BORE OF THE WORLDS | Exactly how bad is BATTLE LOS ANGELES? So bad that the colon that used to be in the movie’s title between Battle and Los – check that trailer – apparently bailed on the project over concerns for its reputation. The exclamation point, wise sage that it is, was like: “I got Moulin Rouge!, The Informant!, Oliver!, Tora! Tora! Tora!, and Airplane! You can do better, kid.” The colon, young and foolhardy, agreed but grumbled something about Mamma Mia! and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! before sulking off. The exclamation point totally had the right idea, though, because Battle Los Angeles is an arduous, incomprehensible and ugly USA-vs.-UFOs thriller that ain’t even passable if you dig a hole to China and leave your expectations down there. The premise sounds simultaneously nifty and problematic – an alien invasion of Earth as seen by the soldiers who put their heroic asses on the line to save the world – but problematic wins early and always. You go into a flick of this ilk presuming a certain level of clichés, tropes and general mustiness, but there aren’t any memorable personalities, exciting action scenes, or moments of genuine awe to temper how familiar and dull everything is. The unusual visual details in the initial attack scene are highly digable: The alien ships don’t arrive to hover ominously over the White House or the Empire State Building, they tear into our atmosphere and crash into the Pacific Ocean, their paths marked by scary smoke-ring trails that linger in the sky. Then, after the film is done briefly thinking for itself, it hurdles back to formula and does that really boring thing that every disaster movie must do: introduce stock characters – in this case, members of a Marine platoon – doing mundane stuff – planning a wedding, getting drunk on a golf course – before the serious shit goes down. Some are given a trait. A lucky few get to deliver a punchline. None register beyond basic stereotypes. There’s the haunted staff sergeant (Aaron Eckhart) who’s months from retirement. There’s the 2nd lieutenant (Ramón Rodríguez) who’s weeks from being a new father. There’s a bit in which two officers gawk at a picture of a pretty lady. “That your girlfriend? DAMN, she fine!” says the African-American one, naturally.
When extraterrestrial troopers emerge from the western seaboard and begin annihilating buildings, cars and fleeing beach bums, Battle Los Angeles is supposed to kick into high gear. Instead, it only kicks you in the nuts (or ladynuts). How else to encapsulate the body-length headache doled out by the film’s insanely chaotic visual style? Were the actors aware they were being followed around by drunk cameramen? Director Jonathan Liebesman seems to be aiming for the you-are-there docudrama grit of Cloverfield, where the handheld cinematography made perfect sense, or the Bourne series, where it maybe got a little annoying. Here, it quickly becomes a parody of itself; even a quiet, somber passage in a graveyard looks like it was shot from a boat. Wanna see some rad alien/human warfare? DENIED. The camera zooms, whips and spins, especially in the combat sequences, making it agonizingly hard to tell who’s who among a group of uniformly-outfitted infantrymen. You’ll squint, you’ll tilt your head, you’ll think: “Didn’t that guy explode in a helicopter crash 25 minutes ago?” (I swear True Blood’s Jim Parrack dies at least three times in this movie.) The dialog doesn’t help, consisting mostly of hollered warnings, proclamations and commands — “INCOMING!” “MARINES NEVER QUIT!” “RUN THAT SUCKER OVER, MAN!” — or, when Battle Los Angeles wants to string together more than five words at a time: “Promise me you won’t let me be taken by some godless predator from another planet!” Right, because if the aliens had religion, it would be a little less awful. Midway through the film, the Marines encounter a group of survivors and manage to take down an alien gunner. They inspect its corpse for weaknesses, which leads to the best worst part. “Maybe I can help. I’m a veterinarian,” offers the token female civilian (Bridget Moynahan). As gooey guts splat onto the floor, she gasps: “This is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before!” GEE, YOU THINK? After a few minutes of poking around, Eckhart gallantly announces: “That’s how we kill this thing! To the right of where the heart would be!” Cool newsflash, buddy! So, basically, just keep shooting in the general vicinity of where I was shooting already?
A pair of concluding observations: 1.) The aliens are never seen particularly clearly, but in the hazy glimpses we are given, they resemble the end result of a wild intergalactic orgy between the Prawns from District 9, the Imperial probe droid from The Empire Strikes Back, and Alpha 5 from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. This realization makes me feel spectacularly nerdy. 2.) I’m not sure why they called the movie Battle Los Angeles. It takes place primarily in Santa Monica. Maybe the exclamation point has been giving career advice to US cities as well. D —Jasper
■■■ Rating: PG-13. Running time: 112 minutes.