Thursday, March 10, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles: What's alien for Oorah!?

The disasterama alien invasion opera Battle: Los Angeles can’t have been the easiest project to provide production design for: despite the film’s inane if commanding title, much of the action is set in Santa Monica, nearly every square inch of which gets blown to kingdom come. Yet early in our story, as marines troll the corpse-strewn resort town for survivors, a clever and conspicuously placed SUPPORT OUT TROOPS sign looms. It’s a straightforward plea and a sort of moral summary of what follows, which teeters on the cusp of bald armed forces propaganda. Battle: Los Angeles is more war movie than science fiction, and within its genre more Pearl Harbor than Thin Red Line. In a pivotal third-act scene, the most heroic of the movie’s uniformly heroic marines attempts to comfort a small child who just lost his civilian father and is several hours into a pants-kaking apocalypse by declaring that “Marines never quit!” Am I the only one who found this an inappropriate opportunity for recruitment?

The three-alarm meteor shower that kicks things off reveals itself to be a full-on hostile extraterrestrial colonization attempt just when guilt-ridden Staff Sergeant Nantz (Aaron Eckhart, well-cast, oddly enough) was supposed to be retiring from service following a tragic “tough call” which cost the lives of several members of his company in a curiously unspecified foreign conflict. Massive destruction is thus occasionally interrupted by portentous gossipy grumbling about Nantz’s lethally neglectful leadership, leading up to the token grossly overwritten bathetic monologue in which Nantz explains his actions and regains the confidence of his fellows. The attempt to generate some character development is noble enough, but what screenwriter Christopher Bertolini contrives is so generic that it mostly feels like draggy distraction from questions like why has no one mentioned nuclear bombs yet, or where’s our ubiquitous snarling explosion movie go-to girl Michelle Rodriguez… Oh wait, there she is!

Reunited with cinematographer Lukas Ettlin, the pair having teamed up previously for
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, director Jonathan Liebesman evokes the chaos of battle through jittery camerawork and aimless fidgeting with the zoom. The gunplay and scurrying is at least fairly coherent, and there’s a pretty nifty bit where Nantz fools a flying alien drone by having it follow a bunk radio signal. There’s also a memorable sequence involving some sloppy, syrupy alien surgery, preceded by what’s easily Bertolini’s finest piece of dialogue, given to an attractive civilian (Bridget Moynahan) and potential love interest for Nantz in the inevitable sequel: “Maybe I can help. I’m a veterinarian.” The aliens of course never utter a word, not even in alien, so you’re waiting in vain if you hold out for their leader to mount the Griffith Observatory and announce that they’ve come to liberate us.

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