First off, let's get negative. Battle: Los Angeles (or BLA for short) is not great filmmaking, nor is it a great film. It has the thinnest of characters -- basically the expected stock military types -- whom we're given the minutest amount of detail in a very passing attempt at distinguishing them from one another. Most of these character bits are boiled down to cliche (one's about to get married, another is a bit of a dim yokel, another is just about to leave the serviece, etc), which some will find laughable, but I basically see as quite economical on the filmmaker's part. The film has an unknown antagonist in an alien race with equally unknown weaknesses and motivations. These are cgi alien creatures, viewed through plenty of smoke and haze, so as never to be entirely clear on what they look like (even when they get a live one up close it's pretty hard to determine what exactly you're looking at). They operate tech that looks more strewn together than the Millenium Falcon and Michael Bay's Transformers combine. It's all very ugly and nasty and hard to really discern what's what with them. The style is of the queasy cam variety, though not nearly as bad as the hand-held Blair Witch or Cloverfield style, not quite as artful as Paul Greengrass' Bourne films... more in the style of Battlestar Galactica. It can be very annoying to watch at times. The score is woefully generic military action film bombast, with very little exciting, but also very little damning about it.
And yet, in spite of the negative, I quite enjoyed this film. What the trailer for it presented was a military versus aliens all-action movie. Plot? Not really. Character. Nope. Action, simply action of the man vs. monster type, odds overwhelming.
The film delivers exactly what it promised in the trailer. Action, explosions, death. But, unlike so many other films, it's not glib about it. It does take itself seriously. There are no action heroes here, no superhumans like what John McClain turned into. The action never gets over-the-top, with no man or woman getting shot multiple times and still having the strength to wrestle aliens to the ground. There's no jumping from tall buildings to avoid missile strikes. These are people fighting tooth and nail to achieve a mission, in practical ways no less, and help out in a war that is so far beyond one person making all the difference.
Point? If there's a point it's to highlight the cogs in the machine, the military grunts that have a job to do and do it at the highest cost. At the end of the film, nothing is resolved. The war wages on and soldiers continue to fight. If you need to know what happened to the little boy, or so-and-so's fiancee, or more about the aliens culture, well, you're watching the wrong film. This one's strictly visceral. It's not a thinking man's sci-fi or action movie, it's just an experience. It's entertainment. I don't see much difference, entertainment-wise, between this and the experience of Cloverfield, except this has much less TJ Miller and Lizzie Caplan.
Some reviewers have likened it to watching someone else play a video game. I think it's an apt description. I don't particularly enjoy the repetition and process of figuring out video games very much, so getting the experience without that time wasting frustration is actually appealing to me. That said, I wouldn't be surprised if there were a series of "Battle: X" (X=the name of any city) videogames in the works that this film served as an expensive marketing tool to promote.
Like in some videogames, the filmmakers don't spoon-feed you very much information, but it does reveal tidbits in small packets throughout the story. There's an economy to the dialogue and the information dispensed, and if you pay close enough attention you can ascertain the why and the how of the opposing force, the scope of what the protagonists are up against, and how they achieve a rather fitting (if convenient) conclusion that gives hope against opposing odds. To truly understand the entire picture takes very little investment, but if you decide to not let yourself get sucked into the intensity of the film then it's your fault and not really the film's. Unlike campy alien invasion movies like Starship Troopers or Independence Day, BLA doesn't overreach with its story or its heroics, and it doesn't overtly try to be something it isn't. Frankly, adaptations of videogames could learn a thing or two from BLA
Mr. Ebert, a favourite reviewer of mine for over two decades, graced BLA with a half-star rating, which to him means it's the worst of the worst. Even no-star ratings seem to be given more leniency. He states in his review:
"Here's a science-fiction film that's an insult to the words "science" and "fiction," and the hyphen in between them."
Here as well is a quote from Mr. Ebert's 2.5-star review of Paul debuting this week:
"But Paul himself may be a miscalculation... Paul isn't alien enough. The joy in characters like E.T. and Starman is that they are aliens. Their thinking is strange. Their reactions are unexpected. Paul is somehow too … ordinary."
I would posit that these reviews (and many more before it) betray Mr. Ebert's biases towards SF. He obviously has a certain way he likes things to be when it comes to SF and anything that strays outside that meets with his disapproval.
Of BLA, again, he states
"Its manufacture is a reflection of appalling cynicism on the part of its makers, who don't even try to make it more than senseless chaos."
I wouldn't say its chaos is senseless. It's war on a global scale. The battle in LA is but a small facet of that, and the marine corps regimen we follow is yet a smaller facet of that battle. Ebert, I suspect, just isn't geeky enough to have laid awake at night wondering what it would be like if one were to suddenly find themselves amidst a full scale take-no-prisoners alien invasion. To me, I've always seen it pretty much like BLA.
"...[alien troops] march up from the beach with their weapons of war and attack mankind. No reason is given for this, although it's mentioned they may want our water."
It's not just mentioned but rather referred to explicitly and implicitly throughout. The film doesn't ask much of the viewer, but if you're paying attention, it's evident from two shots (one of a giant mothership-like craft sucking up water from the oceanside like soda through a straw, and another, a bisection of a smaller unmanned alien aircraft, water gushing out of its cut sections) that they're using water as their fuel. In fact I believe a news report outright states this, and that there's also already a notable reduction in the water levels of the ocean. I'd say that's pretty clear without hammering it over the head too hard.
"We meet the members of a Marine platoon...(who are) helicoptered into Santa Monica and apparently defeat the aliens. Since all of Los Angeles is frequently seen in flames, it's not entirely clear how the Santa Monica action is crucial, but apparently it is."
It's not, at least not immediately. I think it's important to represent a larger war by the smaller battles waged. Ultimately, though, it's the final act, in which the marines discover something crucial that makes this an important story in the war. Again, the film doesn't ask much...
"The aliens are hilarious. Do they give Razzies for special effects? They seem to be animal/machine hybrids with automatic weapons growing from their arms, which must make it hard to change the baby. The other aliens are mostly seen in long shot, where they look like stick figures whipped up by apprentice animators."
I agree in that there was a lack of refinement to the aliens. Hilarious, well, no. But I've seen some pretty awful special effects and aliens and this film's were middle-of-the-road at worst. Also, they note that the weapons are grafted on the aliens... biotech, which means they were either voluntary or involuntarily conscripted into the war. They're not born with these things. We can only use our imaginations to wonder about the aliens' society, how they breed, how their military works, and how they deal with their soldiers after the war is over (can it really be much worse than how America has treated their veterans?). We see moments of compassion as one alien pulls another out of the line of fire during the freeway battle, so there are little revealing moments like that which I find intriguing.
"You gotta see the alien battleships in this movie. They seem to have been assembled by the proverbial tornado blowing through a junkyard. They're aggressively ugly and cluttered, the product of a planet where design has not been discovered and even the Coke bottles must look like pincushions."
I'm having difficulty understanding here if Mr. Ebert was showing contempt or a begrudging respect for the alien machines in the film, but given the tone of his review, I'm to assume the former. Again, I suspect Mr. Ebert has his own biases as to what an alien ship should look like, and that his own burden. Yes, the ships are ugly, but they're reflective of the ugly biotech-donning aliens, and it's a stylistic choice. Not every SF vehicle is going to be Enterprise-sleek.
"Although these ships presumably arrived inside the meteors, one in particular exhibits uncanny versatility, by rising up from the Earth before the very eyes of the startled Marines. How, you may ask, did it tunnel for 10 or 12 blocks under Santa Monica to the battle lines at Lincoln Boulevard?"
Again, although we're not shown it, if one were to take the clues presented in the film (and the fact that the underground command center didn't activate the drone ships until long-after the war had begun) then we could also presume that it was put into place, rather than burrowed there. Also, the comm center is shown having the ability to collapse itself small and then expand outwards, as its being lifted out of the ground by a mothership and supporting drones. These may not be the "real" answers, but paying a little attention and you can suss out your own logistics (the film is actually well enough made that you can do that if you choose to), unless it's easier to ignore it and bitch about it.
I concede that BLA isn't an excellent movie, but I did find it entertaining. After ingesting oscar nominees for a month, I was pleased to have a decently made, engaging and not-ridiculous action movie to escape from my workday to. When your job is to only watch movies I can see how something that only engages on a visceral level wouldn't appeal to a cerebral movie reviewer, but at the same time, there's so few movies that actually engage the viewer on a visceral level without insulting them with lame, drawn out attempts at characterization, character development, relationship building, etc.
Mr. Ebert's final comment on BLA is actually pretty insulting:
"Young men: If you attend this crap with friends who admire it, tactfully inform them they are idiots. Young women: If your date likes this movie, tell him you've been thinking it over, and you think you should consider spending some time apart."
This is obviously a film that is not Mr. Ebert's cup of tea, and there have been many other times where he and I have disagreed about the quality of films (I would have equally harsh things to say about Knowing, the godawful Nic Cage Sci-Fi from 2009 which he gave a 4-star review to), but this is the first time Mr. Ebert has come across as a crotchety old man in his review, deciding early into a film he didn't like it and, it would seem, having his sleep interrupted through the rest of it.
This is perhaps the most I've ever written about something I've only mildly-to-moderately enjoyed, but given the level of disdain and absolutely awfully scored reviews that are prevalent on the web, I think the film needs a defender. It's not the shit-fest critics are painting it to be. Placing it side by side with the likes of Mars Needs Moms, Burlesque and Beastly shows a decided lack of understanding (or just general interest) on many reviewers' part. I agree, this film won't entertain fully or interest everyone, but there is redeeming entertainment within, and I'd gladly watch another film like this than another (or any other) Stephen Sommers film or Crank sequel.