Over the last six months or so, Hollywood has really tried to sell us on the new, updated version of the alien invasion flick. They’ve given us ramped up special effects with little or no story…or point (Skyline), and a far more serious take which substituted hand-held camera chaos for any kind of scope or suspense: Battle: Los Angeles. Leave it to the geniuses at The Asylum, the home of such schlock masterworks as Paranormal Entity, Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, and 2010: Moby Dick to truly deliver on the angry ET promise that Tinseltown can’t quite fathom. Not only is their terrific take, Battle OF Los Angeles a whole lot more fun, but it figures out the proper perspective for the entire genre, i.e. – if you can’t beat ’em, make the entire experience as choice and cheezy as possible.
One day, out of the clear blue sky, a huge photo-shopped alien spaceship several miles wide appears over a still image of the LA skyline. Without warning, it sends out drone ships that begin picking off the population. The military counters with planes to intercept it, but the technological advances of the pissed-off spacemen are just too great. Within minutes, all the aircraft have been shot down and the decimation of Southern California (or a small visual representation of same) has begun. A group of soldiers, including unsure Lt. Tyler Laughlin (Kel Mitchell), are charged with helping survivors get to safety. However, when a pilot from 1942 suddenly lands among the chaos, the troops are given a new mission – bring the more than 68 year old curiosity to Sector 7 for “debriefing.” They are helped by a samurai sword wielding Black Ops agent named Karla (Nia Peeples) who may know more about the motivation for the attacks than she lets on.
Following in the farcical footsteps of its other outlandish genre jerryrigs, Asylum’s Battle of Los Angeles is a royal hoot, especially when you consider the mediocre material it is cribbing from. Skyline sucked so hard that Sony’s lawsuit over the F/X (and the house providing them) has silently slipped into memory, while the big screen Battle pushed the limits of both entertainment tolerances and shaky-cam silliness. Here, writer/director Mark Atkins goes back to the original b-movie machinations of the ‘green men from outer space’ scenario, keeping some of the technological tweaks of 2011 (or, based on the CG imagery, more like 1994) while basking in the glow of the great geek goofiness of the ’50s and ’60s. How else can you explain a character who runs around destroying starships with a sword, or an extraterrestrial that, when revealed, looks like a tired tentacled turd?
This is the way an alien invasion film should be handled. Instead of interpersonal froufrou or attempts at soldier of fortune serious, break out the kitsch and keep the kooky camp coming. Atkins does his best with what has to be the budget of about a buck fifty, and there are moments with the Commodore 64 graphics don’t totally suck. But still, the less than polished look of the predators is part of this movie’s charm. It recalls the antiquated joys of Roger Corman and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Similarly, the acting is equally uproarious. Mitchell, as the unlikely lead (especially when you consider how little the rest of his platoon thinks of his skill set) has a permanent scowl that suggests he’s owed a few Good Burger residual checks. He has the gusto to play gung-ho, but none of the jarhead gravitas. Still, we root for him, in a kind of nutty Nick kid vid nostalgia mannerism.
Then there is Ms. Peeples, looking almost all of her 49 years (yes – she’s that old) running around playing Zatoichi. It’s a stitch to see her jumping from the top of small buildings, landing with an inconsequential “thud” on the back of some supposedly superior sci-fi terror. One rapier slice later, and the galaxy has been avenged. Not only does she “cut” a quizzical action facade, but she delivers her lines with a serious bereft of any irony or tongue in cheek tendencies. Indeed, almost everyone in the cast takes Battle of Los Angeles with a dramatic edge that’s absolutely absurd. Maybe it’s the need to ‘react’ to elements to be added later in post-production. It could also be the knowledge that they’re involved in something destined to be deconstructed by many in the so-called “critical” community.
And that’s unfair. Battle of Los Angeles is not incompetent. It’s a tad incoherent and a bit insane at times, but for the most part, it encompasses the best befuddled bits of every ‘war of the worlds’ film that’s come before. We get Independence Day riffs, nods to the newer movies mucking up the marketplace, pauses for H. G. Wells and even bows to bumblers like Bert I. Gordon. For his part, Atkins keeps things well paced, never allowing the single digital IQ quality of the narrative to catch up with his actors. Then, to help sell the F/X, he uses as must directorial flare and motion picture prestidigitation as possible. In many ways, Battle of Los Angeles is the kind of project everyone envisions Michael Bay making. Thanks to short-sided studios and unwieldy mega-budgets, Mr. Transformers usually ends up subverting his own stink.
Battle of Los Angeles is better than that. It’s a laugh out loud retro drive-in popcorn cavalcade that would look familiar to anyone scouring the bottom shelf of a Mom and Pop video store circa 1988. It announces its copycat intentions right up front and then finds a way to make all the recognizability work. As an example of what Asylum does best, it coattails the mainstream without repeating said commerciality’s irritating excesses. It’s a mean, lean, bad-ass Martian marauder. But don’t go in thinking it’s some kind disjointed masterwork. Battle of Los Angeles is a mess, without a doubt. It’s just a disaster in a good, grin-producing way. One day, the brains behind the business of show will figure out a way to make the alien invasion film work as both action and allegory (perhaps District 9 already has?). Until then, why not enjoy the subgenres many misgivings. Battle of Los Angeles does – and it’s definitely better for it.