Saturday, March 12, 2011

Reviewing the War Epic - Battle: LA

"Retreat? Hell, We Just Got Here!"

If you take the best fast paced action packed war films of the last decade, put them together with an overtly overdone Sci-Fi element, utterly destroy Los Angeles, and you might come close to describing "Battle: LA." Aaron Eckhart ("The Core," "The Dark Knight") plays a cross between Clint Eastwood and John Wayne as the tough-as-nails Staff Sargent Nantz, who leads a young team of Marines into war. Also starring in "Battle: LA" is our favorite Latina Badass, Michelle Rodriguez ("Resident Evil," "Avatar"). Along for the ride is an interesting array of secondary cast of expendable 'red shirts' whose only goal in this movie was to make themselves known in a very short time and make that appearance memorable. Better than, "Skyline" (2010) , "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (2008) , and it is faster paced than Signs(2002) , not as philosophical as "Battlefield Earth" (2000) , no shrieking kids as in "War of the Worlds" (2005) , and not as detailed as "Independence Day" (1996), "Battle: LA" is action packed with just about the right amount of breathing room to allow you to catch your breath and collect your thoughts. Fun to watch and don't be surprised if you and the audience cheer at the end. "Battle: LA" runs about an hour and forty five minutes and is rated PG-13 for language and violence.

When we go to see films about alien invasions we know we need to suspend a certain amount of disbelief in order to get into the mood of the film. In "Battle: LA," Director Jonathan Liebesman ("Darkness Falls"), and writer Christopher Bertolini ("The General's Daughter") drops the audience into the midst of a battle scene that reminds one of "Band of Brothers," and the mood is set. Jumping back twenty four hours previous we get some background information on the phenomenon that is occurring, and an introduction to SSgt Nantz, Eckhart's tortured soldier character with a past, Realizing that his shelf life as a Marine is about to expire (mid-life crisis) and that his last tour in the Middle East was a fiasco (guilt factor), Nantz is ready to throw in the towel.

Apparently the Earth is succumbing to a barrage of meteors that unlike last year's "Skyline," we get a slightly larger, less limiting point of view of this invasion, a slight warning, and some possible insights as to why they are here. However, let me digress a bit. When any superior force conquers an inferior territory or people, they usually do so for the natural resources, or so that is what we have believed from our own experiences as conquerors. Old World's conquest of the New World was for gold, land, wood, spices, fuel sources, ("Avatar," "Independence Day, "Stargate"), or for some tactical advantage ("Star Trek: First Contact"). Looking back to film history, aliens have come to Earth to recreate their species ("Invasion of the Body Snatchers"), to feed on humans ("The Blob," "To Serve Man") or to utterly control and assimilate human-kind like the Borg from "Star Trek," or perhaps they are just plain lost like "E.T."-- it really doesn't matter why they are here. In "Battle: LA," the B.E.M.s (Bug Eyed Monsters), we are told by 'an expert,' who surmises that they must want our water, because Earth is mostly water. However, we really don't know why they are here. In "Independence Day," the audience is treated to a 'dialog' between an alien and the President of the United States, where we are told that like locust, they conquer, consume, and leave. Today, landing in the ocean around populated coastlines around the world, we are told Los Angeles is the last line of defense for the West Coast.
In the same style of James Cameron's "Aliens" (1986), Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down" (2001), and Paul Verhoeven,'s "Star Ship Troopers" (1997), Liebesman introduces us to the 5th Marine Regiment, who are charged with evacuating Santa Monica. These gung-ho Marines fit every type of war casting stereotype you can remember. The regiment consists of the inexperienced Second Lieutenant (2nd. LT), the young backwoods soldiers, the career Marine Sargent, the soldier with the key information about the mission --Technical Sargent Elena Santos played by -- you guessed it, Michelle Rodriguez (Resident Evil, Lost, Avatar). As the impending doom from above threatens, we are given a brief opportunity to get to know some of these characters, to build a slight bond with them before the battle. Sensing that it would be a detriment to the audience's emotions and the pacing of the film, Liebesman only allows us to get to know just barely enough about these soldiers, because like the 'red shirts' in "Star Trek" they are doomed to die.

Taking the rescue mission element from "Saving Private Ryan" and the invasion of the Normandy coast, Aaron Eckhart's Nantz character, under the command of 2nd Lt. Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) leads the 5th into heavy gunfire while on their way to a police station to rescue civilians. An airstrike is on the way so our team has little time to mess around. The tension builds quickly and unlike "Signs" (2002) we get glimpses at of the aliens early on, but eventually get a better look sooner rather than later, to save us from any over-hype and then a possible let down by what the aliens look like. Taking hints from "Independence Day," "Predators," "Alien," and "District Nine," makeup designer Sanja Milkovic Hays designed these creatures in a similar exoskeleton style and added a touch of "Halo" and "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" style to her designs. These aren't your cute cuddly phone home type of alien, nor are they your typical "Close Encounters" we are here to study you and play cool music alien either. Steven Spielberg, eat your heart out. They are here to wage war, mindless, senseless, total destruction type of war. The fact of the matter is, "Battle: LA" is a war picture with only an element, a layer of Science Fiction. There are attempts to pay homage to the less cynical war films of John Wayne of days past. However, we are in a new generation and the films of The Duke are only a faded memory, even to the point that after a successful daring attempt by Nantz to 'mine' a gas pump in order to take out the advancing aliens, (similar to blowing up a bridge before the enemy crosses it) Lt. Martinez commends Nantz for his John Wayne type of stunt [my words], a soldier asks, 'Who is John Wayne?'
W riter Bertolini does try to work into this war picture a certain amount of pathos. When the soldiers arrive at the almost abandoned police station, they encounter a father and his son, played respectively by Michael Peña ("Shooter") and 14 year-old Bryce Cass. Also hiding out is a Veterinary Doctor named Michelle played by Bridget Moynahan ("Unknown," "IRobot") and two young girls. It is the interaction between Nantz and these civilians where the film really tries to bring out the human touch. A scene reminiscent of "The Green Berets," where Wayne's character consoles the young Ham Chuck, transpires between Nantz and young Hector Rincon after his father dies bravely.

What underscores the epic-ness of "Battle: LA" is the Brian Taylor musical arrangement. Big and brassy without the overpowering effect of a Hans Zimmer score, Taylor's music is bold and uplifting, accenting the hopefulness of a triumph for human kind. Almost, but not quite John Williams-ish in quality bringing out emotions that want the audience to shout "oorah(!)" as the 5th regiment does battle with the enemy.
What I find interesting about "Battle: LA" and that perhaps some won't, is that in spite of the senseless violence of war (is there any sense in war?), the unexplainable reason for alien invasion (does there need to be one?), and the now familiar "District Nine" style of alien spacecraft, I find that "Battle: LA" has an uplifting, almost cathartic quality to it. Now after several years of bad economy, high unemployment, Iraq and Afghanistan, this country needs something, or someone heroic. Aaron Eckhart makes a fine action hero and in a charming way, similar to Wayne in his younger days before the crust set in. In a poignant and pivotal scene, Aaron Eckhart as the ghost plagued Staff Sargent Nantz bears his soul to a young boy and to his men and in a way atones not only for himself, but for the film as well. Prior to this scene, mindless battles ensue, terse dialog is shouted, meaningless explosions occur and people die. Now the film has a new meaning, a new direction, a new reason for trying to save our dying planet. For the women and the children, for our fallen brave, for a hope of survival, and the hope that out of the wreckage of Los Angeles (or that matter, humankind), a new, and better world will emerge. See the film in the theaters, pay full price if you must, eat popcorn, splurge if you want, see "Battle: LA," you'll thank me.

Movie Data

Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama, Sci-Fi
Year:  2011
Staring: Aaron Eckhart, Ramon Rodriguez, Bridget Moynahan, Michael Peña, Michelle Rodriguez
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Producer(s): Ori Marmur, Neal H. Moritz
Writer: Christopher Bertolini
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date:  1/24/2014

Originally published on Associated Content, then on Yahoo on 3/12/2011

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