(by Dustin Putman
"Skyline," a Los Angeles-set alien-invasion thriller directed by Colin and Greg Strause, was met with a lot of derision when it was released in November 2010. Indeed, it had its clunky elements, not the least being a cast of characters who might as well have just walked off the set of "The Young and the Restless," but one still had to admire the artistry behind what it was: a large-scale, special effects-heavy motion picture made independently for only $10-million. The writing might have left something to be desired, but at least there was a detectable screenplay involved in its construction. The film as a whole wasn't consistently successful, yet there were enough ideas within to signal that the filmmakers were trying. Now let us direct our attention to "Battle: Los Angeles," a $100-million extravaganza of soul-sucking chaos and bombast made in-house at Columbia Pictures and Relativity Media. It is so excruciatingly apathetic, amateurish and brain-dead that, were an actual valid thought to enter the proceedings at any time, the entire film would likely self-destruct from the sheer shock of it all. Article continues below
The setup adheres faithfully to formula, as cities across the globe are threatened by impending meteor showers. They're not meteors at all, however, but mechanical in nature, and within twenty-four hours spacecrafts and aliens are obliterating locales from Mexico to Tokyo to San Francisco. When contact is lost between the cities, a Marine squad based near Santa Monica vows to not let the invaders, here to drain our water supply, get away with their plan. With SSgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), 2nd Lt. William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) and, later, TSgt. Elena Santos (Michelle Rodriguez) leading the charge, they set forth into the war-torn streets of Los Angeles to do battle with their otherworldly enemies. Raising the stakes higher is their discovery of a group of civilians, including veterinarian stick figure Michele (Bridget Moynahan) and three youngsters, whom they vow to lead safely out of the intended blast zone.
"Battle: Los Angeles" is simply pitiful, a rah-rah slice of faux-earnest jingoism that hasn't time for talk save for when it's preaching the patriotic good word. The mind reels at how people with so much money and support could take a sci-fi subgenre as typically cut-and-paste as those involving extraterrestrial takeovers and get it as egregiously wrong as this one. Director Jonathan Liebesman (2006's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning") isn't necessarily the problem—though he does seem to just be mimicking Michael Bay most of the time, and that's one man no one ought to mimic—but the script he has to work with is. Chris Bertolini (1999's "The General's Daughter") is credited as being responsible for this travesty, and may he never work as a scribe again. Indeed, if the screenplay, which includes maybe 150 words of dialogue spread out over two hours, was jotted down on anything other than a wet cocktail napkin, Bertolini deserves to be laughed right out of Hollywood. The movie goes below and beyond what one has come to expect from two-dimensional screen characters and into a realm where even faces, never mind defining characteristics, can't be told apart the majority of the time. That each one is introduced with their name flashing on the screen and ten seconds of development each is half-hearted, to be sure, but also laughable; once the battle of the title gets underway, they all (save for Aaron Eckhart and Michelle Rodriguez, the most recognizable stars on hand) just become random indecipherable figures holding guns and wearing military fatigues.
There is plenty of carnage, destruction and human life lost, but is any of this bred from a palpable threat? Not at all. The film steadfastly remains focused on the Marines, who treat the onslaught of vicious aliens destroying their world with the level of gravitas afforded a cat stuck in a tree. All outside people are only ever glimpsed as dead bodies on the street. The few aforementioned civilians they find are paid so little attention that many of them don't get to utter a single line of dialogue. This unfortunately includes young Joey King, a delightful lead in 2010's "Ramona and Beezus" who is given nothing to do here but look panicked whenever the constantly shaky, epileptic-prone camerawork by Lukas Ettlin (2009's "Fanboys") settles down enough to find her in the chaos. With L.A. landmarks few and far between, the entire picture is akin to people firing weapons on nondescript, smoke-filled streets and wandering around in dank, deserted buildings. Why, pray tell, are the military even bothering with ground combat when the scope of the invasion is so much larger than that? No matter how many boring-looking metallic creatures they blow away, there is never the sense that the military men are gaining mileage on their adversaries or moving closer to a particular goal. With no one to care about or get to know, and without any forward story momentum, scene after dismal scene boils down to a hodgepodge of explosions, yelling and blazing guns. Imagination is nonexistent, and so is even the barest tinge of enthusiasm for the project.
Whatever possessed Aaron Eckhart (2010's "Rabbit Hole") to get involved in a picture as insulting to his talent and capabilities as this is something that only he and his bank account will likely ever know. When he goes off on a five-minute tangent near the end of the second act, an over-the-top, would-be heartrending monologue about the duties of war and the tough decisions he's had to make, only to follow it up with the outrageous declaration, "But none of that matters right now," it is akin to a punchline from 1980's "Airplane!" Save for this awful scene, Eckhart doesn't have much to say—no one does—as he just tramples around with a machine gun and every few minutes barks an order. Michelle Rodriguez (2010's "Machete") has even less to do and no character to play; the only thing learned about her is that she is a tech sergeant. When she shoots an alien in the face and it squirts all over her mouth, a fellow comrade cracks, "I didn't know you liked that on the first date!" Keep in mind that the world as they know it is crumbling down around them, and then replay the logic, plausibility and appropriateness of that line in your head. Oy.
March or not, "Battle: Los Angeles" is sure to remain one of the most spiritless cinematic experiences of the year (for a double feature worthy of sending audiences into catatonia due to shriveled brain cells and outright boredom, see it back-to-back with fellow horrid new release "Red Riding Hood"). There is no respective regard for lost life. There is no awe to the apocalyptic events on display, nor a feeling of disquiet. There is no rhythm or impetus to its scattered pacing and action, which is simultaneously incomprehensible, jumbled, and dull. There is no originality to the aliens, who share the same personality as the humans (read: none). Ultimately, "Battle: Los Angeles" holds within it a single semi-effective moment, not really a whole scene so much as a part of one set in a laundry room and involving the sudden appearance of an alien shadow. It's a stylish detail with a burst of apprehension connected to it, touching upon the particular fear of the unknown. Director Jonathan Liebesman has no time to continue down this moody path, lest there be a moment that isn't drearily loud, disconnected, and obnoxiously impersonal. Sadly, in actuality, all he had was time, and he has squandered it beyond recognition.