The last couple years have seen the return of an old trend from the 50’s and and 60’s. Those decades were what one would call the Golden Age of alien invasion films and stories. We had alien invasion films both serious and comedic. They ranged from classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing to the awful like Plan 9 From Outer Space and tons of titles I could barely put down. In 2009 we had an alien-themed film which one could call the return of the genre back to the forefront. District 9 by South African filmmaker Neil Blompkamp was universally hailed as one of the best scifi films of the decade and even got nominated for an Academy Best Picture.
Then there’s the other alien-invasion film from 2010 which covers the low-end of the equation. The Strause Brothers’ own Skyline was universally panned by critics and audiences alike. While some did enjoy the film for it’s “so bad, it’s good” quality (I use that term as loosely as redlight hooker). This film was everything that was opposite of District 9. While I did enjoy that film because it was bad I don’t look back at it too fondly.
The latest film in this alien-invasion resurgence is from another South African filmmaker and one whose body of work is mostly genre films of the low-budget variety. Jonathan Liebesman’s own entry into this scifi genre is Battle: Los Angeles and it lands smack dab between District 9 and Skyline in regards to overall execution. It’s a workman-like film which takes an epic alien invasion war and brings it down into the pavement. We see the film through the eyes of a rifle squad of Marines and that’s where the film really becomes a really fun experience.
Battle: Los Angeles begins in medias rea with the war between the unknown alien invaders already having made their initial surprise landings and the U.S. military making it’s countermoves. We learn from a hasty news conference held by a military commander that the alien forces have landed at over a dozen or so coastal cities around the world have begun to move inland. I was somewhat discouraged to find out that San Francisco didn’t even last half a day and was lost. With Los Angeles the last major coastal city on the west coast that still had a viable military presence we hear one of the film’s tagline in that they cannot lose Los Angeles.
After this brief intro we go back 24 hours before the battle begins to get the character introductions sorted out. We see the Marines who will make up the squad the audience will follow through the rest of the film get their brief time to get introduced with some basic backstory to give them some personality. The one which stood out from all the war film archetype characters was Aaron Eckhart’s grizzled and retiring Staff Sgt. Nantz. He becomes the anchor that holds all the players into a cohesive unit and who also keeps the film from spiraling out into Skyline territory. Some of the cookie-cutter characters we meet would be the commanding officer straight out of Officer Training School who has never seen combat but is eager to lead his men and sees the combat-experienced SSgt. Nantz as someone who might usurp his authority. We also get the Marine whose previous combat tour has left him psychologically damaged and tries to earn his mind back into fighting state. We even get the young Marine who everyone sees as the little brother and who also happens to be a virgin.
To say that the characters in Battle: Los Angeles looked like they came out of old-school World War 2 war film casting call would be an understatement. The film just gives these characters (outside of Eckhart’s veteran noncom) enough personality that we’re able to distinguish one jarhead from another. Characterization is not one of this film’s strong suit, but once the bullets and alien stuff begin to start flying the need to get more character moments from these individuals really go out the window and the audience just holds on as they follow this Marine rifle squad into combat with an enemy force better equipped.
The film borrows much from battle sequences from Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan as director Liebesman opts to use a cinema verite style to give the audience a documentary, imbedded reporter look to the whole proceeding. The shaky cam look this filmmaking style uses may turn off some people, but the way the action sequences (which pretty much takes up close to 3/5’s of the film’s running time) were edited actually keeps the shaky cam from becoming too overwhelming. The film actually does a very good job of showing the confusing nature of battle, but also the fog of war for the grunts on the ground.
Before I get to what about this film really worked for me I will have to admit that the film’s screenplay is it’s biggest weakness. It’s a major weakness that for some viewers will sink the whole film no matter whatever bright points it might have. The film’s core story was actually pretty good. A story about an alien invasion told from the point of view of human soldiers on the ground trying to repel the invaders was a concept that hasn’t really been explored in this type of film. While that foundation for the film is strong the dialogue and how the characters were written left much to be desired. I put the onus on the flimsiness of most of the characters on the screenplay more than the characters themselves. Spielberg and Scott were able to use the very same war film character archetypes and make them work in their film, but that was possible due to much stronger screenplays.
In this film the dialogue’s very hokeyness doesn’t inspire as much as it makes for some wince inducing moments. I can’t say that all of the dialogue was bad. They’re no worse than most war films both good and bad. The dialogue just didn’t seem to have any energy to them and sounded as if it was still being read from an earlier and much rougher draft. I do believe that if the screenplay had been given a couple of doctoring by competent, veteran screenwriters the film would’ve benefitted greatly from it. Instead, the film ended up having to have a strong veteran actor in Aaron Eckhart deliver these average lines with enough conviction and gravitas to keep the film from becoming a parody of a war film. The fact that the film still manages to hold together despite the weaknesses in the screenplay is a testament to one actor performing the hell out of that script. I won’t even go into some people’s issues about the science or battle tactics in the film since I believe the film was consciously built to keep those vague. The film is not about the who or what about this invasion and why the aliens are here, but about that rifle squad from the 2/5 Marines.
Now, what really worked for me about this film is the battle itself. For a fan of both alien invasion and war films this one combined the two and succeeding in delivering what the filmmakers promised. Battle: Los Angeles gave a visceral look into the trials and tribulations of a squad of Marines as they do their part on the ground to fight off a much more advanced enemy. There’s a scene when the Marines are flying over Santa Monica on their way to their Forward Operation Base and we see a running battle on the gorund below between human defenders and the aliens who have moved up from the beach. Even the firefights Nantz and his squad were in once they entered the battle behind enemy lines looked to be influenced with the many battle footage of American forces conducting ground war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The special effects both CGI and practical to make Los Angeles look like a wartorn urban battleground was done very well. The aliens and their machines were given a look that wasn’t sleek and shiny but utilitarian and efficient. Some have said that the design of the aliens and their machines looked lazy, but I actually believe that if the filmmakers had fallen back on traditional advanced futuristic designs that would have been lazy. These aliens looked like they were design with only one thing in mind and that was to wage war on a people.
The score to the film by Brian Tyler was good and serviceable as his own modern riff on the old-school World War 2 film score, but I thought what this film needed was a veteran composer who knows how to bring out the machismo, gung-ho and esprit de corps of the Marines the audience followed throughout the film. It’s a shame that film composer passed away several years ago because he definitely would’ve given Battle: Los Angeles the kind of score which would’ve elevated the film from a thrilling war film into an epic one.
In the end, Jonathan Liebesman’s first foray into a bigger budget production hit more than it miss though one of those misses many of it’s detractors have seen as a fatal flaw in the film. Battle: Los Angeles doesn’t reinvent the alien invasion film, but just takes a new angle on the whole proceedings. It’s a film that shows influences from better war films by better filmmakers, but also gives hints that this young South African filmmaker has shown glimpses of talent that could take him places that his compatriot Neil Blompkamp has reached with his own alien-themed film. Battle: Los Angeles is just an old-school war film dressed up with modern fatigues and arrived onto the screen with all the positives and negatives of those very same traditional war films people love and hate since film as entertainment was created. It’s not on the same level as District 9 but it is definitely heads and shoulders above the very laughable Skyline of 2010.
As an aside, while I was watching the film I was struck by how this film looked like a preview of what Blompkamp’s potential sequel to his District 9 would look if and when Christopher Johnson came back to Earth with an armada of very pissed off Prawns…and speaking of pissed off Prawn: pig cannon.