When a normal day in LA is shattered by the violent invasion of a swarm of extra-terrestrial nasties, one squad of Marines braves the war-torn streets to rescue a group of civilians as the threat of a massive air-strike looms.
Battle LA (2011)
Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez
What’s most surprising about Battle LA is its subtlety
‘From the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning’ is probably something you won’t have read on the posters for Battle LA but, prior to this, it was certainly Liebesman’s most significant achievement. But that’s all about to change because Battle LA is a little bit awesome.
There’s no preamble, with the film launching straight into the story mid invasion before flashing back 24 hours for a whistle-stop introduction to our Marine Corps crew. There’s no mystery about the attackers or their violent intentions, allowing for a film that’s focussed more on military action and reaction. These character snap-shots, brief as they may be, are generally effective if a tad clichéd, particularly the stock appearance of the virgin rookie and Eckhart’s combat-weary veteran, but the pacing means nothing lingers long enough to become boring.
Battle LA is defined by an unusually solid sense of military tactics which, combined with the dynamic camera-work and well integrated effects, makes for an almost documentary feel. As the last bastion of the armed forces, Los Angeles has to be protected, leading to a military operation to contain the enemy long enough for a massive air-strike. The approach is sound, given the enemies perceived lack of airborne units – though anyone who has seen the trailer will be aware of an ‘uh-oh’ moment on the way.
Into this mix comes beaten down Staff Sergeant Nantz (Eckhart) who starts out in a subordinate position in the squad, with a sterling career overshadowed by a recent mission gone awry. As the city is evacuated, they track down some isolated survivors and try to escape the blast radius of the impending attack. The sole focus on this small group with a tangible goal that works as a microcosm of the entire conflict is very effective, leading to a number of memorable set pieces as the group tries to work their way back towards friendly territory with the alien horde laying waste to everything around them.
What’s most surprising about Battle LA is its subtlety – taking time to deal with the passing of characters and neatly side-stepping melodrama. Despite the surface similarities to a title like Independence Day, there’s no sense of gung-ho jingoism here, no suggestion that America is out alone, kicking extraterrestrial ass. It’s just about a group of men and women trying to survive against incredible odds. The action is gritty and grounded, without feeling constrained by the 12A rating, and the toughness of the enemies makes tactical gunplay a must – drawing them into cross-fires and improvised explosions. And while the speeches may verge on ridiculous from time to time, there are some strong moments of drama, both thrilling and touching – causing some serious manly sniffles in my theatre.
The cast are fine, with Bridget Moynahan in particular doing good work as a hitch-hiking civilian while Michelle Rodriguez plays her usual hard girl role. But the film belongs to Eckhart, steering our emotional journey as much as he directs the actions of the Marines. His glorious chin makes him look every inch the hero but he makes it all look like another day on the job while his personal demons bear down on him. His dramatic highpoint might be a little strained but this is better than we’ve come to expect from the genre.