Jonathan Liebesman | 116 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13
Battle Los Angeles (on screen; Battle: Los Angeles on posters — c’mon, let’s have some consistency with punctuation! Punctuation matters) seemed to come in for a wall of criticism when it hit cinemas way back whenever. For my money, though, it wasn’t that bad.
Others have described it as “Independence Day meets Black Hawk Down”, and for once that formulaic “X meets Y” description is bang-on. Like ID4, there’s a worldwide alien invasion in progress by a superior species that dominates Earth’s forces pretty quickly. Unlike ID4 (and therefore more like Black Hawk Down) there’s no multiple perspectives or look at the command level; we just follow a small band of men on a very particular mission — head to a police station and extract civilians before the US Airforce bombs the area in three hours’ time — with only snatched glimpses of the wider conflict on news reports, Cloverfield style. It’s a different way of handling a military-focused big alien invasion movie, so that works.
For the most part, anyway. It’s thrown away at the end as our particular band of heroes wind up the only military presence left in LA and happen across the command & control centre of the enemy, promptly setting out to destroy it with laser-targeted missiles. Small scale “one force in a much larger battle” drama is exchanged for world-saving grandeur. Ah, America.
This kind of gung-ho militarism is laid on too thick. It seems fine for much of the film, but then as it heads into the second half and, especially, the third act, we have to suffer all manner of speeches and Emotional Moments that lack weight due to characterisation issues. The latter is badly handled for all kinds of reasons. All of the marines are entirely clichéd; so too are their story arcs; too much time is wasted trying to make us care about them — there are too many and they’re too shallowly drawn; things are worsened when a couple of civilians are added to the mix, who suffer from all the same problems… except they’re perhaps under- rather than over-developed. As we reach the third act, anything approaching plausible characterisation is jettisoned. Like the small-scale focus, what begins as naturalistic ends up with Big Speeches and all manner of Emotional Moments.
Where the film excels, however, is the other side of gung-ho militarism: action. I don’t hold with the criticism some levelled that it’s too reliant on ShakyCam, confusing the action to the point of incomprehensibility. Maybe that happened on the big screen, I couldn’t say, but while these aren’t the greatest or most clear sequences I’ve ever seen, they’re certainly not hard to follow. The film uses its gritty, handheld, Saving Private Ryan-borrowed style to good effect for much of its running time, evoking the likes of the aforementioned as well as Black Hawk Down and The Hurt Locker in terms of conveyed realism. As I said, this is very effective for an alien invasion movie.
But, much like the early focus and characterisation, as things progress towards the climax this is slowly abandoned, showing a lack of the commitment to its world and story that Cloverfield or Monsters exhibited. There’s an increasing number of shots from the enemy’s perspective; the climax seems to abandon the earlier handheld style almost entirely for the sake of a grandstanding finale.
There is an even better film tucked away inside Battle Los Angeles. One brief dialogue scene discusses the similarities between the human soldiers and alien grunts, but the intriguing idea that they’re intelligent beings following orders just like us is sadly not built upon. There are obvious parallels with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but aside from the audience spotting shots that are reminiscent of news footage, the threads aren’t drawn out or commented on. Instead Battle LA does two things: military sycophancy, which is typically American and typically tiring or laughable (depending on your mood), and some stonkingly decent action sequences. They may take a little while to get to, but they’re relatively worth the wait.
What could have been a thought-provoking brain-switched-on commentary-on-the-world sci-fi film is instead a brain-switched-off gung-ho sci-fi action flick. I’ve seen better, I’ve seen worse, but treated as blokey weekend-evening entertainment this is fine.