Battle Los Angeles (Liebesman, 2011)

To colon or not to colon?

The title credits of Battle Los Angeles, which I always thought were the ultimate authority in such matters, does not have the colon. 

That is about the most productive contribution that I can make to the critical engagement of this film, which struck me as tailor made for audiences who loved Starship Troopers but wished it had been a little more violent and not bogged down with so much character development.

If that strikes you as a bit too snarky, think of Battle Los Angeles as a remake of Independence Day but with the emotional palette of Restrepo. The marines may not be shell shocked by the end, but I was feeling pretty numb.

The characters other than Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) all seemed pretty interchangeable, and thirty minutes after the film was over, I doubt I would have made a passing grade for a test that made me match their names with their pictures. Nantz himself has a caricature of a back story. Plagued by guilt for losing men under command, he must deal both with insubordinate marines who mouth off more than sullen teenagers (did these guys not have drill sergeants in basic training?) and a top-of-his-class-but-useless-in-the-real-word lieutenant.

After a perfunctory and half-hearted prologue establishing the people the marines are supposedly fighting for, the film dives into combat and pretty much forgets all of them. Maybe there was a hard truth in some version of that telling, that the reality of combat is that it quickly becomes the extent of your existence. Or maybe writing a scene where two human beings actually talk to each other is harder than choreographing a hundred explosions.

The shorthand visual or thematic references to other, better movies are too numerous to count and too obvious to have much fun enumerating. I guess one shouldn’t be too surprised at going to a film entitled “Battle” and finding it generic. That said, there is something straightforward about the way the film announces its genericness and kind of revels in it. While the writing is wretched, I can’t even really say that its technically incompetent, but….

In the service of what?

I don’t mean that in any ideological sense. When the preview audience around me cheered it had more to do with the freedom, found only these days in films with nameless aliens and historical Nazis as enemies, to be unilaterally and unambiguously on one side of a divide. I’m just saying I don’t see the entertainment value here no matter how hard I squint. It’s not that all movies have to be fun. There can be an entertainment value in a perceptive examination of serious themes, in technical excellence, in pathos, in probing art that deals with unpleasant things.  I’m just not sure that any of those categories apply here.

Director Jonathan Liebesman’s first two major film credits were Darkness Falls and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (full disclosure: I’ve seen neither),  and I think in many ways Battle Los Angeles is a military action frame around what is ultimately a horror/monster picture. Not that it is particularly graphic–it stays on the PG-13 side by keeping the ratio of violence to property versus violence to people at about 99.99 to 00.01–but it is so unimaginative, so literal, so very, very mechanical.

And yet, and yet, and yet…I don’t think the film is as bad as some people are making it out to be. If it had been, it might have been more fun. I think attempts to convince oneself or the public that it really was godawful rather than just mediocre are, at heart, attempts to inject some levity or creativity into the discussion surrounding a film that has so little of those qualities and yet is so loud and frenetic that indifference just doesn’t feel like a sufficient enough reaction. Unless you can muster the energy for loathing, you may end up feeling like you subjected yourself to all that noise for nothing.


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