I get the feeling that I’m going to be one of the few people defending Battle: Los Angeles, the newest disjointed sci-fi blockbuster to hit the scene. I admit freely that it’s easy to see why the film will frustrate many viewers, as it basically plays like a video game script that was filmed accidentally. It’s a derivative piece of work that borrows from sci-fi and military hits gone by, which also means its stocked with every cliche you can think of. And, because I am able to admit all of these things, I think it’s easier for me to appreciate what Battle: Los Angeles actually is.
Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight) stars as Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz, an aging Marine who seems resigned to the fact that his time has passed him by. Early in the film we witness a scene in which he asks to resign from duty and seems confident in his choice, but when the signature he needs is given he stumbles a bit, stating that his “whole life is in that file”. This early change of heart by the character was a bit of a warning to this viewer; it seemed to unintentionally put the audience on notice regarding the fact that this wasn’t going to be the deepest script we’ve seen filmed of late.
Meanwhile, meteor-like objects are falling from the sky across the globe and landing outside of major cities in 20 countries, including the Staff Sergeant’s home, Los Angeles. Suddenly his discharge from service is on the back burner, and he’s thrust into service with a squad that includes a young Lieutenant (Ramon Rodriguez) and a young man whose brother was killed in action while serving under Nantz, among others. Soon after the military figures out the objects aren’t meteors, the reluctant veteran and his team find themselves battling humanoid extra terrestrials on the ravaged streets of L.A.
Battle: Los Angeles takes the military side of its plot very seriously. I could not for the life of me remember Eckhart’s character’s name when I started writing this review, but the fact that he played a Staff Sergeant is already permanently entrenched in my memory. Ditto for Rodriguez’ Lieutenant, because the entirety of the interaction between the two characters is based around their ranks having an inverse correlation with their experience. Nantz’ rank becomes his identity in the film, despite the fact that he’s often called on to give dramatic directions and inspirational speeches. Eckhart really does a good job in the role and carries the film above its lack of script, but it certainly feels like this serious character deserved a far more serious movie around it.
Opposite the squad are the invaders, who we learn – through TV broadcasts – are trying to colonize our planet. There’s an interesting parallel between our human forces and the alien forces, as both sides seem to use similar tactics. The beginning of the battle occurs with ground forces, which are led by the humanoid invaders that appear to be kind of a cross between the ones we saw in District 9 and Predator, and these soldiers are seen traveling in units, finding watchout posts, and working together like a human squad. The human military quickly realizes they need to exploit their edge in using air forces, but the invading force soon follows suit. Things escalate through a high tech finale, which allows the film to get in plenty of special effects scenes.
The film’s focus on the military procedures of each side does seem to make the war between the species a little more interesting, but it’s a shame that the script didn’t focus a little bit more on developing a story to fill the gaps between action scenes. Like a video game, there are often times when a battle ends, the forces quickly regroup, and then we are suddenly whisked away to a new locale. At some of these points, the film is even nice enough to put text on screen to tell us where we are and how much time is left until our objective. There are attempts at advancing the human story when civilians become involved in the middle of the film, yet most of these scenes feel like forced attempts at creating a connection with the characters, and thus fall flat. The film also emulates a video game by forcing the characters to adapt on the fly during their encounters with the alien forces, and it seemed like characters were often shouting out explanations of what needed to be done to defeat each wave of attackers. Thankfully, an icon never popped up telling Eckhart to push the X button; as that felt like the film’s next step.
Despite all these flaws, I really did find myself pleased with what I saw in Battle: Los Angeles. The film’s propensity to take itself seriously despite the illogical events depicted left me enjoying the campy side of the adventure, and the battle scenes and special effects are certainly top notch. While the film borrows from plenty of others, I still felt like the final product was a unique story that kept me involved in the war of the worlds that it was selling. If a viewer can manage to not get caught up in the military cliches or trying to understand the science of the attackers, I think there’s fun to be had with Battle: Los Angeles. Just keep your expectations in check, because the advertising is a whole lot more dramatic than the film. (And, unless I missed it completely, that whole past invasions thing shown in the trailer isn’t even touched upon in the movie. Insert sadness here.)
(One last thing: In an awkward turn of events, the first lines of the film are a fake TV report warning us of the meteor-like phenomena landing in the sea just off the coast of Japan. Though any loose similarity to real events is obviously coincidental, I must say the timing of the release after this morning’s catastrophic events in Japan created a little bit of unease in my stomach. With these events fresh in my memory, I’d like to send all of my best prayers to those facing real world disasters at present. Godspeed to you all.)