Mysterious meteors are detected in space only days before they impact Earth. We start to realize that they aren’t plain old meteors when they slow down before impact, and all land near major world cities. Any lingering doubt is squashed when aliens burst out and start slaughtering people.
The movie starts in medias res, with Aaron Eckhart and his squad of marines on a helicopter flying into a besieged Santa Monica, with the alien invasion already well underway. Diving right into the story like this seemed like a truly original way to go, but unfortunately the movie jumps back 24 hours to give us needless exposition. Given that these expository scenes only serve to reveal how one-dimensional most of our characters are, they could have been skipped entirely.
Eckhart stars as Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz, a grizzled veteran soldier who is not only about to retire, but also has something to prove, after his last mission resulted in the deaths of the men under his command. But Eckhart’s character is far from the most clichéd one. There is also the guy who is about to get married, the guy whose wife is pregnant, the virgin, the guy from New Jersey (identifying yourself only by where you’re from is never a good idea in movies like this) and the newbie lieutenant who cracks under the pressure.
The structure of the film ensures that we learn nothing about where the aliens come from or what they want, but it would be nice if the humans were to display a little personality of their own. Instead, they are ciphers almost as much as the aliens, spending their time spouting warmovie drivel we’ve heard dozens of times before. There are speeches about duty and the bonds forged during war and heroic self-sacrifice, but little that seems lifelike or authentic.
Eckhart is best served here, probably since he is the only one given anything close to a real character to play. Still, his performance works mainly because he has the necessary gravitas to play a sturdy, battle-weary soldier. His chin dimple is really the only thing needed to give this performance. The rest of him could have stayed home. Rodriguez gives the latest variation on the tough military chick she has played so many times before, though she does it so well that it’s hard to believe that her character, an air force intelligence officer, is viewed as a weak link by the marines. Michael Peña was very funny in Observe and Report and Eastbound and Down, and can give effective dramatic performances as well, but he’s wasted here in a bland role as one of the civilians.
Director Jonathan Liebesman creates some thrilling action set pieces for the film, making the scenes feel immersive as the marines gradually slog their way through enemy territory. However, about half the time the camera is shaking so much that you can barely tell what’s happening. The special effects are likewise skillful, with the aliens’ ships actually feeling mechanical and kind of dingy, as if they were actually built by somebody, instead of the smooth, gleaming crafts seen in most movies like this.
But the action isn’t really the problem. It’s when anything else happens that the movie falters. The fault there lies largely with the script, by Christopher Bertolini, which occasionally feints toward originality, but always reverts to being clichéd and illogical in ways both large and small.
The marines’ entire mission in the film is to proceed on foot to a police station where some civilians are holed up, collect them and return to the base. That’s it. Of course it’s not that simple, with aliens popping up at every turn. I was impressed for a while that the film concerned itself with such a relatively small part of the invasion, and that it didn’t seem overly optimistic about our chances in defeating the aliens. However, those impressions were dashed by a hokey last-ditch plot-device involving the accidental discovery of a way to defeat the aliens.
In a nice reversal of one of the stupider parts of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, the aliens seem to have come to earth mostly for our ready supply of water. However, much like in Signs, War of the Worlds or Independence Day, the aliens make one huge tactical mistake that allows the humans to get back into the fight.
There’s also a particularly ugly scene in which the humans capture an alien and literally tear off pieces of it in an effort to figure out how to kill it. The scene feels like it might be going for some sort of metaphor about the barbarity of war and how little we understand our enemies, but the movie never feels smart enough to support more than one level of meaning.
For long stretches, Battle: Los Angeles is a decent piece of action cinema, but it loses steam whenever the shooting stops. The film has taken an interesting idea and wasted it, stranding some decent actors and action scenes in the middle of a hollow, clichéd mess that never figures out how to make its earthling characters more recognizably human than the space aliens they’re fighting.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.