You know what you’re getting into
by Jack Kentala
As I’ve matured as a filmmaker, I’ve come to appreciate genre films. My ultimate guilty pleasure is American Pie, which isn’t shot particularly well, has editing that’s deliberately invisible, bears no particular directorial stamp, and yet it hits every bullet point on the list that determines what defines a perfect teenage sex comedy. Or consider the fact that I have seen every Saw film, every Rocky, both Hostels, the Cube trilogy, and will eventually start a campaign to watch all Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th movies.
So, then, my sound designer and I saw Battle: Los Angeles yesterday. We were recording ADR a week prior, and we both somewhat sheepishly expressed a curiosity in seeing a film that, by all accounts (and remains true after having seen it) is exactly what you expect from the trailer.
Before I go any further, I suppose I need to clear the air and make a definitive statement: I enjoyed Battle: Los Angeles. I enjoyed it for exactly what it was. Maybe it was low expectations or a palette-cleanser after so many awful year-end prestige films that fell flat when it came time to dish out Oscars. But no number of fifty-cent words can express that, stay with me here, I really enjoyed the movie.
If I just lost all credibility, go ahead and X out of this and watch some Criterion Collection. I watched Ken Loach’s intriguing, low-tech Kes the night prior, so let me off the hook once you cool off.
Battle: Los Angeles doesn’t start off so much with a script oversight but pointless “soft” character moments that don’t actually establish anything. All we know is that Aaron Eckhart’s Staff Sergeant Nantz isn’t married, doesn’t have kids, and wants out of the Marine Corps after twenty years of service, all under the shadow of a recent tour in Iraq in which many believe he was responsible for the deaths of several servicemen in his unit. Catastrophic “meteor” impacts delay Nantz retirement and pair him with a unit short a sergeant and commanded by a – you guessed it – cherry 2nd Lieutenant. In this unit, many soldiers don’t even bother to hide their contempt for Nantz, especially the brother of one of the killed men, who gets up in Nantz’s grill for coming home from Iraq with a silver star while everyone else came home in metal boxes.
And then we’re off.
So it’s somewhat of a relief that there isn’t a ton of baggage with these characters, who are mostly interchangeable except for a few trademark racial ticks. (As with most military-friendly movies, there’s a very, uh, colorful cross-section of ethnicities in Nantz’s new squad.) It’s fairly easy to predict that when the movie pastes a label on the screen with a soldier’s name in his introductory scene that he’ll either survive or die heroically. Again: Just a little dumbing-down from Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, which had characters’ names taped to their helmets since they look the damn same, even though they don’t do that in Real Life. (That was a little harder to follow, admittedly, because most of the actors were baby-faced white kids.)
Not long into the surprisingly-fast mobilization of apparently the entire west coast of the Marine Corps, the “meteors” are revealed as aliens, and the early belief that our Air Force could beat them since they didn’t have air is, well, literally shot to shit when it turns out that, yeah, this invasion force has air power, too. The film then devolves into the completion of a dumb mission (secure a police station that has very few civilians in hiding, given the risk and circumstances) and the equally-inane return to base that is, you guessed it, destroyed.
Shit. Despite the obvious ending (spoiler: we kind of win, and not in a shark-jumping War of the Worlds way), I think I just laid it all out, minus when what characters die or why. I credit Aaron Eckhart for really throwing himself into this part. He’s still an up-and-comer after his big-budget turn as Harvey Dent / Two-Face in The Dark Knight, so I suppose he has a reason to carry the film all the way through its shakycam finale that’s ripped right from a bad Call of Duty mission. (Guard a crappy position until the good guys save you.) Eckhart doesn’t even bat an eye during the film’s worst sequence (which I think might have been jammed in there to try to drum up more armed forces recruiting), when he rescues a kid, arbitrarily treats him as an honorary Marine (despite that the kid couldn’t even lift a rifle if he tried), salutes the little guy, and, when they separate for good, tells said kid, for no reason other than not freaking the fuck out, that he’s the bravest little Marine he ever knew. There’s some much gunfire on the soundtrack but I think the movie gods spared us an orchestral swell there. But I could be wrong.
(I’ve done a fair amount of military research in my day so I’m just going to rant a second. The Marine Corps is very, very strict about who can be called a “Marine.” To them, it’s a title of sacred honor, much different than calling any random serviceperson a soldier, airman, or seaman. If you call yourself a Marine during training, you’ll get an earful from your DI, who reminds you that you’re a piece of shit until you pass, probably using the word “maggot” in there for good measure. In the Corps, you’re not a Marine until you pass basic, and hardline Marines don’t give a lot of respect to new guys until they’ve, liked, saved a baby from a burning building. [That’s one of the reason I didn’t have my character in my upcoming movie a Marine: because real Marines would probably get pissed off and some of them are quite scary. And strong.])
I have a little scrap of paper with notes, so I might as well rattle off my stray questions: How much of a movie has to tout the Our Military Is Awesome And You Should Join company line to get military cooperation? Stuff like this and Transformers always get US military support by means of vehicles and costumes and training, but you hear about “anti-war” movies getting the cold shoulder, leaving their directors to use outdated helicopters and the like.
The Black Hawk Down comparisons are unavoidable, especially since the aliens and the Somalis aren’t given a shred of empathy. The denouement in particular rips off the end of BHD. If you search back in your addled minds to that movie, remember that the soldiers were in the field for an absurdly long time given the intensity of the situation, and upon returning to base, Eric Bana and a bunch of badasses cram some chow, resupply, and immediately go back to the field. “Leave no man behind” was the impetus there. The same happens in Battle: Los Angeles, but it just plays ridiculous. Once they’re safe at a temporary Marine base, these guys are walking wounded, probably delirious with sleep deprivation and the tapering off of a gigantic adrenaline binge. They’re completely combat ineffective, yet no officer stops them as they go out to, like, comb through the cinders of LA (as seen in the final shots of the totally-fucking-destroyed city).
I haven’t done much digging, but it’s kind of odd that a very summer blockbusterish movie is coming out right now. They, rightly, figure they’ll get a juicier box-office take, but it risks having the public forget about it come summertime, when the multiplexes will be crammed with sequels and 3D. (Insert half-baked theory about the film getting delayed or sat on a shelf because it sucked or I don’t know.) I suppose there are some brownie points to be had when a movie is original, even if it cops from far too many sources (Independence Day, Black Hawk Down, Call of Duty videogames) and has the potential for sequels built into the title. It’s not a stretch that the DVD release could come with the announcement of Battle: New York (e.g. Cloverfield with more little monsters) or Battle: Some Foreign City That Was Mentioned On A Grainy Newscast or, to be true to the original, Battle: Minneapolis that features wide shots and CGI shots of the unfucked and post-fucked skyline while most of the principal photography is done in Louisiana because of a tax credit.
I find this hard to articulate, but I also felt a sort of compulsion to see Battle: Los Angeles. Maybe it was to get in touch with what audiences want to see, as early box office numbers are modest but don’t face much competition vis a vis alien-invasion action movies. (It might get overrun by the upcoming Sucker Punch, though.) Maybe I wanted to see if there were any cool advances in abusing 45-degree shutters and shakycam in the thirteen years since Saving Private Ryan (there aren’t, and yeah, it gets annoying). Maybe some out there want to subject themselves to relatively shoddy CGI that looks like it was cobbled together from SFX hard drives stolen from the studio that made District 9 (down to a sort of mothership that looks pretty damn familiar).
Yeah, it’s easy to call me a film snob, and yeah, I felt like I was slumming it, and yeah, I’d never make a movie like Battle: Los Angeles, but a pretty simple thought hit me with regards to that last bit: I don’t think I have the discipline to stick to a simple script and pour my energy into the blindfire action. If you look at director Jonathan Liebesman’s credentials, he hasn’t done anything outside a genre or anything your grandkids might end up watching. He also has the misfortune of directing what will certainly be the odious sequel to Clash of the Titans (the confusingly-named Wrath of the Titans). But the man knows his job, and he delivers exactly what the people want and, more impressive still, what they expect.