Jonathan Leibesman‘s Battle Los Angeles (Sony, 3.11) is the work of a moderately talented, second-rate whore with really fast hands. I didn’t mind it that much as I watched (“It’s all right, it’s tolerable,” I told Jett on the phone), but it’s been plummeting in my head ever since. Impressions of decent to pretty-good films tend to maintain initial levels, and very-good to excellent films always gain.
It’s a panoramic, heebie-jeebie, fast-break battle flick about a massive alien attack upon the world and particularly Los Angeles that’s happening because it looks cool and will sell a lotta tickets — an attack for no reason that anyone can figure except for something to do with H20 — an attack that’s massive, overwhelming, coordinated…”look at’ em!”
H.G. Wells‘ The War of the Worlds was inspired by England’s waging of the Boer War (i.e., British troops were the Martians) and the ultimate inability of foreign troops to maintain dominance over nativist elements despite their military superiority. So if you’re looking for a Battle LA metaphor we’re the aliens, the turf is Iraq/Afghanistan and water is oil. But do guys like Leibesman even think, much less care, about real-world echoes, and am I giving him way too much credit by suggesting there may be one here?
I say this because style-wise Battle LA is some kind of War of the Worlds meets Black Hawk Down meets District 9 ghoulash, and without a single fresh element or character turn or rooting element that doesn’t feel like it was cooked up by a roomful of soulless, heavily caffeinated 30something screenwriters, and is therefore choked with cliches about brave sweaty guys up against really tough odds that you can see coming a mile off.
And as the trailers have made clear (and as you expected all along) it’s pure shaky-cam and hypercut, shaky-cam and hypercut, shaky-cam and hypercut. And I’m saying again that this timeworn, dog-eared system for depicting breathless mayhem has been done to death and is ready for retirement after so much usage — it’s a trap, a shipping crate, a coffin. Wow…those scatter-cut computer screen images look like they were generated by 1993 home-security video equipment! Like something Paul Greengrass or Ridley Scott thought was cool 10 or 12 years ago.
The avant garde thing would have been to shoot Battle LA like Stanley Kubrick shot Full Metal Jacket — careful and smooth and measured and comprehensible. But I doubt if Leibesman has the character for that. He was hired to do the old hyper-pants pissy-pants, and that’s what he does.
The aliens are okay — I’ll give Leibesman that. Nice and greasy and slithery with Gold’s Gym physiques (i.e., big shoulders). But having them emit those old duk-duk District 9 bug-talk sounds is rote and unimaginative in the same way that James Arness‘s bald-headed invader howled like some kind of cat in Christian Nyby‘s The Thing (’51). Making aliens sound like insects or animals reduces them to standard-issue goblins.
I loved that Leibesman starts everything off with grunts on a chopper and the battle about to get heavy — roughly the one-third mark — in order to assure the ADD crowd that “the intense stuff is coming, guys….don’t worry…but you need to know that you’re going to have to chill for about 15 or 16 minutes to allow some generic character seeds to be planted…okay, bros?…and for us to put some really pointless title cards with the names and ranks of certain characters and some title cards about where this or that is happened….as if the ADDs could give a damn.
This movie is fast and thoughtless and mundane while pretending to be out-of-control. It’s a B movie for B-level brains. And yet I didn’t hate it. I just sat there and said to myself, “Yeah, yeah…yeah, yeah….okay, yup, uhm-hmm….seen it, been there, got it….know that one, that one…oh, Jesus, the kid is crying… here comes the old Richard Barthelmess ‘not this time!’ bit out of Only Angels Have Wings….know all of this stuff….got it, got it….got it, got it, got it.”
Morning-after note: I thought about the water-is-oil H.G. Wellsian metaphor last night as I drove down to meet some friends around 9:15 pm, just after my hurried posting. So I inserted it this morning.