The eyeball-rolling starts early and often in 'Battle: Los Angeles,' an alien invasion picture that drowns in its own bathetic soap opera.
Visually arresting, with dynamic shaky-cam combat footage mixed seamlessly with a myriad of explosions and an endless army of alien footsoldiers, the film never bothers to develop the characters beyond the most rudimentary stereotypes. Thus we have Soldier Mourning Fallen Comrade, Nigerian Medic, American Virgin, Man Preparing to Get Married, Man Leaving Behind Pregnant Wife, Unexpectedly Combat-Ready Female Soldier, Devoted Father, Beautiful Civilian, and, let's not forget, Bug-Like Extraterrestrials With Nefarious Motives.
The only character who's explored to any degree is Staff Sergeant Nantz, played by Aaron Eckhart at his most heroic. And, frankly, we hear entirely too much about him. As the story begins, he's completed his 20 years of service in the Marines and wants out. Not least of his motivations is an incident in Iraq in which the men in his unit were killed, while he survived.
Raise your hand if you know where this is going.
Yup, as you and every other person who's ever seen a war movie knows, noble Staff Sergeant Nantz suffers from survivor's guilt, and before he can walk ten feet after turning in his retirement papers, the aliens invade and he's pressed back into service, assigned to a unit in which one member, Lockett (Cory Hardrict), just happens to be the brother of one of the men killed under his command in Iraq.
To make matters worse, Nantz must work under Lt. Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), newly-arrived from officer training school, and with no combat experience under his belt. The unit itself is two weeks from deployment overseas, so they lack seasoning. That should be OK, though, since the aliens, who landed in the Pacific Ocean in disguise as meteors, are strictly ground-based, leaving them without air support. Thus, the US military dominates the air, so all that Nantz and Martinez and their unit need to do is evacuate civilians trapped in a police station and get them to safety at the FOB (Forward Operating Base) within three hours, which is when the military has decided to bomb Santa Monica out of existence.
The situation deteriorates quickly and the unit finds itself embroiled in the battle of their lives. The soldiers are joined by a tiny group of surviving civilians, which includes Joe (Michael Peña) and his three children, as well as Michele (Bridget Moynahan), a lovely (and handy) veterinarian. Eventually they team up with Technical Sergeant Santos (Michelle Rodriguez), who turns out to be eager to kick butt and a source of valuable information about the aliens.
'Battle Los Angeles' is much more a war movie than a science fiction flick. There's only a cursory attempt to explain the presence of the aliens, via a lone expert commenter on CNN, who suggests that the aliens may be after our water. Within the first few scenes of the movie, we're told that aliens have landed in the oceans near 12 major seaside cities, and that Los Angeles is the last remaining holdout. (Evidently this is one of those times that it pays to live in flyover country.) But all we really need to know is that the aliens are implacable foes and that they're bent on the annihilation of the human race.
Really, the aliens are only needed as an excuse to threaten mankind and blow stuff up. On a personal note, this writer is perfectly fine with big-time, wide-scale apocalyptic destruction in movies. (Better on screen than in real life.) Unfortunately, although the visual effects look quite spectacular, a larger problem looms: Los Angeles is not New York or San Francisco. That is to say, Santa Monica, the beachside community that is the setting for the film, is indistinguishable here from any other coastal city. Maybe watching the Ferris wheel roll into the ocean in Steven Spielberg's '1941' has spoiled us, but without recognizable visual landmarks whose loss we can mourn, it's difficult to feel very badly about property destruction without context.
And it all needs to mean something. Even the least demanding fan of ficks that blow stuff up needs to feel a degree of investment in the characters. With the local citizenry largely evacuated from danger, the film lives (and dies) on the surviving characters and, frankly, we can barely tell them apart. Despite stapling sympathetic qualities to the forehead of each soldier in the opening scenes, once the battle is engaged, that's all forfeit until a crisis point arises and we are forced to remember: "Oh, yeah, the lieutenant is very, very green" or "Right, right, that soldier still resents the Staff Sergeant for getting his brother killed."
The soldiers over-emote furiously, punching solid surfaces when a comrade is killed, and cheering outrageously when they do something right. While a degree of that over-playing could be attributed to the idea that they're all new to combat, you can never shake the feeling that you're watching actors pretending to be Marines (though they try to be authentic by constantly shouting "Oorah!"), which means that whenever the movie stops dead for an "emotional" scene, we're actually kinda hoping that the aliens start blowing stuff up again.
Director Jonathan Liebesman, working from a script credited to Chris Bertolini, has a resume that includes several unexceptional horror flicks ('Darkness Falls,' 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning,' 'The Killing Room'), which makes him a curious choice to helm a straightforward PG-13 action product. The film would certainly have benefited from a darker-edged flavor, which might have helped it either rise above or subvert its weary old stereotypes. Instead, it too often relies on a majestically swelling orchestral score by Brian Tyler to cue heartfelt emotions.
'Battle: Los Angeles' needs something more than spectacular alien combat footage to recommend it. They might have started with some recognizable human behavior.