Film Review: Invaders, Foreign and Familiar

by chubbywerewolf on 12 March 2011

Battle: Los Angeles

Promotional image for "Battle: Los Angeles" (Photo credit: Columbia Pictures, Inc.)

Two of this weekend’s biggest box office draws—”Battle: Los Angeles” and “Red Riding Hood”—seem to be about as different as two films could possibly be. One is a gritty, modern-day, testosterone-driven alien invasion flick. The other is a stylish take on a classic fairy tale, set hundreds of years ago and re-imagined for the “Twilight” demographic.

In truth, the movies have far more in common than a surface-level inspection might suggest. Both are samples of genres that are extremely popular at the moment. Both are essentially about communities that have been invaded by outside forces. And both owe their biggest flaws to poor writing.

The first of these films, “Battle: Los Angeles” is part of the resurgent alien invasion genre, which is composed of movies like “Skyline” and “Cowboys vs. Aliens,” and tv shows along the lines of “V,” “The Event” and the forthcoming “Falling Skies.” The best of these stories—the Oscar nominated “District 9” and the criminally underseen, but brilliant “Monsters,” both of which are available on Netflix Streaming—have been those which put a unique spin on the standard “invasion” theme.

Alas, “Battle” adheres to the conventional approach (Aliens, bad. Humans, good.). Directed by horror film vet Jonathan Liebesman, the movie stars Aaron Eckhart (“The Dark Knight,” “Rabbit Hole”) as Marine Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz. The battle-weary Nantz is second-in-command of a platoon charged with the task of helping to evacuate citizens of Santa Monica in advance of a potentially deadly meteor shower.

Of course, if you’ve seen the trailers and commercials (they’ve been hard to miss), you know that the meteors are not meteors at all, but rather, an alien armada that is invading the planet. It seems that we have something they want, and they are stopping at nothing to get it. (The “something” is revealed midway through the film, but it hardly comes as a surprise.)

“First in, last out,” brags one Marine, as the group prepares to leave base. Except that they (at least this particular platoon) aren’t exactly first. In what is perhaps a nod to our media-saturated society where you can watch tsunamis beat coastlines in real-time courtesy of CNN, MSNBC and FOX News, the men watch as events unfold in grainy detail on television. Meteorites plunge into the water, emitting vast plumes of water and smoke. Aliens emerge from the haze and begin gunning down every living thing they see.

Eventually, the platoon makes its way to a forward operating base, where the Marines are given their instructions (evacuate civilians shoot anything that isn’t human) and dispensed into the battle zone. What ensues is fairly routine stuff. The Marines encounter human survivors and alien aggressors alike. People die. Aliens die. Things blow up.

“Battle: Los Angeles” goes to pains to introduce us to each of the Marines in the platoon (we see them on the day before the invasion, buying flowers for a wedding, visiting grave sites, video chatting with family members), presumably because it wants us to regard them as something more than interchangeable cannon fodder. But as a result of the clunky writing, these characters amount to little more than a band of living, breathing tropes. We are provided with their names, but their dog tags may just as well be marked “the One who suffers from PTSD,” “the One carrying a grudge,” “the One who is new,” “the One who is getting married,” “the One about to have a kid.” You get the picture.

Perhaps the biggest cliché in the film is Staff Sergeant Nantz. Not only has he recently filed his retirement papers (making the evacuation detail the equivalent of “one last day on the job”), we learn that he lost men on his last campaign, a tragedy which still haunts him. (Apparently, happy, well-adjusted Marines do not make for great drama. That said, we should probably be thankful that the writers stopped short of giving him a dead wife). Eckhart is a terrific actor who does what he can with the role, but he’s given precious little to work with.

Possibly the only thing more distracting than the bad writing is the shaky camera work. Much of “Battle: Los Angeles” was shot with hand-held cameras, a fact that Liebesman seems intent on conveying to us by making sure that every last scene—even the most mundane conversations between two characters standing around—is shot with shaky, panicky resolve. Hand-held cameras are nice, when used sparingly and appropriately (like in a battle sequence). But Liebesman’s unrestrained use of it disrupts the flow of the narrative and punishes audience members’ eyeballs.

The action sequences are competently produced, but “Battle: Los Angeles” offers us little that we haven’t seen on screen before. The same can be said for the aliens (who probably most resemble the “Predator” aliens) and their technology. Interestingly, the impressive and iconic visuals from the promotional materials—those smoky halos emitted by the alien projectiles as they hammer the California Coastline—are hardly seen in the film. That said, “Battle: Los Angeles” flourishes most during the battle sequences and the movie’s third act (which is composed almost entirely of battle sequences) is far and away the best part.

So, should you see it? If you’re an action junkie or a fan of the genre, “Battle: Los Angeles is probably worth the price of a matinee ticket. Otherwise, I recommend that you stay home and watch “Monsters” on Netflix streaming.

* * *

Red Riding Hood

Amanda Seyfried as Valerie, in "Red Riding Hood" (Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

In terms of popularity, keeping pace with the alien invasion theme right now is what might be called the “remastered fairy tale” genre. In addition to “Red Riding Hood,” we can look forward to (or not) updated takes on Hansel & Gretel (“Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”), Snow White (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) and the Brothers Grimm (“The Sisters Grimm,” based on Michael Buckley’s children’s book series).

If the folks behind these new productions are concerned about “Red Riding Hood” setting the bar too high, they can relax. Stylish-looking and beautifully shot, it is plagued by bad writing, laughable dialogue, poor casting choices and one-note characters. Were it offered in 3-D (thankfully, it is not) it might easily be confused for as world’s most lavish community theater production.

Set in the medieval village of Daggerhorn, “Red Riding Hood” stars Amanda Seyfried—probably best known for her roles in “Mamma Mia!” and HBO’s “Big Love,”—as Valerie, the daughter of a local wood-cutter and his wife (Billy Burke and Virginia Madsen, both horribly miscast). Seeking to improve the family’s financial standing, Valerie’s mother promises her to Henry (Max Irons), the son of a well-to-do blacksmith. Valerie has ideas of her own, which include running away with Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), her long-time friend and love interest. Max and Peter do a lot of brooding, and neither likes the other very much.

(If aspects of “Red Riding Hood” seem startlingly “Twilight”-esque, then it should come as no surprise that director Catherine Hardwicke oversaw the production of that franchise’s first installment. A former production designer, Hardwicke demonstrated tremendous potential with her first feature, “Thirteen.” But her track record since then has been one of diminishing returns.)

Complicating matters is the presence of a werewolf. For years, we’re told, the villagers of Daggerhorn have been keeping it at bay by providing him (or could it be a her?) with occasional sacrifices. A pig here, a goat there, and the wolf leaves the town alone until the next full moon. But on the eve of Valerie’s engagement to Henry (which coincides with a celestial event known as the “Blood Red Moon”), the wolf steps up its attacks, murdering Valerie’s sister, Lucy.

Panic ensues, and a mob of furious villagers takes the fight to the wolf, storming its mountain cavern and killing the beast. Or so it seems, until the sadistic Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) arrives in town with an army of thugs, and tells the townspeople that the werewolf is actually one of their own. He proceeds to put the town on lock-down, waiting for the wolf to strike again.

The movie, which was not very good to begin with, plummets downhill from there. Valerie’s rapport with the wolf (the two can communicate telepathically) suggests that it is someone she knows. Consequently, “Red Riding Hood” becomes a crass, lazy whodunnit, in which nearly everyone in the girl’s life (including her own grandmother, played by Julie Christie) casts sinister looks at her, as if to say, “I’m probably the werewolf. But maybe not.” The wolf is also revealed to have brown eyes, prompting awkward close-ups of various characters, so that the audience will know that—GASP!—they too have brown eyes.

As if the “whodunnit” aspects were not cringe-worthy enough, Hardwicke provides us with what is easily the worst cinematic dance scene since “The Matrix: Reloaded.” During the sequence, the town’s moody, emo teenagers dance around joylessly as Valerie attempts to catch Peter’s eye (by dancing suggestively with a female friend, naturally). It was clearly intended to be a serious—even erotic—moment, but the only response it evoked from my audience was gut-wrenching laughter. A shot which follows, featuring the line “I want to eat you up,” didn’t fare much better.

“Red Riding Hood” might not have been as bad as it was, had those involved in making it gone about it in a more lighthearted manner. The idea of re-manufacturing a fairy tale for the “Gossip Girl” and “Twilight” generation is a ridiculous one to begin with. Hardwicke and her actors could have embraced the kitsch and had some fun with it. Instead, they made a gloomy, overly serious and unpleasant film in which nobody seems to have a good time… including the audience.

MY SCORES:

“Battle: Los Angeles”: 2.5 MOONS (OUT OF FIVE)

“Red Riding Hood”: 1.5 MOONS (OUT OF FIVE)

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

kate March 12, 2011 at 9:46 pm

aiyiyi- i felt that LRRH would be terrible (from a feminist perspective), so thank you for giving me yet another reason to skip it.

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