12 March 2011 | rparham
A familiar tale with a bit of a stylistic twist
The alien invasion film is certainly nothing original. Recently, and upcoming, I can think of no less than 4 film and TV versions of this basic tale. Battle: Los Angeles doesn't bring anything new, plot wise, to this scenario. In fact, it operates on the thinnest of plot and some very underdeveloped characters. The only somewhat unique aspect, at least for an alien invasion story, is its gritty "you are there" aspect, filmed in a hand-held, jerky, thick of the action style. This isn't revolutionary either, but Battle: Los Angeles does manage to squeeze some momentum out of its running length.
As mentioned above, Battle: Los Angeles' plot can be summed up rather succinctly: Aliens land on Earth throughout the globe, including near Los Angeles. This alien force, operating with ground forces, begins to overrun the various cities they arrive at, and LA is no different. A squad of marines, led by Staff Sergeant Nantz (Aaron Eckhardt) is dispatched to attempt to retrieve possible civilian presence from a Santa Monica police station behind the front lines of the fighting. They encounter heavy resistance, and must find a way back to their forward operating base while keeping the civilians under their protection, and themselves, alive.
Battle: Los Angeles is obviously influenced, visually, by movies such as Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan in the staging of its action. Much of the film is photographed with hand-held camera moves, the focus constantly whipping around, disorienting both the characters and the audience. While the technique is hardly unique, it does work to a degree in Battle: Los Angeles, bringing a different approach to a familiar plot. This isn't about scientists trying to figure out what the aliens want, or politicians wringing their hands about the "big decisions" in the midst of an alien onslaught. Battle: Los Angeles keeps its focus exclusively on the soldiers in the thick of battle, presenting the action in a no-holds barred manner. It is refreshing, at least from that perspective, to see a harder-edged, more realistic take on this material.
On the other hand, Battle: Los Angeles is a bit weak on the character front. The most development is given to Sergeant Nantz, who had just recently returned from a tour in Iraq where lives were lost and many assume he was to blame. This plays into several moments in the film, influencing other characters regarding the decisions he makes during the events of the story. Beyond that, aside from a few obligatory references to someone's relative or background, none of the other characters see much development. Physically, they are different enough to stand out from one another, but they are all mostly blank slates. There isn't complete detachment from the audience, several moments have some resonance emotionally, but not as much as if the filmmakers had taken some time to flesh the people out a bit more.
Battle: Los Angeles also suffers from being a bit overlong, and it's relentless, action oriented approach means that a lot of similar scenes play out over and over again: Marines trapped in combat, things don't look good, a character makes a choice or sacrifice, they manage to subdue their attackers, and then the film moves to the next scene in this same format. There is also little or no development of the alien menace. Snippets of television coverage featuring scientific experts fills in a little of the backstory to them, but it is mostly incidental. However, Battle: Los Angeles is not created in that style, it is about the action going on with the marines in the thick of it, and stays in that mode.
Aaron Eckhardt proves again his ability to sell a character, and he imbues Sergeant Nantz with a vigor and a degree of weariness that you buy into. Most of the other actors do a decent job of making us believe in these people as Marines in the thick of combat. A few recognizable names take roles, including Michele Rodriguez as an Air Force tech who joins up with the Marines and Bridget Moynihan as a civilian they are trying to protect, but neither has much to work with in regards to their characters other than to look tough or scared, respectively.
Battle: Los Angeles is certainly no masterpiece. It doesn't deviate much from the alien invasion template in regards to the broad strokes of its plot, and the style it was filmed in has been pioneered by other films. That being said, the film is engaging enough, and applies its style to a source material in a way that at least gives a different perspective on a familiar narrative framework. That doesn't make for a tremendous film, but not one that is completely in need of avoidance by the filmgoing public.