Saturday, March 12, 2011
Battle: Los Angeles (Movie Review)
After seeing just one trailer for "Battle: Los Angeles", I didn't want to see any more. It looked like a movie I didn't want to spoil by seeing too much of in advance. And I was right.
Aaron Eckhart leads the cast as U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz. He's had a long career, but his last mission ended terribly, haunting him with the death of the men he led. Despite preparing to retire, he is kept on when mysterious meteorites striking earth turn out to be the first wave of an invasion force. The story follows Nantz as he is placed back into the uncomfortable and weighty role of leadership amidst this relentless, unstoppable threat. Further complicating matters is the fact that he has a reputation, deserved or not, for letting those he leads die in combat.
Right from the start I sensed this movie was making some good moves by introducing us to the ensemble cast and Nantz in particular. These were not meant to be a series of ranks and last names, but people with families, fears and dreams. Too often genre movies are concept driven rather than character driven, so I appreciate when a movie like this aims to make characters a core value, since doing so adds to the mounting tension that genre films are often trying to capture in the first place.
And speaking of tension, this movie rarely lets up. After the first 15-20 minutes of setup, the literally explosive pace offers few opportunities to catch your breath. Despite some sci-fi trappings of an alien invasion, this movie feels mostly like a military combat action flick. Explosions and gunfire create firestorms of chaos for the viewer and the sound design places us in the middle of the action with bullets flying in surround sound.
The "shaky-cam" effect is used quite a bit as well, to keep us from getting settled. Often, this effect can be abused, hiding poor special effects and uncreatively coordinated action sequences. But here it builds the tension as the viewer, like the soldiers, try to make sense of what's happening on the battlefield.
Special effects are cool (sometimes extremely convincing!) and not too colorful, in keeping with the gritty realism the movie captures.
The score is used with solid yet subtle effect, getting out of the way of the sound effects, which sell the chaos and tension so well, but becoming more noticeable during some moments of triumph, while still maintaining a somber attitude. (Moments of triumph are rare and short lived in this flick.)
Performances are all fine, though nothing outstanding here. This is related to my one area of complaint. Despite the setup of a few marine characters in the beginning, as soon as they stepped into uniform, I quickly lost track of who was who. So when someone died I wondered "Oh, was that the guy whose wife is pregnant?" instead of immediately reacting the way I should have. Most often I didn't realize which characters were dead until I started asking, "Hey, what happened to 'whatzisname?'" So despite taking the time to set up some characters, similar skin tones and identical helmets and uniforms proved to severely cripple my connection with several supporting characters and their stories.
In terms of worthwhile conversation to be had on the drive home, it's possible you'll find yourself discussing reputation in some form if you really want to bring it up. Nantz commits himself to serving the best he can, regardless of the fact that he is seen as a villain or coward. He even willingly takes on responsibilities that will potentially enhance this reputation. So doing the right thing without getting credit is certainly a big part of the character plot. However, the ride is so intense that most will likely just be thinking about survival for two hours and just learning to breathe again on the way home.
Rated PG-13 for sustained and intense sequences of war violence and destruction, and for language.