Aliens-take-L.A. shoot ‘em up arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray June 14.
One of the most common interpretations of science-fiction movies is that they represent, in a loosely allegorical way, the tensions and anxieties of their period. War movies, to invoke equally commonplace analysis, serve either to help soothe our anxieties about a conflict currently carrying on or to act as a catharsis for war’s aftermath and resonance. Don’t worry about such matters as subtext or meaning when watching Battle: Los Angeles, the science fiction war spectacle directed by Jonathan Liebesman (Darkness Falls.) The film is an exercise in spectacle, sp0t-welding the hoariest conventions and clichés from both genres into an uneasy alliance that only sometimes engages beyond the crash-boom level of passive interest.
Aaron Eckhart, who by now ought to be considered among Hollywood’s most versatile actors, plays Marine staff sergeant Michael Nantz, a decorated Iraq War veteran despite his waning physical prime and lurking suspicions among his fellow soldiers regarding his leadership skills. The very day he signs his retirement papers, a meteorite shower off the coast of nearby Los Angeles turns into a siege by a terrifying extraterrestrial force. The aliens move swiftly and decisively, devastating Santa Monica and heading inland towards downtown Los Angeles. Nantz, against his protestations, must lead a platoon to a forward operating base to assist in the city’s defense.
The Marines he leads fit vaguely defined and immediately recognizable character types: the officer’s training school family man on his first mission; the virgin yokel full of “aw, shucks” naiveté; the easygoing soldier planning his wedding and his smartass buddy. The group is assigned to answer a distress call emanating from a police station inside the city, but must complete the mission before an Air Force bomber squadron launches a full counter-attack against the ground-based alien hostiles.
Nantz and his met set off towards the police station, encountering several ambushes along their route. To the credit of the movie’s realism, the enemy soldiers are not unrealistically hard to kill or malevolent in their strategy. Like the Marines, their movements are orderly, disciplined, and goal-oriented. The Marines, largely outgunned (the aliens shoot giant tracer-fire projectiles) and outmaneuvered, fight on despite dwindling numbers and a growing sense of panic. A rendezvous with an Army group allows them to add an Air Force intelligence analyst (Michelle Rodriguez) who provides important expository details for the remainder of the plot.
Once at the police station they find the survivors: a kindly local resident (Michael Pena) and his son; a veterinarian (Bridget Moynahan) and her cherubic niece. The squad captures an alien soldier, finding its weak spot (“Aim to the right of where its heart should be!”) by stabbing it repeatedly. As the aliens storm the police station the squad and their evacuees escape by hot-wiring a city bus, leading to a firefight atop a freeway overpass that becomes the film’s most exciting set piece.
Borrowing from the traditions of both its genres, the film has a rigidly episodic structure, with characterization and character interaction acting as the paste that holds the different fight scenes together. Screenwriter Christopher Bertolini (The General’s Daughter) builds the action sequences one atop another, so that the tension builds for the characters even if our concern for them does not. Many of the Marines die, including several wounded during a helicopter crash that anyone who saw last year’s undervalued The Losers will see coming well in advance.
The film’s last third, maybe more than any other action movie of recent years, makes for a spectacular (if probably wholly inaccurate) recruitment pitch for the Marine Corps itself. Given the opportunity to withdraw to safety behind friendly lines, Nantz and his men resolve to find and destroy the alien command center buried deep within the city’s sewer system. It’s explained halfway through the story, via televised exposition, that the aliens feed themselves and fuel their war machine with water. Earth has the most liquid water in our solar system, making us a target. As movie logic goes that’s not bad, and good enough for the purposes here.
The climactic firefight, in which the Marines employ their hard-won tactical knowledge while calling in a missile strike against the base, makes for the most suspenseful part of the story; it’s also the part with the most convincing special effects. For whatever griping about clichés that are readily apparent elsewhere, that the script uses the missile strike scenario in favor of more hackneyed story devices – Nantz or one of the others taking a bag of explosives on a suicide run, someone makes a last-second, lucky shot with a rocket launcher, et cetera – helps elevate the entire film away from the mire of formula that seems always at the feet of each new plot development.
Eckhart gives Nantz more dimension than the character as written probably deserves, shading him with determination, regret, and at times a self-destruct impulse that the script woefully punctuates with creaky dialogue like “that’s some real John Wayne shit, man!” Pena, playing an everyman who’s not as helpless as the Marines expect, overachieves in his stock part. As for the two women, Moynahan has seldom had much to do in her previous roles except look handsome; a capable character actress nevertheless, here she manages to be appealing and convincing even when covered in with an inch-thick layer of dust. Rodriguez, though still too quick to deploy the scowl that bogged down so much of Lost‘s second season, has a conviction here that was seldom seen in that series.
Finally, concept artist Paul Gerrard deserves notice for his work designing the alien military, giving their machines and weapons both a unified look but also an unusual complexity. The invaders have their own military organization and internal logic, with officers appearing different from foot soldiers and machinery bearing a distinct – if creepy – functionality. The aliens themselves are exotic looking without seeming overly elaborate or egregiously unsettling. Even their body parts show a kind of thoughtful design. If only the rest of the film, especially its characterization, demonstrated that much consideration.
- Michael Kabel