Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Boom Boom Pow: BATTLE: LOS ANGELES

To all those who complain about director Paul Greengrass’s shaky-cam style in his excellent Bourne thrillers, I offer up Battle: Los Angeles as an example of that style taken to an illogical extreme. This new sci-fi blow-‘em-up is nearly two hours of unmotivated shaky-cam that rattles around in a painfully futile attempt to cover up just how bereft of originality the movie is. It’s an empty spectacle that gives empty spectacle a bad name. Unlike the Bourne films in which Greengrass, with cinematographer Oliver Wood, used precise, intelligently planned staging to better integrate their strategically implemented low-level blur (essentially intensifying intensified continuity), Battle: Los Angeles is muddied and unclear in its imagery. But there’d be hardly anything worth seeing even if it settled down.

It’s more than just the shaky-cam. This is a movie that’s not merely bad; its every decision seems to betray a basic lack of intelligence behind the camera. Director Jonathan Liebesman, with cinematographer Lukas Ettlin, use a small range of focus and a quick-cutting style that obscures not only plot and character but even the special effects work, the only ostensible reason for such a film as this. And when that’s gone, what could possibly be left to enjoy?

But back before I knew just how bad things would get, the movie starts, after a brief prologue of chaos, with all kinds of swirling bombast and ominous portents. So far, so good. Then mysterious, half-glimpsed, alien spacecrafts land all around the globe and we’re deployed with a group of soldiers, almost entirely indistinguishable from one another, led by a statuesque Aaron Eckhart who, wouldn’t you know it, was just days away from retirement.

We follow them through the streets of L.A., or at least that’s what we’re told. The movie doesn’t utilize the juicy possibilities (satirical, political, or the like) that arise naturally out of staging an all-out intergalactic salvo on California. There’s just bland gray city streets covered with ugly gunmetal debris. It’s supposed to look frightening, but the movie never really gives us a good glimpse of a pre-combat L.A. There’s no real sense of danger when the enemy is mostly invisible and the stakes never feel less than fictional.

The fictional status is just as well, for this is a movie that is so unapologetically, glowingly pro-weaponry and hawkishly drooling over the military that even Jerry Bruckheimer might suggest taking it down a notch. It’s a thoroughly shining portrait that has no time for detail or nuance in portraying the men and women of the military. These aren’t people. They’re not even caricatures. They seem more boringly G.I. Joe than the soldiers in G.I. Joe. Even Eckhart, a fine actor who does the best with what he’s given, comes across as little more than a prototype for a bargain bin action figure. There’s a moment where he has to give a pep talk to a little civilian who has just lost his father that’s handled with such mawkish pro-war hogwash that I’m not at all surprised that it makes little emotional sense in the moment. If such an uncomplicated look at war were placed in anything but a fully fictional context such as this, it would be laughed off of the screen.

I could forgive this movie, somewhat, I think, if Christopher Bertolini's script was merely content to grind past character so quickly that it barely fleshes them out with clichĂ©, as long as it were on its way to giving me some passably enjoyable spectacle. I still wouldn’t have liked it all that much, but at least it wouldn’t have been so aggressively bad that it got on my nerves. Honestly, all I expected was some decently staged action. But this is about as far down to the bottom of the barrel as big budget explosive sci-fi filmmaking gets without going straight to DVD. Frantic and mind-numbing (literally, I think I nodded off once or twice) this is a non-stop visual and aural assault merely pretending to be exciting.

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