Battle: Los Angeles: Jonathan Liebesman’s Apocalyptic Sci-Fi-Thriller

Boasting a catchy title, Battle: Los Angeles, Jonathan Liebesman’s apocalyptic sci-fi-thriller-war-actioner is yet another Hollywood movie in which there are no rules, no discernible structure, and no consistency of visual style.  In other words, everything and anything goes in the name of coldly calculated, undemanding  mass entertainment that might function as guilty pleasure for viewers.

As written (or rather compiled) by Chris Bertolini, this high-concept movie—call it alien invasion flick—is a hybrid of various genres, shamelessly borrowing elements from numerous pictures, including “Independence Day,” “Starship Troopers,” “Cloverfield,” “2012,” and even “Black Hawk Down,” and then throwing them together into some kind of a hodge-podge narrative.

Though the official summer season does not begin until early May, “Battle: Los Angeles” is an unabashedly summer popcorn flick.  There is not much competition in the theatrical market place for this type of film, so Columbia should score good numbers on opening weekend.  Offering real pleasure for younger viewers, and guilty pleasure for older ones, “Battle: Los Angeles” delivers the basic goods expected of such mishmashy, mindless feature.

The setting of this near-catastrophe is Los Angeles, the easy and frequent target of such preposterous tales, a trend that began after “Earthquake,” the 1974 disaster movie, was made.  It’s always fun for filmmakers to orchestrate mass destruction in La la Land, set  high-rise building and entire neighborhoods up in blazing flames, resulting in huge, special effects driven explosions, the sight of which is also overly familiar by now.

The first reel sets up the action that follows. Reportedly, for years, there have been documented cases of UFO sightings around the world, in different times and places, Buenos Aires in 1965, Seoul in 1983, France, Germany, and even China.  However, all of the aforementioned occurrences received official stories that covered up and then dismissed the seemingly unrelated and inexplicable events.

On the night of February 24, 1942, with the shocked country on nationwide alert following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Angelenos were wakened to air raid sirens.  The 37th Coast Artillery Brigade fired anti-aircraft shells at the flying craft over Santa Monica.  While some were flying slowly, others were estimated to be traveling as fast as 200 miles per hour.  The shells did no damage to the crafts, only to the city itself.

Official investigations tried to explain what exactly happened in the sky over L.A. that night (some say weather balloons).  Moreover, there are rumors that existing secret government documents show a divided opinion among government and military experts.

But in 2011, what were once just sightings becomes a terrifying reality, when Earth is attacked by unknown forces.  Since we live in a media-saturated global village and so the whole world’s watching as one great city after another is demolished.  Soon, Los Angeles becomes the last stand for the survival of humanity itself.

Enter our hero, tough and handsome Marine Staff Sergeant Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), head of a platoon that’s forced to fight an unknown enemy, which is unlike any they’ve ever encountered before.

What is slightly new (but not exactly fresh) is the composition of the platoon of U.S. Marines whose task is to rescue some stranded survivors living in Santa Monica after a sudden, inexplicable alien invasion.

Nantz heads a unit of callow marines, most of whom are troubled by some personal baggage.  Take Nantz himself, for example, who is still haunted and feels guilty by a previous mission that cost him a platoon, not to mention the humiliation of being outranked by a much younger officer (Ramon Rodriguez).

nantz’s inexperienced team includes one gun-shy rookie (Noel Fisher), one corporal with PTSD (Jim Parrack) and another (Cory Hardrict) who resents Nantz because he holds him responsible for his brother’s death.  Rest assured that by the film’s end, most of the fighters would emotionally mature and even resolve their personal problems.

Needless to say, the unit is initially outgunned, outnumbered and outmaneuvered by a vastly superior force of indestructible space reptiles.  How does the enemy look?  My companion said the aliens looked like the prawn-like creatures in “District 9.”  But to my eyes, with their killer hardware, they bear stronger resemblance to the metallic aliens in “Starship Troopers,” by Paul Verhoeven, a much better movie on any level.

Predictably, the movie is replete with thematic and visual cliches.  As expected of a war movie, “Battle: Los Angeles” has its gun-ho moments.  Like “Black Hawk Down, “ the action is seen from the perspective of the fighting unit on the front line, and that’s a good thing.

The movie tries to be more contemporary, if not exactly relevant, by making sure that we all see a banner, “Support Our Troops,” on the walls of one remaining, burnt-out building.  Though the ideology is patriotic and the politics centrist to right-wing, “Battle: Los Angeles” never lest us forget that, first and foremost, it’s kick-ass movie.

As the characters are narrowly defined (they are all broad types or stereotypes), the dilemmas routine, and the dialogue banal, it’s the set-pieces and heavy artillery that matter.  Indeed, the requisite mayhem prevails: There are massive explosions, huge fire-fights, more intimate combats in close quarters. Liebesman shows facility in staging elaborate action sequences that feature suburban ambushes, elevated freeways and police stations under siege, and so on.

Several good actors, who are not typically involved in such fare, such as Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, and Michael Pena, are underused, if not wasted, in this commercially calculated, banal flick.

Would someone please write a decent role for the talented Michelle Rodriguez whose tough attitude and cool demeanor are perfect for a new Hollywood action heroine. But in this movie, as she was in Robert Rodriguez’s “Machete” last year, Rodriguez is wasted as a tech sergeant caught up in the violent action.
In moments, “Battle: Los Angeles” feels like a John Wayne WWII combat movie, with Nantz making similarly stirring and propagandistic speeches that the Duke used to make in the 1940s.  When Nantz exclaims with pride and bravado, “Marines don’t quit!” he might as well have said, “Hollywood doesn’t quit!”  And so, if “Battle: Los Angeles” makes a lot of money (which I think it would), expect more movies of its kind coming soon to a theater next you.

Jeff Farr contributed to this essay.