and the inspirational scenes of Marines bonding (the film is an unashamed love letter to the armed forces, including a prominently placed, "Support the Troops!" poster, in a way that's almost sweetly appealing in this heavily ironic age of ours). Which are not, to be sure, great scenes per se; when Eckhart murmurs at a young boy, "You're the bravest Marine I've ever seen", or words to that effect, the only thing that kept me vomiting up from a saccharine overdose was to day dream that this was briefly the old skeezy Eckhart of the late '90s (remember that?), and he was trying to seduce the preteen.
Beyond such clunky moments bungled by a director with no sense of anything, and actors inhabiting costumes rather than characters, and screaming, busy, unpleasant action scenes (if you've ever disliked handheld camera in a popcorn movie, I guarantee you will hate it here - I even got a little nauseated and points and I never have), all that's left is a wholly undernourished sci-fi story almost as stupidly expressed as Independence Day (it's not a computer virus that takes down the aliens, but it's not much more convincing), with horrid dialogue - nearly every line more substantial than "Keep going!" or "Shoot!" is tortuously expository, and one line whose exact phrasing I did not write down irresistibly reminded me of the classic nugget from Plan 9 from Outer Space, "Visits? That would indicate visitors." - and advances from place to place that proceed as arbitrarily as in a video game. There's no sense to any of it, and no soul, just a bunch of ugly footage kludged together with speakers cranked up too loud.
And, perhaps most gallingly, though the film has "Los Angeles" right there in its title, it makes virtually no effort to capture in any way the spirit of that city, nor its iconography; it doesn't even make crude jokes about Beverly Hills getting vaporised. Which is maybe what happens when you film in fucking Louisiana. But I guess it's still "LA".