REVIEW: Supershaky Battle: Los Angeles Raises the Question: Could Your Mom Do Better with an iPhone?
The equilibrium-punishing visual style of the alien apocalypse flick Battle: Los Angeles suggests two possibilities to me, the first being that budgetary restrictions account for the epileptic, close-up camerawork sometimes used to convey a sense of "action" and "excitement" in films that can't afford to come by those things in a more interesting, inventive way. Matt Reeves's Cloverfield, for instance, made at the veritable clearance rate of $30 million, used point-of-view shaky-cam so extensively that warnings of motion sickness were posted in some theaters. The other possibility is that my mom is using her new iPhone to moonlight as a cinematographer.
Though the gadget has certainly changed her life -- I have a constant stream of photos to prove it -- I checked the credits, and Lukas Ettlin is listed as the DP. And alas, it seems that director Jonathan Liebesman had something like $100 million to play with, and all I got was this lousy aneurysm. It takes skill to pull off a you-are-there representation of spatial and circumstantial chaos without dragging the film itself into the muck; the director has to orient the audience within a realm of total disorientation. Or at least stay aware of the fact that this is a representation. Otherwise it really is just sensory bombardment, and in two dimensions you have even less of a grasp of what's happening and of what you're looking at than the poor bastards on-screen.
This means it takes longer than it should to recognize Aaron Eckhart zig-zagging around inside the frame. Eckhart plays Sgt. Michael Nantz, a Marine about to retire under the cloud of a botched Iraq mission that resulted in the deaths of several of his men. It's August 2011, and a meteor shower is scheduled to hit off the coast of California. What hits is in fact a coordinated outer space invasion, and Los Angeles is only one of dozens of cities around the world under sudden attack. The aliens' storming of Santa Monica beach is a directorial high point, and even it inspires only modest tingles: The Marines are mobilizing to evacuate the area as a precautionary measure when a live television broadcast captures the first images of what's really going on. It's frantic and scary and even the Marines look spooked -- an effective trick that wears out long before almost a full two hours are up.
Liebesman lingers excitedly on overhead images of the Google Earth shitshow that is the unknown enemy's planetary invasion. They are colonizing every continent right up the backside, although no one can figure out what they want or where they come from. At some point someone speculates that stealing Earth's water is their objective, only to be drowned out by the constant, deafening pounding of every manner of artillery. A mass bombing is planned to cleanse Los Angeles of the enemy, and Nantz, who is officially second in command to a young turk named Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), must make like he's not actually the one leading his men out of harm's way for the next 90 minutes. Along the way they pick up a random assortment of civilians, including a noble immigrant (Michael Pena) and his obedient son Hector (Bryce Cass) and Bridget "Maybe I can help -- I'm a veterinarian" Moynahan.
Aside from dialogue that would make James Cameron cry, Christopher Bertolini's script is notable for its recruitment pamphlet-level of dedication to the glory of the U.S. Marines. As if the way superhero handsome Eckhart fills out a helmet and chinstrap doesn't say it all, Bertolini has him huffing on about showing the enemy how Marines fight, reminding his colleagues that Marines don't quit, and giving glittery-eyed speeches about how even when Marines make the wrong decision at least they have the courage to make a decision. (Note to George W.: I think I just found your new favorite movie.) One of the most disconcerting things about this infinitely disconcerting clusterbomb is watching Eckhart, who seems to have convincingly played every movie role except the one his physiognomy destined him for, get buried by the hokum of lines even the bravest soldier couldn't sell. The audience I saw the movie with dissolved into hoots every time Liebesman paused from his frenzy to hotwire our heartstrings into an emotional response.
Mostly, though, he sticks to a series of creeping silences followed by an onslaught of heavy fire -- from drones in the sky, the alien-droid beasts on the ground, and the mechanical ton-tons they built to blast us all away. A moment like that of a helicopter full of injured Marines and civilians being blown out of the sky doesn't have the game-changing impact it should because there is no game -- and no ruling rhythm -- to the battle. Shadowy Vietnam allusions crop up here and there -- particularly a last, frantic airlift out of L.A. -- but on the whole Battle: Los Angeles is the emptiest form of sci-fi action: Just one bloody (or alien gooey) thing after another.