Battle: Los Angeles is an unusual movie. It’s an action film with Aaron Eckhart in the lead, it’s pro-military, and it doesn’t feel compelled to answer every question put forth by its premise. There are elements within it of several other films, but it still manages to play out like a somewhat fresh mix of military action and alien invasion. It’s Roland Emmerich without the cheese and laughable understanding of science. It’s Michael Bay without the stupidity and excessive use of ground level POV slow-mos.
And most unusual of all, it’s a solidly entertaining action movie releasing in the middle of March.
The action starts before the opening credits even appear. We hear news reports and chatter about an invasion, casualties, and mass destruction, as we ride along in a helo filled with US Marines. Dark forms are seen exiting the ocean and firing missiles into the crowds, and a pullback from the helicopter’s interior reveals the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles dotted and scarred with fires, smoke, and explosions.
At which point we jump back twenty four hours before the attack to meet the Marines. One’s retiring (Aaron Eckhart) after a traumatic loss on his last tour, one has a pregnant wife at home, one had a brother who recently died in Afghanistan, one’s a virgin, one’s suffering from PTSD, one’s Asian… okay, maybe “meet” was a bold word choice as the film really only allows time for brief characteristics before plunging them and us into the fray.
This is a video game by way of a war movie and immerses the viewer into a squad (platoon? group? gaggle?) of Marines on a mission to rescue civilians in the path of danger. The danger in question happens to be alien in nature, but the film and the soldiers play it straight with a no nonsense, live or die attitude that occasionally surprises with the results. As in who lives and who dies.
They sit comfortably between the single family in Signs and the entirety of the US government in ID4. We know what they know, and that isn’t all that much. The film never jumps to the White House or to other high ranking military offices, there’s only speculation of a grand alien motivation worked out by a talking head on TV, and there’s no universal defense imagined by thirsty little girls… there’s only a group of soldiers tasked with a mission. We learn as they do by experiencing the encounters first hand.
We also get what may feel like only part of a whole story, but it makes sense in the genre. Most war films focus on a singular mission or storyline and don’t feel compelled to also feature the end of said war. Very few WWII movies end with the defeat of Hitler or the bombing of Hiroshima. In that same vein this story is a part of a much bigger narrative.
The alien enemy is glimpsed at first in the distance or in quick flashes from the rooftops, but even when they make more formal appearances it’s never with great clarity. This is an intentional decision on director Jonathan Liebesman’s part made as much for budgetary reasons as aesthetic ones. The effects look fine for much of the film, but some of the CGI models look lazy from far away. One scene that does allow time for a closer look at the creatures reveals the inner biological workings of an alien in a way that would make Jack Bauer and other rendition fans proud.
The film’s sense of urgency leaves little room for details or depth as it rushes down streets and in and out of buildings. The camera jerks along in its best Paul Greengrass impression and maintains a fairly frenetic pace to the end stopping occasionally along the way for a semi-rousing speech or pause to admire the beauty of Bridget Moynahan and the sincerity of Michael Pena.
What doesn’t work as well is the dialogue. It sometimes reaches near Avatar-level bad, which is fitting since most of it spills from between Michelle Rodriguez’ muscular lips. She and others feel compelled to point out the obvious to each other and to the audience even as we’re watching it happen onscreen. Alien clearly dying before our eyes? “It’s dying.”
And it deserves mentioning (and possible credit) that this is probably the most pro-military movie of the past twenty years. The heroes are competent, capable, and honorable US Marines whose job it is to protect this country and her citizens, and they’re intent on doing just that. There’s some conflict to be had between them, but none of these young men are bad soldiers. And while their individual characterizations are slim each of them display enough personality to make them stand apart as they stand together. A recruitment stand in the theater lobby might not be a bad idea.
Battle: Los Angeles has problems that a surer directorial hand, a sharper script, and a larger budget could have addressed, but doesn’t that apply to most movies these days? For all its faults, big and small, the movie works more often than not as a straight-forward, ground-level assault film about a squad of soldiers on a specific mission. We’ve seen it before, but the near-constant barrage of firepower, tension, and alien action make it a solid piece of pre-summer entertainment. Especially for folks who love America.
The Upside: Wastes precious little time before getting into the action; Aaron Eckhart should be a bigger star; alien hardware feels more practical than stylish
The Downside: Some weak dialogue; a few scenes/effects reveal a lower budget; middle act feels too long; simplistic
On the Side: Aleric is probably going to love this movie.