Silver Screen: Battle: Los Angeles **
Aliens have descended on Los Angeles with the intention of eradicating humanity-- yet again. With so many alien-invasion effects spectacles already in the rearview mirrors, extraterrestrial attacks are starting to seem like snow in Minnesota: inconvenient but annually inevitable.
Battle: Los Angeles seems particularly familiar, however, perhaps not the least because the visual effects were spearheaded by computer wizards Colin and Greg Strause, who late last year released a suspiciously similar film, Skyline. Both films employ the same cost-saving strategy: Lots of flashy effects in the background with lots of characters running around in front of a green screen on cheap sets. But they share more than just a budgeting strategy; in both Skyline and Battle: Los Angeles, generic-looking aliens descend in technology culled from a dozen superior sci-fi movies and engage in a resource grab. In Battle: L.A., they're after water, in Skyline they're after brains, but the net effect is still the same: a small-scale plot set against a digitized alien assault. In Skyline it's played for horror and in Battle: L.A. it's played for action, but the differences after that are negligible at best.
If Skyline is Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets Independence Day, Battle L.A. is Black Hawk Down meets Independence Day. The latter film is an even split between enthusiastic military action and videogame-style sci-fi effects, and more often than not it feels like watching someone play a particularly frantic game of Halo.
The plot is about as bare bones as it gets. Staff Sgt. Michael Nance (Aaron Eckhart) is on his final day of service before retirement, still trying to live down a catastrophe in Iraq that cost him the lives of most of his men. This we all learn through some hilariously stilted exposition.
When a series of meteors crashes down off the California coast, as well as on the coastlines of another nineteen major cities across the globe, the Marines know the truth: Those aren't meteors, they're alien vessels. Nance is dispatched to join a unit led by Lieutenant Martinez (Ramó n Rodrí guez) as they enter hostile territory and attempt to extract civilians from the hot zone even as the alien hordes drive farther inland. Along the way, they pick up a frantic man (Michael Peñ a) and his son, as well as a quick-thinking veterinarian (Bridget Moynahan) who helps them try to understand the interstellar creatures.
For much of the film, the aliens the Marines are fighting might as well be regular soldiers with particularly high-tech weaponry. If you ignore the flicker of alien spacecraft in the fight scenes, the battles look an awful lot like the urban warfare of Black Hawk Down-- not to mention that the climactic sequence draws heavily on the final fight in Saving Private Ryan. Aside from a few quick mentions on newscasts that the aliens are here to steal our water, the enemy is generic in nearly every way; the one time we see one of the E.T.s it's a faceless blob of goo with watery organs, an uninspiring villain perfect for an uninspiring (and uninspired) movie.
The notion of American soldiers battling against invading forces who have come to their country seeking natural resources is a pretty loaded one, but director Jonathan Liebesman (the wan remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre), working from a clunky script by Chris Bertolini, strenuously avoids any kind of metaphor or subtext, never even once noting the irony of the situation. Not all sci-fi needs to be some kind of parable, of course, but with subject matter this obviously tangled in real-world conflicts, to avoid even a mention of it is something between cowardice and stupidity. It's definitely pro-military, but that's about as complex an idea as the movie can muster. (Our guys shooting equals good!)
Were Battle: Los Angeles nothing more than a visually stunning sci-fi spectacle, it would be more forgivable, but on this smaller scale the movie begs for a plot to fill in the gaps where the big action setpieces should be. That's to say, you can be Independence Day if you just want to lean on hyperkinetic action, and you can be District Nine if you want to use the familiar sci-fi epic backdrop to tell a nuanced story, but you can't be Independence Day on District Nine's budget.
Battle: Los Angeles is far superior to the abysmal Skyline, but that's no feat. In fits and starts it's a passable action flick, and Eckhart is an ideal square-jawed hero-- ten years ago he would have made a perfect Captain America-- but mostly it's a flea-market version of the late spring/summer tentpole movies it rushed to beat into the theater.