Do you like modern war movies, gritty action, alien invasions, Aaron Eckhart and (most importantly) do you really really like over-the-shoulder shaky cam? Do you not care for things like original dialogue, plotting, or characters? If this describes you, then Battle: Los Angeles is what you should be watching right now. If either of those negatives I mentioned is a deal-breaker for you, I suggest renting District 9 and Blackhawk Down, then watching them simultaneously for a similar (if possibly superior) experience.
First, the part we all care about – the action in Battle: Los Angeles delivers. The combat scenes, directed by Johnathan Liebesman (Darkness Falls) are gritty, brutal, and at times terrifying. It’s a relief to see that, despite the CG effects, all of the action scenes still have a real weight and believability. You can practically feel the weight of the soldiers’ gear as they are pinned down by a hopelessly superior force. The alien effects and character designs are also solid, if somewhat generic.
Battle: Los Angeles opens with a jarring collection of TV News sound bites, outlining the sudden invasion and resulting panic. At first, I was impressed; “we’ve all seen the trailers, we all know the aliens we’re here to see – I love that they’re dropping us right into the action”. Well, my faith was misplaced. As quickly as the audience is dropped into the middle of the battle, they are sent 24 hours back in time to get to know our mostly faceless cast of U.S. Marines, in an ultimately futile attempt to make us care about any of the characters.
First we meet our hero, Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz, a grizzled Iraq War vet played by Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight, Thank You For Smoking). We learn a lot about his character in an early scene where he jogs on a beach, only to be passed by an entire class of younger, fitter Marines. This deft bit of characterization is immediately undone by the following scene where Eckhart immediately tells us how he is old and wants to retire, because he is old, and now he wants to retire.
As Battle: Los Angeles introduces us to the rest of the company of Marines we get plenty more of this type of “tell not show then tell again” approach to character building. Unfortunately, we are being introduced to the single most clichéd group of military stereotypes I’ve ever watched. There’s Cpl. “about to get married”, Cpl. “dumb kid from the Midwest”, Lt. Cpl. “token stoic foreign guy”, and 2nd Lt. “officer fresh from the academy who is immediately overwhelmed by the realities of combat”. Seriously, I could barely tell these guys apart before the shit hit the fan, let alone after the battle began when they are all wearing the same military fatigues and body armour.
The dialogue and story range from serviceable to occasionally laughable. Seriously, how many grim, intense speeches do we need about “what it means to be a Marine”? Sometimes there are two of these speeches in the same scene. Fortunately the cast compensates for this by playing the material straight, with 110% commitment. Eckhart in particular elevates the script, infusing his performance with years of combat weariness tempered by genuine empathy for his men. Michelle Rodriguez’s Air Force Sgt. also works, mostly through her doing that thing she does in every single movie she’s in. If it ain’t broke…
Overall, Battle: Los Angeles is a solid guys’ night at the movies. That’s not to say “guys movies” can’t have well-written scripts and exciting characters – but just that the action here is enough to sustain the movie (even as it briefly veers into Michael Bay/ USMC commercial territory in the final reel). If you and your buddies can find a theatre where you can watch the movie while also enjoying a beer (or several), then Battle: Los Angeles would be an extra-solid bet for a night out.