Battle: Los Angeles Review: Enough Small Boom, Let's Boom the Boom
Every bit the Black Hawk Down-War of the Worlds hybrid that it's being advertised as, Battle: Los Angeles is a loud and proud piece of semper fi sci-fi, occasionally thrilling, periodically groan-inducing and thoroughly familiar in its efforts to imitate ground-level warfare against a biomechanical menace.
Staff Sgt. Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) is on the verge of retirement, naturally. After 20 years in the Marines and one seriously rough tour in Iraq, he's putting in his notice -- a notice rendered null and void by an incoming alien invasion. Nantz is assigned to a platoon that's being dispatched to Santa Monica; their orders: save some civilians that are holed up in a police station and high-tail it out of there before the place gets leveled.
Jonathan Liebesman's direction puts the busy and loud aesthetic above all else, with a camera that's often antsier than it needs to be, but for a few critical sequences -- namely, a gas station gambit and a freeway siege -- he establishes geography well and sustains tension nicely. At other times, the narrative does resemble that of a first-person shooter: point A, point B, point C, big boss; it's just that some skirmishes end up more exciting to watch than others.
Christopher Bertolini's script traffics strictly in hoary archetypes -- the rookie soldier (several in fact) excited by the prospect of conflict and then terrified by the harsh reality of it, the nigh-retired officer with a troubled past who must redeem himself, the guy with a grudge against said officer, the woman who can hold her own alongside the men, etc. -- and the dialogue usually isn't much better. It seems that the only thing worse than interchangeable grunts grunting are characters that we're clearly meant to care for adhering to formulaic fates throughout. The film gets off to a sluggish start with its introduction of the entire ensemble, with each member having one defining characteristic or less, and the second act comes to a halt so that Eckhart's character can deliver a tearful speech before capping it off with "But none of that matters right now." He's right. It really doesn't.
Until that point, though, Eckhart sells that moment well, and his default stoicism (read: that chin of his) manages to make at least one character worth remembering, let alone worth rooting for. Michelle Rodriguez pops in to play Tech Sgt. Michelle Rodriguez, while Michael Pena and Bridget Moynahan take turns either holding children's hands or proving surprisingly handy for a civilian. Everyone else in the unit is fairly nondescript, with wives they love and friends to lose, and they're often left to dole out the obvious before being picked off.
Therein lies the dilemma of whether or not these characters should matter. We don't care in monster movies; we should care in war films. The archetypes worked in Aliens, ostensibly a monster movie more than a war film; Battle: LA is clearly more the latter type and yet couldn't feel lazier. It's possible to make scaled-back spectacle work effectively -- Cloverfield knocked it out of the park, personalizing the panic with its approach -- but Liebesman's goal here is mayhem first, and in that regard (and that regard alone), he succeeds. These are the same old fireworks seen from a different vantage point, and only you can tell me if that's worth your $10.
William Goss now lives in Austin, Texas.