Great FX, action makes 'Battle' win

Posted: Thursday, March 17, 2011

"Battle: Los Angeles"

Ap Photo/Columbia Pictures-Sony, Richard Cartwright
Ap Photo/Columbia Pictures-Sony, Richard Cartwright
In this image Eckhart is shown in a scene from "Battle: Los Angeles."

Columbia Pictures

1 hour, 56 minutes

I don't know if it's a subtle reaction to the immigration issue, or a response to the economy, or a return to the latent fears of the 1950's, but alien invasion is all the rage. Over the next year or so we will see a dozen or so tales of extra-terrestrials, either attacking us for our planet, or slyly hiding among us. This week's entry into the genre, the gritty and realistic war film, "Battle: Los Angeles," isn't the first out of the gate in 2011 - that honor would go to "I Am Number Four," which stunk up the box office a few weeks ago. It is, however, a good example of how things can go right. "Battle: LA" is exactly as advertised: tough, action-packed, and hard-charging from beginning to end.

Aaron Eckhart plays Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz, a battle-weary veteran who's ready to call it a day at the film's beginning. He's putting in for retirement, but before the paperwork can go through, everything goes haywire.

A series of meteors approaching the Earth turn out to be not meteors at all, but a strike force with a calculated plan to steal the planet's resources, namely water, and do away with mankind in the process.

That all sounds rather melodramatic, but thankfully the film doesn't play out that way. It's far more intimate, the details only barely gleaned from background news reports or character speculation. Nantz and his platoon take to the streets of L.A. shortly after the initial attack has left the city in shambles. The goal is the find survivors and escort them out, but the invading aliens have other ideas.

One of the things I liked most about this film was that the aliens, their vehicles and their weapons, are never focused on too fully. This achieves two goals: one - the film never loses its immediacy by getting bogged down in interstellar relations or examinations of alien biology or technology. Everything, both for the soldiers and the audience, is learned in the moment, usually while ducking behind something made of cement. The other benefit to never showing the creature close up, as Steven Spielberg learned in "Jaws," is that the audience never has that awful letdown moment of "Oh. That's what we were supposed to be afraid of? So fake. So lame." Take "Signs" as a good example. That was a pretty solid movie for the first hour and a half. But suddenly there's a rubbery alien in the living room trying desperately not to trip over the randomly placed glasses of water, and it completely lets the air out of the balloon. Director Jonathan Liebsman is able to do more with less by never really giving us a good look at our adversaries.

Now, that's not to say that the special effects in this film are lacking. The FX are really good, and all the better for looking so real-world. The alien ships are not sleek, nor do they seem to magically fly on cushions of air. These creatures seem to be from a very similar technological background as ourselves, only much farther advanced. They shoot bullets, use combustion engines, and think, tactically, in similar ways to their human foes. Aside from the obvious sci-fi elements, there really is not that much difference between "Battle" and any other film about close-quarters urban combat, especially "Black Hawk Down," the film I hear it compared to the most.

"Battle: LA" is not as good as "Black Hawk Down," certainly, but it's in the same ballpark, and that's a compliment in and of itself. The difference is that where, "Black Hawk" was completely solid top to bottom, "Battle" succumbs to moments of hokeyness, especially in the dialogue. We have to hear the "Get it together! These men can't do this without you!" speech, in one fashion or another, every twenty minutes or so, and in that way "Battle" shares something in common with many of its more traditional contemporaries. It's kind of cliche. But then, lots of war movies are that way, so maybe it's not such a big deal.

I have to give kudos to Liebsman, not only for making an entertaining and exciting action flick, but for redeeming himself, somewhat, for the drivel he's previously directed. Prior to "Battle," he made one of the myriad "Texas Chainsaw" sequels, which I obviously didn't see, but worse than that was "Darkness Falls," an idiotic retelling of the tooth fairy legend. Wow. What a stupid movie that was.

Liebsman has stated that he was too young, and had no interest in the horror genre when he was given his first studio assignment, so I guess we can cut him some slack.

Especially now that he has delivered on a film that he obviously cares about. "Battle Los Angeles" is not a great film, but it is a very good one, and, since we're in for a slew of alien attack movies, let's hope this one sets the standard.

Grade: B+

"Battle: LA" is rated PG-13 for some pretty intense battle sequences, violence, and language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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