Los Angeles has been defeated. Yes, there were aliens involved, but that doesn't matter. The Marines at the center of Battle: Los Angeles could have been fighting the Girl Scouts of America, and they still would have fallen prey to the three classic villains of Hollywood: bad writing, bad acting and poor cinematography. Actually, Girl Scouts would have been an improvement over the alien invaders of B:LA (pronounced "blah") because I would actually have to give a writer credit for daring to pen a battle between Marines and Girl Scouts. Plus, I would understand the limitations of child actors, and I wouldn't be so disappointed in the movie's inability to clearly show me what a Girl Scout looked like. Also, the Girl Scouts probably would have been much scarier and more effective opponents than the bumbling, yet somehow successful ETs in this film.
The aliens show up unannounced and are first thought to be meteors, but after they take up positions off the coasts of a couple dozen cities, the military is mobilized. Designed for maximum accessibility and diversity, the L.A.-based squad we follow contains the following stock characters:
- a staff sergeant who's getting old, recently lost his entire squad and has tendered his resignation.
- a soldier who lost his brother in that same squad, and holds a grudge.
- a lieutenant straight out of officer training, who has a pregnant wife at home.
- a soldier who's getting married soon.
- a soldier who's a virgin.
- a soldier who's from New Jersey, so he naturally knows how to hotwire a city bus.
This team is sent into Santa Monica to retrieve some civilians from a police station before the whole town is bombed, a mission that smacks of Saving Private Ryan-level futility, especially as the squad is slowly whittled down by half-seen invaders that are partially glimpsed through constant clouds of dust and rubble. The soldiers pick up a few stragglers, including a veterinarian (Bridget Moynahan) who almost gleefully helps them tear apart a living alien to figure out how to kill it (shades of Starship Troopers) and an Air Force computer expert (Michelle Rodriguez) who answers all of their vaguely technical questions but is pretty much just one of the jarheads. And Aaron Eckhart, as the aging staff sergeant, gets to "pull some John Wayne shit," which he is apparently known for, plus he dramatically mourns the death of a single civilian and gives a long, dramatic speech about the death of his previous squad when there really isn't any time for that sort of thing and, in his own words, "none of that matters." (That line actually got a laugh, given the long list of ID numbers we'd just sat through.)
Sadly, the trite dialogue is not redeemed by the special effects. Not only is B:LA less creative than the recent and incredibly similar Skyline (the directors were almost sued by B:LA, for which they were also special effects creators), it may be less creative than Independence Day. When we finally get some halfway clear shots of the alieans (we're teased relentlessly for a while), they turn out to be nondescript, half-mechanical creatures shaped like men, and their tech consists of walking artillery, hovering fighters and massive command centers, all of which run on water. (I won't pretend to understand the science, but kudos to the movie for at least making water a valuable resource to the invaders, and not a deathly allergen like in Signs.) The film was shot mostly in a chaotic, battlefield style, all jostling handhelds and smoke-obscured footage, so some establishing shots that clearly showed what was going on would have been nice, because sometimes it was tough to get a sense of the layout. Even a simple office meeting with Eckhart was shot with handheld close-ups that made me feel like the camera was in a pinata hanging from the ceiling. If you have to try to find a way to make a meeting exciting, why not just cut the scene?
Of course the squad figures out the aliens' secrets, and they're the only ones who can do something about it at the end -- it's another cliché, but it almost redeems the movie to send the now-battle-hardened squad on an actually worthwhile mission. Sadly, it's not quite enough to erase the previous hour of awfulness, and the shamelessly pandering "hoo-rah" ending undoes a lot of that good will. At the very least, I hope real Marines love the hell out of this movie because there's a character to represent every conceivable rank, ethnic classification and maturity level, and the film never stops telling us how awesome they are. Enjoy the movie, troops - but you deserve a lot better.
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