Battle: Los Angeles cuts right to the chase as a news flash informs us Earth is under attack from alien invaders. Meteors fall from the sky unleashing all manner of death-ray spewing space machines. Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), feeling his age and hoping to retire, is reassigned to a platoon of cocky young grunts who blame him for an Iraq War ambush that left many marines dead. A chaotic shootout with the aliens decimates the platoon, robs them of air support and strands them behind enemy lines in the war zone that was once L.A. It comes down to Nantz and the surviving marines to get a bunch of traumatised civilians to safety and find some way to foil the alien menace.
Hey readers, as children did you ever play sci-fi shoot ’em up with your toy soldiers and plastic monsters? I certainly did. Well, Jonathan Liebesman does much the same here only with a multimillion dollar movie’s worth of CGI monsters, explosions and stunts. For his fourth movie, following the underwhelming Darkness Falls (2003) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006) and the more accomplished The Killing Room (2009), the South African born Liebesman and screenwriter Christopher Bertolini (who wrote the military themed murder mystery: The General’s Daughter (1999)) have concocted an unabashed eulogy to the US armed forces. In fact the film borders on being a marine recruitment video, extolling their code of honour (or at least an idealised notion of such) and martial values in a manner at times uncomfortably reminiscent of The Green Berets (1968). And yet criticising the film for being so gung-ho seems rather pointless, since it deals not with some ambiguous real-world conflict but a fight against glowering alien baddies.
The tone is closer to a “why we fight” flag-waver from the Forties and Fifties like Guadalcanal Diary (1943) or They Were Expendable (1945). Liebesman’s shaky-cam gets in close for intimate portraits of the flawed, yet doggedly decent grunts. They’re a clichéd bunch: the young lieutenant with a pregnant wife (Ramon Rodriguez), the marine set to marry his girlfriend (R&B sensation Ne-Yo), the quiet rookie who panics (Noel Fisher), the gutsy soldier girl (Michelle Rodriguez - who must have played this part a dozen times?), the gentle giant who is good with kids (Adetokumboh McCormack). Nevertheless, these characterisations are mounted with welcome sincerity without recourse to the campy sarcasm of Independence Day (1996). Later on the marines pick up a cute family including Ramona and Beezus (2010) stars Bridget Moynahan and Joey King. Both are wasted in nothing roles, but the film deserves kudos for depicting children in this situation not as happy-go-lucky wisecrackers but shell-shocked into silence. For American viewers, Californians in particular, the film manages the neat feat of bringing real life images into their own back yard, turning Los Angeles into a grimy war zone where sudden death lurks at every turn. Thus allowing westerners a sense of what Iraqis or Afghans must feel.
As spectacle, Battle: Los Angeles certainly delivers: fighter jets duel with UFOs, huge bio-mechanical monsters strut through the smoking ruins, marines dodge leaping ninja robots. Bertolini’s script pays lip service to the question of why are the aliens here. Experts theorize on TV about how they want our water or to colonize our planet, but none of this really matters. The film is primarily concerned with cool hardware and kicking alien butt. It is one-dimensional to be sure but at its best yields the same unpretentious fun as old-fashioned military-versus-the-monsters movies like The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) or Battle in Outer Space (1959). Through it all, square-jawed Aaron Eckhart strides charismatically, earning the admiration of his men and perhaps the ultimate marine complement: “That was some real John Wayne shit, Staff Sergeant.”