Battle: Los Angeles is a war movie that just happens to have aliens from outer space as the antagonists. It's a love letter to the U.S. military - the Marines in particular - disguised as a sci-fi action film. And when the characters aren't spouting ridiculously cliched dialogue, it's not half-bad.
Unfortunately, while great attention was paid to getting the military aspects of the story right, very little attention seems to have been paid to giving the actors anything to say that doesn't sound as though it's lifted from classic war films.
Director Jonathan Liebesman shot the film documentary style, with hand-held cameras giving us an up close and personal look at the horrors of battle. It's an effective way to tell the story and it does in fact make us feel like we're running alongside these men (and one woman) as they try to save civilians trapped in a police station in a Santa Monica, California neighborhood. Battle: LA works best when it concentrates on a platoon of Marines working their way through the deserted streets as they try to get from what's become alien central to a safe zone. Whenever the film focuses on actually fighting the aliens, it's a truly gripping action movie. But, it comes to a grinding halt whenever any of the actors playing members of the platoon try to fill in their personal backstories. Whoever said we need to know who these men (and that one woman) are in order to care about their survival had it wrong in this case.
Battle: LA opens with a few scenes used to set up the lead characters. Aaron Eckhart's introduced as Staff Sgt. Nantz, a man who's obviously been through very rough times during his tours of duty and is ready to say good-bye to the Marines and hello to civilian life. We learn something terrible happened on his last tour resulting in the loss of life, and that everyone blames him for the deaths of his men.
Next up is 2nd Lt. Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), fresh out of officer training school and ready to lead his first platoon. His men seem to like and respect him, despite the fact he's never had combat experience. Adetokumboh M'Cormack is the medic, Noel Fisher is Pfc. Lenihan - a virgin (really?) who the guys tease but also treat like a little brother because, you know, these are good men (as we'll see throughout the film). Half a dozen or so other members of the platoon put in appearances, including one who's about to get married. But trust me, by the time the battle starts you'll forget who is who and just get into the fights.
As soon as we're done with our brief introductions to the platoon members, we learn Earth's being invaded by aliens. Now, we never find out anything about where they're from, but you don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand they're here to wipe out all humanity and take over our planet. A scientist on a TV broadcast explains the aliens want our resources - specifically our water. Within minutes of landing on our planet, they wipe out major cities in what is most definitely a strategic attack that shows they're not only intelligent but well-organized.
Our hero platoon is assigned to go into an evacuated area and rescue civilians trapped in a police station, and they must do so in just a matter of a couple of hours because the military will be bombing the area in the misguided belief that we still control the air. We don't, and now the platoon, the five civilians they've rescued, and the lone surviving member of an Air Force squadron (Michelle Rodriguez as TSGT Santos) must make their way on their own back to a safe zone while surrounded/hunted by aliens and their flying drones.
The Acting:Aaron Eckhart's not the first person you'd associate with an action-heavy war film, but he proves to be the perfect action hero. Given better dialogue Eckhart could have really made something of this role. As it is, he's terrific in the action scenes and believable as a Marine battling his own demons. And Eckhart's earnest portrayal of a Marine will likely earn him new fans among military personnel. Likewise, Michelle Rodriguez - an actress whose bread and butter is action films - delivers the goods as a member of the Air Force who's the equal of any male in the platoon.
The rest of the actors who make up the Marine platoon do a fine job in the action scenes and in making it appear as though they've trained together and that operating as a group has become second nature to them. The actors actually went through a three week boot camp supervised by Marines, and that weapons instructions and the bonds formed during the physically demanding training are evident on the screen.
The Bottom Line:
It's fine that Battle: Los Angeles is loaded with all the familiar military archetypes. Writer Chris Bertolini does seem to have gone down the check list to make sure he included them all, but it's an alien invasion/war movie about a platoon of Marines and so it's to be expected that we see some if not all of these cliched characters. What's not acceptable is that the dialogue feels so stale, so utterly predictable and totally corny [although Bertolini does get credit for not inserting a love story between Aaron Eckhart and Michelle Rodriguez or Eckhart and Bridget Moynahan].
In addition to the bad dialogue, the film has other problems - a couple of which were annoyingly distracting. The platoon rescues five civilians: a son (Bryce Cass), his dad (Michael Pena), a veterinarian (Moynahan), and two young girls (Jaden Gould, Joey King). The young girls aren't related to anyone, and it's never explained what they're doing in the police station and why they don't seem to be searching for their parents or mourning their deaths (if that's the case). It was just kind of weird how they were there and that was all we knew about them, while we found out a fair amount of info on the three other civilians. Also, at a critical point in the story members of the platoon rappel from a helicopter while it's pitch dark outside. They go underground for maybe all of 10 minutes and emerge to bright, noon-ish daylight. Did they fall asleep in the middle of a firefight? It makes no sense, and it's during a pivotal sequence in the film which makes it much more noticeable and jarring.
Also slightly disappointing, though understandable because of Liebesman's desire to make this a war film and not simply an 'aliens are attacking' flick, is that we don't really get to see much of the aliens themselves. One is seen in detail while they dissect it to find out how best to kill the creatures, but the rest are viewed from far enough away that we don't get a good look at them.
To Sum It Up:
Because the military is fighting off space aliens, Battle: Los Angeles is a guilt-free war film. We're justified in rooting for the deaths of the enemy and can do so with a free conscience. There's no gray area here; these invaders don't want to negotiate, they want to annihilate. If all you're looking for is a chance to cheer for the good guys as they fight for humanity - and if you can tune out the dialogue - then Battle: Los Angeles, with its cool gun battles and gritty, in-your-face action scenes, is mildly entertaining though completely forgettable.
Battle: Los Angeles was directed by Jonathan Liebesman and is rated PG-13 for sustained and intense sequences of war violence and destruction, and for language.
Theatrical Release: March 11, 2011