Battle: Los Angeles
This wasn't just the battle for Los Angeles, it was the battle for the world, and there weren't aliens with big almond eyes waving multiple limbs who as soon as they are out of their machines were stupid and hapless and screamed a lot, with over-hyped, loud, hair gel soaked soldiers firing one liners at them. No, not at all.
Battle: Los Angeles promised the overwhelmed human forces would be facing an impressive and very well organised invading army, and that the events were going to be more like a real war than we'd expect.
NASA has seen inside the meteors, they contain some form of mechanical hardware and they are slowing as they hit the atmosphere, just before they hit the sea. There's something inside the meteors, something that isn't natural.
The film starts off at the beginning of the invasion, showing the meteors landing and the aliens emerging. Then it quickly flashes back to introduce us to the main characters of the platoon we're going to be following.
This feels rather unusual as flashbacks so often leap backwards from well into the story or perhaps the end itself, not so here, but while it feels unusual it also works well as we don't know how the story is set to play out, we just know the beginning.
As nicely written and filmed as the opening is - it sets the film up for a strong position and shows us that the peace we're about to witness is to be shattered and with it the beliefs of everyone on Earth - there is one big flaw. The strength of the moments before the flashback falls apart as we are presented an embarrassing list of clichéd scenes and one dimensional characters shown with soulless efficiency.
It's as though the writers looked up a checklist of every single military cliché in the book of bad Hollywood blockbuster scriptwriting and made sure they were all in there - The retiring soldier pulled back in for one last seemingly easy job, one getting married just before being posted out, the first time soldier, the brand new leader straight out of the academy, and so on.
Not only is it destructive for the film so early on, but it's also rather soul destroying for the audience who had been led to believe that they would be getting something a little more than normal and rather embarrassing for the film itself, not to mention a huge disappointment. All that positivity built before the film and during the first part of the opening was ruined.
However as soon as the action begins and we head to the battlefield, to where the action is, the film turns around again and throws us right into the thick of battle building the film right back up again with a bang.
It's while the action is happening that the film is at its best, delivering some of the strongest and most intense battle sequences that you'll see outside of some of the best war films. There's a real sense of being caught up in the fire-fights, of being there with the soldiers, and this really helps you to connect with them as well as to believe the connections they have with each other.
The way the team deal with situations and behave as a unit is very believable and adds to the excitement, the fire-fights feel real and as though you're right in the middle of things but without losing sense of where everyone is in the action, even during the most frantic of moments. The film is stronger for the realism of these scenes.
The believability and the intensity of these sequences help to push you along with the story, pull you to the characters, and build the film upwards. I found myself being drawn to the edge of my seat during the battle sequences which deliver excitement and tension in bucketloads.
Even during some of the more heroic moments later in the film, the moments where you feel the cheese rise and think that you're watching one of the Americans save the world invasion films, you still buy them because they do work and in the heat of these realistic battle sequences you accept them more.
Another strong aspect to the film are the aliens themselves who aren't totally indestructible or like comic book aliens and they are given a very realistic treatment in their invasion and battlefield tactics. We're also not exposed to too much of them and their culture, we're kept on the outside with the soldiers and we just see enough, all of which I felt strengthened the film.
There are some great moments in the film when things don't go to plan, and when the soldiers make some difficult decisions. It's only within the moments of battle, or just surrounding them, that the events can often surprise and take a turn you didn't expect. It's here the writing and the imagination is at its strongest and it does make you feel like there were two different writers and directors on the film, one for the battle sequences and one for the scenes with the characters.
It is a shame though because every now and again the film returns to the complete clichéd moments, for example the child connecting with the Staff Sergeant, the female civilian and the Sergeant, his rousing speech to the troops, the acceptance, the redemption, it all goes one with embarrassingly predictability, and yet the other side of the film is so well done.
The effects are really well created and integrated with the film, and you do believe everything that you're seeing. While you obviously know that they are effects shots, they do merge right into the natural action which makes me think of District 9 (Filmstalker review).
Aaron Eckhart is strong, as is Ramon Rodriguez and a number of the other members of the troop. Michelle Rodriguez plays an Airforce tech, altogether too close to so many other roles she's played, but she does it again with gusto and delivers a strong and fun performance.
The story plays out well, keeping the team in constant peril and offering them little or no room for anything but constant panic and retreat, and when they do find themselves in the clear and safe enough to make decisions, they take the route that soldiers would. There are some nice touches to the characters as a team, some touching on those clichés, but these ones feel right, they feel like a good pay off.
It's just a shame that we didn't feel the impact of some of these reveals on the larger story of the alien invasion, and while some key moments are based on some big reveals on this part of the plot there isn't a feeling of a big turn of events or a surprise, instead the focus is kept on the soldiers and any emotional response is for them heading towards it. I do wish though that there had been a little bit more conveyed so that come that big moment across darkened L.A. we might have felt it too and had a little gasp to ourselves.
Once again though, it's the action that makes up for it, action filled with a musical score that seems to be non-stop, from emotional moments where the string section screams to the audience to "cry now", to the heightened pace and the deep notes of the action sequences. While the score does work and does counter the film well, I do wish that at some of the more emotional or character and plot scenes that it had just shut up and left us to the characters. During the clichéd scenes it feels like it's ladling it on or just distracting from the actor and the performance, maybe that was the point.
Battle: Los Angeles feels like two films, on one side there's the cliché and cheese military script playbook, and on the other the well scripted and realised action and battle scenes which pull you right into the fire-fights with the soldiers and deliver some intense and exciting sequences. Delivered with a powerful and frightening alien force that doesn't lower itself to the usual invasion blockbusters, the film does deliver on its promises.
The problem with the film really is when the action subsides and the clichés pour in by the dozen. I was rolling my eyes and snorting with laughter during a lot of the opening and in much the same way for many of the quieter moments.
Some people are saying that it's not really a problem, and I agree that this cheesy part wouldn't be a problem if we're about to be watching a film that sold itself like S.W.A.T. for example, but that's not what happened here, from the marketing to the opening we were led to believe we were seeing a film that was more intelligent than that, and for me that's the real problem.
While we see some excellent fire fights which are well filmed and edited with pace and excitement, and the film is filled with a much more intelligent view of the alien invaders and their tactics, when we hit the moments between them that are filled with cliché and cheese, it's the stark contrast of these dumber, more Independence Day moments, that bring the film way down.
What people fail to consider is how good the overall film could have been if it hadn't relied on the strength of the battle sequences alone and built the story elements between them up to the same level.
Battle: Los Angeles could have been a lot more than it is, and try as hard as the character moments do to bring it down, the rest of the film keeps powering it forward and keeps you drawn into the action. Great fun as it is, it could have been much, much better.