Battle: Los Angeles starts off totally strong. It’s clear that the brown stuff has hit the fan and we’re all in trouble. A shaky handheld camera captures scenes of carnage. Earth has been invaded and we’re pretty much boned.
Then we cut to 24 hours earlier, and everything goes to hell.
For the next 20 or so minutes of Jonathan Liebesman’s alien-invasion flick the action winks out while a series of cardboard character cutouts is established, complete with text feeding us names and ranks. With the exception of Ne-Yo’s unmistakable glasses and Aaron Eckhart’s square jaw, they are an unremarkable bunch, a battalion of jarheads who will largely end up as cannon fodder. The promise of the film’s opening moments quickly fades as you are bludgeoned into submission by the hammer of exposition.
When the action eventually does pick up, it comes to a slow boil as our brave little Marines tromp through a decimated Santa Monica while the invaders pop up here and there as formidable, shadowy foes. Some momentum finally. Right?
No. For every action in Battle: Los Angeles there is an equal and opposite exposition, a momentum-killing scene that brings us back to sour memories of that first act. “Oh, yes, I remember,” you think. “There is some lousy dialogue going on here. Stop talking and start shooting!” And then it’s back, with all of the promise it showed before. You hope against hope that the action won’t shift again to sorry attempts at character development, but of course it does, and you feel dumber for it.
This is the rhythm Battle: Los Angeles falls into, and it is ultimately what defeats it. Earth’s forces may emerge victorious in a last-second stroke that is worthy of Independence Day, but Emmerich’s film told a much better story which, for all of its ridiculousness, at least featured characters you could develop some feeling for.
Instead you’re left with a group of terrified, stone-faced Marines. The alien threat is the fear they are acting to, but deep down the terror is almost certainly rooted in each actor’s knowledge that there are still more momentum-killing lines to be recited. We’d feel for them, too, if we weren’t so focused on keeping down the rage of spending $10 or more on this mess. Or maybe it’s the lunch we’re trying to keep down, as the constantly shaky handheld camera wavers to and fro.
A handheld camera can be a powerful tool for establishing perspective, especially in wartime flicks such as this one. An over-the-shoulder perspective can do wonders for building tension, as you are effectively limiting the audience’s field of view to what the character can see and nothing more. In Battle: Los Angeles, the shaky cam functions more like a freight train, barreling ahead without stopping until it reaches its end point. Oddly, the shake is at its worst at the beginning of the film, in its quietest moments. But even later on, when the camera mellows out, the nauseating bumps and hitches never truly go away.
What makes all of this so unfortunate is that Liebesman actually stages some damn fine action sequences. The camera is used so artlessly that you never feel like you are truly immersed, but there is definitely an “on the ground” quality to the way the combat actions are captured. There are easy comparisons to draw with video game shooters, though the unfolding events fall closer in feeling to cutscenes than actual gameplay. You’re watching the action unfold, but you’re never taking part in it.
Battle: Los Angeles is a disappointment, practically top to bottom. Sony engineered a brilliant marketing campaign for this movie, raising the hype to inconceivable levels, and props to the team behind it. Unfortunately, the marketing worked too well. At base, this is a lousy movie and no amount of viral campaigning or Internet hype-building is going to fix that.
Battle: Los Angeles opens today nationwide.