Saturday, March 12, 2011

Standard Operating Procedure - Battle Los Angeles

Well, hell, I was looking forward to a gripping alien-invasion thrill ride, but what you get in Battle Los Angeles is nothing more than standard operating procedure for an action movie that spends more time glorifying the U.S. military in combat than it does establishing any sort of substantial fear or establishing the aliens as a fearsome, formidable foe. In fact, I frequently felt I was watching an extended version of that Citizen Soldiers propaganda music video we were forced to watch countless times before the previews played. Although I kind of dig a good old John Wayne guts and glory shoot-em-up, I had expected this one to serve up a little more science fiction with its battle action. Instead, this is the same old thing, with all the elements you’d expect from a standard war movie.

Aaron Eckhart as Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz:

He’s John Wayne, 2011. He has devoted twenty years to the Marines, and he wants out, but when aliens land off Santa Monica, he kicks in and does his duty and more, risking his life in daring maneuvers, planning to go back alone to destroy an alien command ship. Eckhart has presence, and he often carries the movie as it subsides into ordinary combat action, but we don’t get much more from Eckhart than tough-as-nails bravado. A little bit of the shakes, sure, but when he and his men have gone miles and miles beyond the call of duty, he’s ready to eschew R&R and go back for more: “I’ve already had my breakfast.”

Action Without Suspense:

The action starts so immediately it’s jarring and disorienting. As the platoon led by Second Lieutenant Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) and Sergeant Nantaz gear up and fly out to Lincoln Avenue in Santa Monica to extract civilians before a massive air strike, the place is already a hellish war zone. Seen from the air, the image is impressive, but I felt disappointed that we never get to see how it got that way. The aliens have already landed but without any sort of build up or suspense. From fuzzy televised newscasts we learn that approaching meteors harbor some sort of alien craft. Again, in fuzzy images on TV screens, the meteors splash down, one hits a ship, alien cyborgs or whatever emerge from the water, and ranks of aliens march out of the ocean onto Santa Monica Beach, an image that could have been impressively done as a gripping set-piece. But, hell, we’re past that. We’re already following our platoon into Santa Monica, where the streets have been reduced to the mean streets of Baghdad, with insurgents shooting down from rooftops. And that’s all it is, any old insurgent threat, a lot of shooting, a lot of running down alleys and into apartments and laundry rooms, but no sort of gripping dread of what’s out there.

U.S. Military Advertising:

This movie is certainly endorsed by the U.S. Marines. It does the same thing that Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) did, which is why the Marines showed it to new recruits training for the Vietnam War. All the essential Marine virtues are extolled – unit pride, sacrifice, duty. Never leave a man behind! “Retreat? Hell!” The swelling musical score plays obtrusive accompaniment for all the heroism and glory.

The Convenient Control Ship:

At first it looks like the aliens just have ground forces. Piece of cake for the U.S. Marines. Then the aliens send down drone aircraft that detach from circular clusters of drones. Nothing new here; they look like the aliencraft from Skyline. And the ship that controls ALL the drones is a pendulous collection of clinking junk right out of District 9. This makes it very easy for our guys. All they have to do is knock out the control ship and they all fall down. Very nice of the aliens to make it so easy.

Michelle Rodriquez:

What’s an action movie without her? Recently in Avatar she played the tough helicopter pilot who goes down shooting rockets at the big command ship. She’s always the tough macha military chick, and I love her. She makes her appearance just when things start to get monotonous, but then she seems tired in her role, not as bitchy as she was in Avatar, not nearly as awesome as she was in Resident Evil.

Shaky Handheld:

Oh, yes, even though no hippie cameraman or nerdy civilian is videotaping the platoon with his camcorder, the camera shakes and blurs the action to the point of nausea. Especially since we’ve been robbed of any suspense associated with the landing of the aliens, it would be important to establish what the aliens look like and what they can and can’t do, and a little more clarity goes a long way in establishing a gripping situation, but here it’s all a blur.

Video Game Targets:

The aliens are no more than video game targets that jump out of nowhere into the shooter’s point of view. They are given no character. We don’t know their attributes. There’s a nifty scene in which Nantz and a cute veterinarian (Bridget Moynahan) dissect a dead alien in order to find its never center so they guys know what to shoot at, but beyond that the aliens have no presence. There’s a brief shot in which Nantz tosses a grenade, and one of the aliens picks it up and wonders what it is, but this is just a glimmer of the aliens as a real presence. All they do is keep coming, but you never feel the icy dread you feel in Aliens when the aliens keep coming.

In conclusion, enough on the alien invasion movies unless filmmakers can do something different! Once I settled into this movie’s focus on frictions that coalesce into unit pride and solidarity, I enjoyed some of the standard action. I enjoyed the cheesy scene in which Nantz slides down the rope from the helicopter to go back alone, and you just know who will follow right behind, but much of this movie is right out of Black Hawk Down without the genuine fear and gripping sense of extreme danger established by that film.


Jason Bellamy said...

I'm grateful you saw this, so I don't have to.

Hokahey said...

Well, Jason, it was better than Red Riding Hood.