Battle: Los Angeles feels very emblematic of how a film which simply fails to totally live up to its promise and expectations can be more disappointing than a simply outright awful one. Jonathan Liebesman’s fourth feature length movie isn’t terrible by any stretch of the means, but lacking in all areas of substance Battle becomes an empty and emotionless technical affair with nothing interesting propping up its alien invasion narrative. Here we have a competently made movie, for the most part, hoping to ride on the coattails of its action and special effects which ultimately cannot provide a satisfying blockbuster experience by virtue of possessing a dearth of substance and missing a real reason for us to care.
On paper, Leibesman’s film feels like the product of a marriage between the aesthetics of Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 and the propulsive, tension-ridden tone of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down: at the onset of a hostile alien takeover, a group of US Marines find themselves trapped behind enemy lines, smack dab in the middle of a zone the military intends to level by way of a decisive, thorough, and pointedly gargantuan missile strike. Charged with protecting civilians in the area, the marines, led by Aaron Eckhart’s this-close-to-retired Staff Sergeant, fight through invading forces at speed to get to safety. But of course getting anywhere quickly in L.A. is a Herculean feat, moreso when aliens intent on killing you bar the way to freedom. It’s an exciting premise, and a straightforward, linear one which eschews plot twists or narrative layers in favor of simplicity. There’s something to be said in defense of that choice, too, but maybe not on behalf of this film in particular.
Battle‘s problems stem primarily from Liebesman’s failure to take full advantage of his stripped down story. When the film goes into full on survivor mode as the marines and their civilian wards trek through the battle torn cityscape, nothing exists to make its quieter moments really sing; in short, we’re stuck with a group of characters utterly bereft of character. It’s not an exaggeration at all to state that Eckhart serves the only developed character in the film– he has pathos, and we gravitate to his character by virtue of his noble and tragic qualities (and it doesn’t hurt that Eckhart’s the kind of actor who can balance Nantz’s soldierly qualities with palatable emotion). Everyone else, literally, is defined by minor idiosyncrasies and quirks, which are fine and dandy to an extent but don’t make for truly dynamic and interesting characters. It’s nice that one of the marines hails from Jersey, knows how to hotwire a bus (because he’s from Jersey, baby!), and loves weddings (and cake), and maybe it stings a little to see him in peril, but he and his endangered company are ultimately blips on our emotional radar. And because the movie revolves around the survival of its characters, as we wonder who’s going to make it through to the end, the neglect shown toward fleshing each of them out– even slightly– diffuses any semblance of tension in the plot by giving us nothing and no one to care about.
Frankly, character development could have saved Battle from mediocrity and made it into something special, because the elements of the film worth recommending it for are typically obscured by the love-it-or-hate-it technique known as shaky cam. To the film’s credit, the fighting is generally well-staged and framed precisely enough that it’s not difficult to tell what’s going on and who’s performing what action in spite of the erratic and unpredictable movements of cinematographer Lukas Ettlin’s camera; that spastic technique just masks what could have been exciting, visceral action sequences, keeping them visually coherent and yet indistinct at the same time. We don’t really get to enjoy the effects and choreography on display because we have to suss out what’s happening for ourselves. I understand and often appreciate the philosophy behind shaky cam usage, but here it feels like an unnecessary technique employed because it’s almost what’s expected of films of Battle‘s pedigree, gritty faux-realism meant to make audiences feel like they’re in the fray rather than watching from a theater and a strong statement of style over substance.
Maybe that’s where the film falls shortest. Considering what’s happening in the world as we speak, Battle: Los Angeles has absolutely nothing to say. There’s nothing wrong with an action extravaganza fluff piece at all, and it might be unfair for me to level this criticism at the film when its loftiest goal appears to be to entertain, but there’s so much opportunity for social commentary in Battle that its silence is shocking. At best, the film concerns itself with decisions the characters make both on-screen and off and specifically how those characters reconcile with the consequences of their decisions, but even that common thread feels limp and pointless. Liebesman clearly doesn’t have any aspirations toward examining current events and topical issues through his art, and that’s fine– there’s no rule to which he’s bound that declares he must– but it’s disappointing to see what could have been a thoughtful bit of high-concept science fiction be given an unconcerned and sensationalized action treatment.