Bore of the Worlds
Given the scenes of devastation still daily on my TV as I write, both in Libya and Japan (a country with a very special place in my heart), part of me is inclined to dismiss Jonathan Liebesman's enthusiastically apocalyptic Battle: Los Angeles simply on the grounds of tastelessness. But that would hardly be fair, given that film-makers can hardly be expected to predict the future. Unfortunate timing aside, this film deserves as fair a crack of the whip as any other.
So, then. Battle: Los Angeles boldly breaks extremely well-trampled ground by being an alien invasion movie in which the military of the world must contend with a better-armed extraterrestrial foe. It has one of those slightly annoying openings which has a snippet of the action in full flow, before jumping back in time to establish how everything got to that point. (I don't really see why this plot structure has become so popular - do directors think people are going to walk out of their movie just because it's a slightly slow starter?)
Aaron Eckhart plays troubled USMC Staff Sergeant Nantz, who's on the verge of quitting the forces on the grounds that a) he has personal issues to resolve and b) he's past it. However, retirement plans are put on hold when peculiar meteorite showers landing off the shores of major cities herald the onslaught of another load of intergalactic metal gits dead set on taking possession of the Earth. (They're after our water, hence the amphibious assault on coastal cities - although London is also apparently on the hit list. The aliens must have route-marched up the river - once again the Thames Barrier proves a massive white elephant.) Nantz finds himself under the command of an inexperienced new officer, taking a team into an enemy-held section of LA to evacuate civilians prior to a massive bombing operation. Suffice to say that not everything goes to plan.
If we're really going to make a go of this describing-films-in-terms-of-X-meets-Y business, then Battle: Los Angeles is quite clearly 'Black Hawk Down meets Independence Day'. Fatally, however, it lacks the directorial precision of the former and the crowd-pleasing spectacle and sense of fun of the latter. It is, to be perfectly frank, really, really dull.
It's not as if nothing happens: most of the film is the story of Nantz and his comrades battling their way to safety while trying to impede the enemy advance and keep some civilians safe. (The divine and radiant Michelle Rodriguez pops up as an Air Force techie they bump into - it's getting to the point where I can't think of a film where 'Chelle doesn't get to cut loose with a machine gun at some point. It's not as if she doesn't scrub up well, I have a collection of photos to prove it.) But it's simply monotonous. Someone barks some orders. They walk down a street. Alien stuff flies overhead. Someone mutters something plot-related about the situation. Guns go off for a bit. Someone makes a heart-felt speech about their friends and family. They walk down the street. Someone barks orders. Aliens fly overhead. Repeat, for well over an hour.
This only really stops when the film pauses to do Character Stuff. This is not necessarily a good thing, as the film clearly wants to get to the alien invasion stuff in a hurry and the only person even to approach two dimensions is Nantz. Eckhart is pretty good, and seems to be trying a bit harder than the script probably deserves, but he's still been much better in many other different films. Everyone else's Character Stuff is just out of a trite and overfamiliar soap-opera.
The other problem is that - look, I don't know any US Marines. They may indeed all be, as the film suggests, heroic, laudable, selfless individuals, simultaneously managing to be elite, fearless warriors and yet subtly flawed, identifiable human beings. This may be a qualification to get into the USMC; I'm not eligible and I can't swim anyway, so I've never bothered to find out. However, even if this incredibly flattering depiction of them is spot-on accurate it doesn't necessarily make for an interesting set of characters. They all look much the same (except for Eckhart and his chin) and tend to blur into each other, so identikit are they. Even Rodriguez doesn't make much of an impression.
(The only moment when the Marines aren't being selfless heroes comes when they happen upon a wounded alien, and - rules of war be damned! - cut it to pieces while still alive in an attempt to find any weak spots it may possess. More of this kind of morally-dubious pragmatism and fewer recruitment-ad platitudes might have made a better movie, but the USMC probably wouldn't have been so keen to co-operate.)
And this film is almost wholly lacking in subtext. It doesn't seem to really be about anything, except how wonderful the US military is. It's a virtuoso piece, technically speaking, but it's by no means the first film in this fake-verisimilitude style, most notably being beaten out of the traps by the somewhat-similarly-themed Skyline last Autumn.
The makers of Battle: Los Angeles and Skyline are, thrillingly, engaged in a court case, the central claim being that the latter film ripped off material from the first. I don't think I'm exaggerating too much if I suggest that this behind-the-scenes stuff is probably the most interesting thing about Battle: Los Angeles. (For the record, Skyline is eerily similar in some ways, but only superficially - and while it's ultimately disappointing and almost wholly absurd, it's still a more interesting movie than Battle: Los Angeles.)
Of course, I am frequently wrong about these things, and even though I think it's a crashingly tedious and rather predictable film wasting the talents of two fine actors, Battle: Los Angeles may well go on to be a big hit. In which case no doubt a franchise will result in which our valiant human heroes will engage the alien menace in a variety of water-rich locations. Battle: Leamington Spa, anyone?