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Friday, March 11, 2011

Battle Los Angeles

The Assault on LA

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The news reports called it a shower of meteors, followed by more and more showers falling into the ocean near important cities. But the audience for Battle Los Angeles already knows what those lights in the sky portend. The astronomical anomaly is not fluke of nature but an invasion. The war machinery of an alien world has landed and will attack without warning.

Battle Los Angeles
is H.G. Wells for the digital age, a reminder that his 1898 novella, War of the Worlds, is among the most influential stories in world literature. War of the Worlds has twice been adapted by Hollywood, but the bones of its story have rattled around in dozens of other movies and stacks of pulp fiction. Wells told the tale first: an alien civilization, advanced in technology if not in ethics, coldly observed us from afar and, coveting the resources of our world, drew their plans against us.

In a role that would once have been played by Mel Gibson or Bruce Willis, Aaron Eckhart stars as Marine Staff Sergeant Nantz, a tough but troubled man who just signed his discharge papers hours before the assault begins. The combat veteran was disenchanted by Iraq and Afghanistan and wanted out. But duty intervenes. Nantz is quickly paired with a freshly minted lieutenant who panics at the first sign of combat, leading a multi-ethnic squad meant as a microcosm of America. We have met these characters before, some of them in films as far back as World War II, and it's likely that we will continue to encounter them through many future conflicts. They probably adhere closely enough to real behavior in battle.

Director Jonathan Liebsman's strong suit is not the tender human moments with the orchestra swelling in the background, although his characters are real enough in a TV drama mode. Liebsman's strength is staging the chaotic confusion of an isolated squad under fire from all sides, amplified by fighting an uncertain enemy. The information the audience and cast receive about the assault is scattershot at first—glib TV anchors followed by grainy televised images of panic as the invaders strike major cities around the globe. Suspense is set by not knowing what the aliens are until half an hour into the film; the economical screenplay works by moving the squad forward through battle while providing just enough information. The alien foot soldiers look nothing like us under their vaguely Darth Vader uniforms and are supported by drone aircraft controlled by a mother ship. Destroy the mother ship and we will rule the air.

But that's no easy task as alien craft set the skyline of LA on fire and provide close support for their forces. Nantz's men must clear their way through the rubble of Santa Monica, trying to rescue a few civilians and joined by stragglers from other services. The location, despite the protests of old school space invasion fans who want to see the Capitol and the White House demolished once again, is an ideal setting for the realism Liebsman sought. Nondescript Santa Monica looks like anywhere in America where palm trees grow. And Liebsman was aiming for the unfiltered realism of such recent war documentaries as Restrepo, where shell casings clatter against cameras and the cast duck from shrapnel. Only in Battle Los Angeles, the fighting ceases now and then to allow for a few inspiring words accompanied by a swelling orchestra.

While not at the level of human characterization achieved by Stephen Spielberg's War of the Worlds, Battle LosAngeles easily outstrips such contenders as Independence Day for gripping tension and realism. In this circumstance, the gung-ho, Semper Fi esprit of the Marine Corps could capture the fortified heart of a hardened pacifist. Liesbman takes his subject seriously and endows Battle Los Angeles with only one humorous note. As marines quickly dissect a dead alien to figure out how it lived, a civilian (Bridget Moynihan) chirps in: "Maybe I can help. I'm a veterinarian."
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