Thursday, 17 March 2011

Film Review: Battle: Los Angeles

A certain catharsis occurs when watching disasters of biblical proportions unfold upon humanity, and no more is this experienced than in 'end of the world' type scenarios. Apocalyptic blockbusters from Independence Day to 2012 have taken hundreds of millions from box offices the world over in spite of their less than critical acclaim. Indeed, there appears to be a dark, twisted urge in the human psyche to view our world set alite - as if viewing one's own destruction is a necessary purging experience for our species.

Stanley Kubrick once said that "for all its horror, war is pure drama". And what could be more dramatic than watching marines take on ...well... space marines? You'd be right to garner from that statement that the plot in Battle: Los Angeles is ludicrous to say the least. When strange meteors start falling from the sky around Earth's coastal cities, it soon becomes apparent that they are carrying an invasion force intent on seizing the planet's water supplies. As cities all over the globe capitulate to the aliens, Los Angeles remains humanity's last Alamo. When civilians in the city are caught behind enemy lines, gruff veteran Staff Sergeant Nantz (Eckhart) is tasked with leading a platoon of marines into the city to save them before the airforce flattens the area.

Los Angeles in particular seems to get it right up the arse from Hollywood when the end of the world looms, and this is hardly surprising when you hear how Americans grumble about the concrete jungle. Battle: Los Angeles is not the first, and nor will it probably be the last time the city succumbs to some epic cataclysm. It's been nuked (Terminator 2: Judgement Day), been torn apart by natural disaster (2012), reduced to ashes by lava (Volcano) and been levelled by aliens in more ways than I care to list (notably Independence Day and more recently, Skyline). LA is the popular city to hate in America. As a resident of 'The Angels' where complaining about sitting in gridlocked traffic is your god-given right, watching the highway network toppled is understandably satisfying. As an outsider who sees Hollywood for the machination of superficiality, greed and vanity that it is, watching it burn can understandably give you an equally delightful tingly feeling.

In this sense, director Jonathan Liebesman makes no secret this film doesn't expect much from its audience. It is unpretentious insofar that its purpose is to watch LA get mashed up. Make no mistake, this film isn't driven by its one-dimensional archetypes and B-Movie dialogue. While Eckhart acts as the film's anchor by bringing a certain empathy to events, the rest of the cast are stock characters. Eckhart's grizzled sarge on the verge of retirement is a given. Comprising the rest of the platoon we have obligatory virgin newbie, the one about to get married, that guy who misses his pregnant girlfriend back home, the guy still haunted by the demons of the past (Ne-Yo) and the no-nonsense tough chick (Rodriguez). Don't worry, they're all here. And they're all superfluous. Eckhart's Staff Sergeant Nantz is the only one you might care about, adding a whole new meaning to the phrase 'all American' as we become intimately acquainted with the topography of his epic chin. Otherwise however you won't give a damn if generic marine one or two dies.

Indeed, it is the action sequences and not the formulaic characters which take centre stage. Regardless of the enemy's sci-fi nature, there is a gritty realism to the battle scenes, which are fantastic. Think Blackhawk Down crossed with CoD: Modern Warfare, with aliens, and you begin to get a sense of what this film is all about. There are only so many camera shots through a lens scope or down the iron sight of a rifle you can take before you start to feel you're watching a video game. These scenes are non-stop and intense as not soon enough after one engagement sequence ends are we treated to the next. This works to the film's advantage, such is the franticness of the pace upon which Battle: Los Angeles bounds along that you barely have a moment to pause and dwell on its plot holes and generic protagonists. Only after can one ruminate on the film's faults, of which they are many. The first oddity concerning Battle: Los Angeles is that the setting is completely indistinguishable from any other urban sprawl. One might expect that a movie of this nature would at least warrant the Hollywood sign being blown up in a glorious 'fuck you' homage to all it stands for. But no, for a disaster movie this is sorely lacking in the iconic monument destruction department. Instead the action takes place in the confines of the blase setting of Santa Monica. While the setting's normalcy might add to the overall realism of attempting to display America as a warzone, I couldn't help but feel a little cheated that the Bunker Hill area wasn't flattened into oblivion.

What's usually particularly engaging about science fiction is the believability of its concepts and the consequent ability to capture one's imagination. So it might stand to reason that an invading alien force that has traversed across the stars to get to us would be unimaginably superior to us in terms of technology. Imagine my surprise then to find that these aliens, which look like the headcrab zombies in Half Life 2, use some form of projectile weaponry not too disimilar from our own. Sure, they might be some superior version based on Gauss or Mass-Driver technology, but when a US marine's kevlar vest takes a direct hit from five yards and he survives, you begin to get the impression that these aliens aren't such bad asses after all. Nonetheless, when the marines engage the aliens for the first time, we are presented with the prospect of a tough enemy, taking the entirety of a platoon's fire power plus grenades to down just one of the bastards. Yet strangely they become easier to kill as the film goes on, progressively taking fewer shots to end them. However, it was the appearance of the alien vehicles, baring uncanny resemblance to something out of District 9, which was the final straw for me. When an advanced alien race appears to operate some form of internal combustion technology, displayed by the obvious burning of fuel when fire is exhaled from the propulsion systems, disbelief finally took over. Now, call me silly, but that type of technology is incapable of propelling you across the stars in any meaningful amount of time. Hell, it takes one of our rockets the best part of a week to get to the moon. Think about how long it would take to get to another star system! In this regard, there was one facet in which Battle: Los Angeles' much maligned cousin, Skyline, whose creators initially worked on this film before running off with the idea, was much better. With Skyline you actually got a sense of foreboding with aliens whose motives were never fully explained and, above all, whose technology was for all intents and purposes invulnerable. As such it set a tone for an enervated ending which was much more, dare I say, 'realistic'.

While in one way it is interesting to watch two relatively balanced yet different sides duke it out, the enemy here doesn't quite fill you with the fear an unstoppable superior alien race ought to when invading your planet. So we've established that these things aren't that much more technically advanced than us, yet have managed to get to our planet with one fuck off invasion force. Ok, fair enough, I'll bite. However, being a graduate of War Studies, this got me thinking from another angle. Carl von Clausewitz wrote that to conduct a successful offensive, one must bring overwhelming superiority at a particular focal point in order to obtain victory on the field of battle. Further he added that when all other factors are taken away, superiority in numbers is the principle determining factor as even the most talented commander would find it difficult to defeat an enemy twice its size. Now, if a Nineteenth-Century Prussian General realised such basic concepts of warfare, why did an "advanced race" from another world not? So not only are these aliens technically inept so far as we would imagine them, they are also strategically fucking stupid.

There was one nice touch I did notice however, and one you could be forgiven for missing if you blink. In one of the film's numerous action sequences we get a glimpse of one of the aliens pulling their wounded comrades out of combat suggesting that they are not just faceless bogeymen intent on destroying Amurrica and that there might be something more complex about them than meets the eye. Indeed, if you were to look for some deeper meaning in Battle: Los Angeles, and you would be very hard pressed to find it, you might want to consider the following. On the one hand, making the villain a faceless headcrab zombie could easily be interpreted as propaganda pertaining to portray the American military in a favourable light, especially considering the bad press they receive for bombing little brown children. After all, you can't have any moral qualms to shooting men from Mars whilst delivering lines of hokey patriotism which are tantamount to 'Marines are the best. America is awesome. Hoo-rah!'. On the other, and this would be a surreptitiously subtle way to make a point, it is perhaps trying to draw parallels with the occupation of Iraq by asking the questions of what America would look like if the tables were turned. Certainly, there has been a trend of late toward this in the videogame industry, with Modern Warfare 2, Homefront and the soon to be released Crysis 2 all featuring similar scenarios. Occupied America is certainly something embedded in the zeitgeist of a country finding itself increasingly uncertain of its place in the world. Perhaps then there is more cud to chew in this film than it would have you first believe.

More likely however it is probably as dumb as it looks. If you expect deeper meaning from your sci-fi and are offended by sickeningly brazen, ostentatious displays of patriotism where Americans yet again save the day, this may not be the film for you. If, however, you go into Battle: Los Angeles taking it for what it is - an excuse to blow up everything in sight - then it is difficult to come out feeling disappointed. Hoo-rah!