This may require a ruling by the Motion Picture Academy, or the Justice League, or the Wisconsin State Senate, but I hereby aver: the shaky-cam aesthetic must end. The use of quivering images to suggest a you-are-there reality never made any sense, since cinematographers of actual documentaries always tried to keep the frame steady, even when shooting combat footage. The shaky-cam as used in Cloverfield and the Paul Greengrass Bourne films, and in TV shows from NYPD Blue to 24 to The Office, is worse than amateurism; it’s fake amateurism, the visual equivalent of a comedian pretending to have Parkinson’s. ‘Tain’t funny, ’tain’t pretty and, from now on, ’tain’t allowed.
In the ’60s, movie directors fell in love with the zoom lens, and for a while no movie image was hip unless it changed focal lengths every few seconds. That gimmick quickly exhausted itself — but the even more annoying shaky-cam has been around for a couple decades now. Thirty years ago, when hip-hop began to dominate pop culture, some music lovers might have said, “OK, I can wait this out”; but not me, not with this, not any more. Let the edict be read: Put the camera back on the damn tripod.
Latest offender: Battle Los Angeles (which, despite what the ads say, has no colon in the movie title), a piece-of-crap war fantasy that pushes shaky-cam technique to egregious extremes. Even in the opening few minutes, before an air convoy of aliens lands on Santa Monica beach to lay waste to L.A., the camera jitters from one facial closeup to the next, as if it knows what’s about to happen and is dreadfully nervous. Soon we learn that the space invaders mean to occupy and annihilate all of America’s major coastal cities, as if in some red-stater’s wet dream, and a Marine officer proclaims to his troops, “You will kill anything that is not human.” Director Jonathan Liebesman must have issued similar orders to his cameramen: You will jiggle any equipment you hold.
The South African director (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) is a fellow countryman of genuinely-gifted auteur Neill Blomkamp, whose District 9 a couple summers ago offered one of the few witty applications of shaky-cam. But Liebesman not only doesn’t deserve to be included in the School of Blomkamp, he doesn’t even try. He’s aiming for the high-concept brainlessness of Roland Emmerich, who merrily imperiled the planet in Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, and the large-scale Lego-rrhea of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. Most of Battle Los Angeles shows a small unit of Marines trying to escape, outmaneuver and thousands of alien soldiers, whose weapons, oddly, are very similar to those of the earthlings. Having unlocked the secrets of intergalactic travel, the aliens apparently never mastered the technology of heat-seeking missiles. Maybe their space-travel budget was bigger than their Defense budget.
Screenwriter Chris Bertolini (The General’s Daughter) matches Liebesman idiocy for idiocy — for example, taking the creaky action-film cliché about the aging cop who runs into trouble on his last day before retirement, then applying it to nearly every character in Battle Los Angeles. Grizzled Staff Sgt. Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) has just turned in his retirement papers after a 20-year career fighting bad guys in the War on Terror. Another Marine is about to get married; a third has a wife who’s about to give birth; a fourth is a fresh-faced teen about to lose his virginity. See, we should care about these guys — and the stray civilians they adopt on their mission — because they have something to live for. What about the million or so Angelenos, and the tens of millions elsewhere, who have died off-camera? Aaah, they’re just collateral damage.
Nantz is the hero, and not just because Eckhart, in training for this very physical role, somehow added new muscles to a face already contoured like six-pack abs. At the start the staff Sgt. is only second-in-command under a baby-faced, puppy-eyed Lieutenant (Ramon Rodriguez), fresh from the Marine Academy, who’s facing his first-ever combat mission. In War-Movie Screenwriting 101, that is a death sentence, which Battle Los Angeles waits for about an hour to execute. All these simplifying narrative tropes were deeply embedded in World War II movies; but Bertolini has also seen The Hurt Locker. He means to turn Santa Monica into Baghdad With Aliens — where the enemy is even more remorseless than a band of angry Iraqis, and the U.S. soldiers on patrol must face armaments more sophisticated than I.E.D.s. The Marines’ one emotional advantage: this time they’re not the invaders but the home team.
Reviewers’ ethics oblige me to compliment two cool and creepy scenes: one where Nantz and a woman veterinarian perform a goopy surgery that becomes an alien autopsy; the other where a tough woman soldier (Avatar‘s Michelle Rodriguez) gets a face full of splayed alien brains. But those aren’t the scariest moments of Battle Los Angeles, at least not in the Manhattan theater where I attended a midnight screening. As the house lights went down, a woman exclaimed, “Watch out for the bedbugs!” Since the theater chain had been cited for tiny vermin, that shout gave a shiver to my own internal shaky-cam.