Sunday Morning Movies: Skyline and Battle: Los Angeles

May 9, 2011

Oh District 9, what hath ye wrought?  To nobody’s surprise, that relatively small-budgeted sci-fi romp’s success spurred on the Hollywood braintrust into making not one but two similarly themed invasion yarns.  The first of these was Skyline, directed by visual effects team The Brothers Strause (ugh), eager to cheaply follow up their not-smash success Alien vs. Predator: Requiem.  Some legal troubles came about because The Brothers Strause (ugh) were also doing visual effects work on Battle: Los Angeles, or something along those lines.  This is utterly ridiculous, of course, because there are scores of directors and writers that could sue both parties for shameless intellectual property theft. 

Skyline stars Donald Faison as Terry, a successful movie star living it up in his penthouse apartment.  His oldest friend Jarrod (a character we are meant to see as a nice guy but we find that difficult, seeing as they cast by Eric Balfour) comes around for Terry’s birthday party with his pregnant girlfriend Candice (Brittany Daniel).  After a night of partying and a pointless flashback framing device they are under attack from alien forces, determined to suck up every single human being on earth in one fell swoop save these five or so people in a high rise.  The Brothers Strause (ugh) liberally borrow elements from recent hits, including – but not limited to – Independence Day (giant spaceships, some airplane dogfighting), War of the Worlds (people sucked into alien craft with red tentacles), and Cloverfield (bunch of assholes in an apartment).  They don’t seem to have understood any of those films, but think they do (it’s about the effects, right?) and replicate their elements with some admirable CGI.

For the first hour, the film looks pretty good in that department, at least for the very modest $10 million or so budget, but as every stuffy critic in the world has been saying for the last 15 or so years, you can’t buy a good movie anyway.  Even getting past the atrociously clichéd and over-explanatory dialogue and the nonsensical decisions of the protagonists, there is a stunning lack of understanding about the simple elements of how to build tension – there’s a sequence involving a car and an electronic gate that is so mind bogglingly inept it must be some sort of joke – or film an action scene in a reasonably exciting manner.  These shortcomings shouldn’t come as a surprise from the directors of Alien vs. Predator: Requiem; perhaps the only theatrically released film that can claim to be worse than a Paul W.S. Anderson predecessor.  Like that picture, Skyline has a nihilistic streak in regards to its characters and the ends they meet.  After establishing a lead and his assistant have been having an affair (and she’s wonderfully cast as a sweet-looking brunette to contrast with the domineering blonde girlfriend), they are dispatched with an uncaring, reckless abandon that would be welcome in a better film.  This kind of playing on audience expectations can only work if it is part of something larger – a comment about the world they’ve created or perhaps a subversion of genre norms.  Put briefly, nihilism in films only works if it has meaning.  The Brothers Strause (ugh) demonstrate nothing of the sort, and one imagines they decide to do these things because they’re geeks who thinks it’s cool.

As awful as Skyline is, it is at least fitfully amusing in a bad way.  Battle: Los Angeles is just plain dull in the egregiously offensive way that only the most plainly dull films can be.   Borrowing heavily from District 9 (minus the attention to character and clever use of special effects) and Black Hawk Down (minus the skillfully designed sense of logic to its urban warfare mayhem), Battle: Los Angeles is ugly, insipid jingoistic nonsense.  A paean to the military-industrial complex, it involves a group of Brave Soldiers fighting an all-out alien invasion, the purpose of which seems to be to justify the massive defense budget.  Aaron Eckhart plays a soldier on the cusp of retirement, forced to overcome his guilt over A Terrible Decision to lead a group of cardboard cutouts through one pile of rubble after another.  As the enemy is comprised of bad CGI, our intrepid heroes are thankfully free from all that pesky ambiguity that has plagued the last decade of American military action.

Those problematic elements would be worthy of consideration if the film weren’t so unbelievably boring.  If you’ll forgive me a cheap play on David Bordwell’s phrase, it’s a case of intensified discontinuity to the point that there isn’t single battle sequence that makes any logical sense.  Halfway through I found myself yearning for the relative calm of a Michael Bay picture.  In Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott was able to suggest the insane confusion of battle without giving up the larger sense of geography that is necessary for the viewer to follow the action.  In that instance, Scott knew that his shutter speed manipulation and handheld shooting should never overwhelm the spatial logic.  In Battle: Los Angeles, the filmmakers seemed to have been so afraid of the audience getting bored they had to make every single scene as nauseatingly full of motion as possible.  Why build anticipation with a quiet, still shot of soldiers waiting in a bus, rifles pointing out of the window, when you can shake the camera so everyone knows that This Is Exciting?  Perhaps the makers of Battle: Los Angeles felt the need to emulate their military heroes the only way they knew how:  by making the same level of shit as someone else, but at six times the cost.

-M

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One Response to “Sunday Morning Movies: Skyline and Battle: Los Angeles”

  1. Widnesian Says:

    That was great. I really enjoyed that one, and I too loved the description of bloody Cloverfield. Cheers.


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