When Battle: Los Angeles was released back in March to a swathe of poor to middling reviews, it came as a surprise to almost no one at all.
As a gung-ho, crash, bang wallop action movie with a cast of ‘hoo-rah’-ing Marines, it was never going to walk away with the Palme d’Or. Derivative. Mindless, hackneyed, cheesier than a runner’s foot were common complaints, and, as it turns out, all completely and inarguably accurate.
As someone who’d read the reviews but didn’t catch the film in the cinema, it was with these reviews in mind, and with low expectations to match, that I sat down to watch Battle: Los Angeles, released on Blu-ray on Monday.
Aaron Eckhart plays Staff Sergeant Nantz, whom we meet as a troubled soldier on the brink of early retirement. Having suffered heavy losses on his last tour of duty, he’s forced into action once more as a planet-wide meteor shower proves itself to be much more sinister than it first appears. The meteors conceal an army of extraterrestrials with eyes on our planet’s water, intent on wiping out Earth’s indigenous population so the greedy buggers can claim all our lovely H20 for themselves. And as far as the plot goes, well, that’s about it, really.
More a collection of action scenes than a threaded narrative, the story, such as it is, merely provides reasons to funnel our group of Marines from one hostile encounter to the next. These encounters are undoubtedly the film’s raison d’etre, and it is a relief to say that the vast majority of them are excellently handled. Quick, snappy and assured, director Jonathan Liebesman clearly knows his way around an action sequence, despite still falling a little short of the visceral punchiness of Neil Blomkamp or Paul Greengrass.
However the cinéma vérité style Liebesman chooses to employ here has been the downfall of many an action sequence over the last ten years, and the infamous ‘shaky-cam’ makes its presence felt here, with scenes of one-on-one dialogue filmed as if the cameraman had just polished off his twentieth coffee of the day. The upside of this is that, when it matters and the bullets start flying, the grainy, docu feel really does give firefights with CG aliens the necessary realism to keep your interest adequately piqued, thus just about justifying its presence.
Because, it has to be said, the characters certainly won’t keep you interested. Here we have possibly the most generic group of stock soldiers ever committed to celluloid. Worse than that, characters appear to have been stolen wholesale from other films. Aaron Eckhart’s reluctant leader, bathed in pathos and suffering from nervous shakes, is Tom Hank’s character in Saving Private Ryan. The squad’s commanding officer, fresh from officer training, who buckles under the pressure but eventually comes good, is Gorman from Aliens. Some members of the squad don’t trust Eckhart at the beginning of the film. Others talk about seeing their sweethearts when they get home. Can you guess what happens? Yes. That happens.
Bemoaning the lack of character or story in this film is a bit like bemoaning the lack of poultry in a packet of chicken Super Noodles, granted. Yet, the film can also reach almost intolerable levels of cheese on occasion, to such an extent they should seriously consider putting a warning to lactose intolerants on the case.
Eckhart tells a crying boy whose father just died to be brave because “Marines don’t quit!”, while a dying soldier hands Eckhart a note and actually uses the phrase “please…give this to my wife.” I happened to be drinking tea during a scene in which a teary-eyed Eckhart salutes the American flag, and I sniggered so hard half a cup of PG Tips came out of my nose. It actually had me thinking someone had quietly made a sequel to Team America and asked Harvey Dent to be in it.
There is also an incessant, rabble-rousing score that pollutes and permeates almost every second of the film too, giving it a very Bay-ish feel hat the film really could have done without, as whether accompanied by mournful strings or filmed in slow motion, you never really care enough about the death of a character you don’t really know to warrant the time the film spends mourning them.
In the end, there are two things that save Battle: Los Angeles from being a disaster, the first being Eckhart himself. The only way he could walk away from this film with credibility intact is by playing it completely straight, and he does this commendably, with his character being the lynchpin of the entire film, despite some of the verbal guffage he’s forced to exhale. His enthusiasm for the machismo elements are infectious, and while you feel he would have been better suited to a film of a little more substance and gravitas, his presence lifts Battle: Los Angeles above its modest narrative aspirations.
The film’s second saving grace is the money that has clearly been spent on it, and with only Eckhart and Michelle Rodriguez (replicating her role from Avatar exactly) being the main recognisables, it’s all visible on the screen. The budget has allowed Liebesman to create spectacle and scale to a degree the script probably doesn’t deserve, and from beginning to end the film looks fantastic.
Special effects are almost faultless across the board, the aliens themselves look excellent, despite their lack of anything approaching an original concept, and every explosion and plume of smoke (of which there are many) is photorealistic and hugely effective. The action carries the film, and does so to such a degree that this is an action film in the purest sense. It’s the action itself that’s the star here, not the actors or plot.
It’s only in its slower moments the film’s ample budget fails to paint over the cracks of a script that probably should have remained on Syfy’s TV movie production desk, instead of being given a $100m green light.
Because I didn’t come to Battle: Los Angeles expecting anything, to come away having enjoyed an utterly brainless, yet consistently entertaining two hours came as something of a pleasant surprise. That the film fails on most levels isn’t important. The important thing is what it does well, and if you enjoy a blockbuster that asks nothing of you in return other than your willingness to suspend disbelief and cynicism, then you could do much worse.
It’s total fluff, but so is candy floss. And as part of a balanced diet, candy floss is lovely, isn’t it?
The disc comes with a selection of featurettes, each loosely detailing aspects of the production, with one focusing on the design of the aliens, another on the appointment of Liebesman himself, and others on the action sequences individually.
Of the seven features, three are exclusive to the Blu-ray edition, and while none are particularly insightful (with only two running over seven minutes), you do get an look into the stunt and effects work that went into the film, as well as the extent of the boot camp training that the actors endured.
Also included is Command Control, which, throughout the movie, brings up a selection of further mini-features of a couple of minutes each, detailing particular scenes or characters with picture-in-picture, as well as MovieIQ, which pops up with scene-relevant trivia as and when it deems fit.
Rounding off a decent extras package is a selection of trailers, plus clips from a few other Sony films and from upcoming PS3 title, Resistance 3.
No commentary is included, however, which does seem a little odd, considering the cast and crew’s apparent willingness to wax lyrical in the featurettes.
The picture quality, at 1080p, as you might imagine, is superb. The grainy style in which the film is shot may not appear to necessitate pin sharp visuals, and sometimes the extra fidelity is wasted slightly, but the extra clarity does allow the detail of the effects work to shine, particularly in the wide-angle vistas of LA, where you can see the minutiae of the battles raging below.
The 5.1 DTA-HD MA surround sound is also excellently done, and it’s films such as this that a decent surround sound rig is made for. Every bullet whips by with a ferocious zip, and explosions are felt right in the diaphragm. If only there was a way to turn off the incidental music.
You can rent or buy Battle: Los Angeles at Blockbuster.co.uk.