If you’ve seen one alien invasion movie, you’ve seen them all. That is, until a filmmaker does something different. Men in Black was something different; witty jokes and a playful rapport between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones made it one of the more memorable invasion films of the 90s.
Battle: Los Angeles, by contrast, is nothing new. Director Jonathan Liebesman and Writer Christopher Bertolini take several time-tested war and alien-invasion themes and mix them together to make a movie that is seventy percent entertainment, ten percent video game and twenty percent over-dramatized soap opera. If you are able to leave your alien-flick prejudices at home, you will actually get a kick out of Battle: Los Angeles, even if it draws out a healthy snicker at the height of a lofty emotional confrontation.
Aaron Eckhart stars as SSgt. Michael Nantz; he wants out of the marines. After a tour that went horribly wrong, Nantz has had his fill of military life. Unfortunately, when the aliens invade, it’s all hands on deck. So, Nantz’ civilian dreams are sidelined.
The film opens up much like a documentary, chronicling the lives of several marines. From the very beginning, you get the sense that Liebesman is trying to go for a different type of alien film, if only in style. The shaky-cam documentary perspective is prevalent throughout the movie.
It’s not long before we meet Cpl. Jason Lockett (Cory Hardrict), a marine who has a vendetta against Nantz. We quickly learn that Lockett’s brother was killed while on tour with the SSgt. The rumor around the marine base is that Nantz let his entire squad get killed and managed to escape alive. So, Lockett and his fellow marines don’t have much love for Nantz. When the aliens attack, Nantz is paired with rookie squad leader 2nd Lt. William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) and, of course, Lockett is part of the team.
At this point, we see that Liebesman is going for relationships first. He’s assembled a group of grunts, with obvious tensions. The seasoned, but reluctant veteran Nantz must work under the green 2nd Lt. Martinez. Although Nantz is completely willing to take orders from the rookie squad leader, we can expect drama to ensue from the dynamic. Also, Lockett is constantly at odds with Nantz because Lockett and his fellow marines believe that Nantz is a coward. Obviously, the next several scenes are spent proving otherwise.
Stylistically, there are a lot of unique editing choices that will either bring you into the chaos of an alien invasion or leave you too disoriented to understand what is going on. For gamers, it feels like you’re watching the movie version of Call of Duty or the Battle: LA video game from Konami and Developer Saber Interactive Team. Several shots are spent looking through a riflescope, trying to see the enemy. Also, clouds of dust often obscure visibility.
Perhaps one of the most frustrating parts of the movie is the lack of exploration into this new alien race. You briefly get a sense of their anatomy when Nantz and TSgt. Elena Santos (Michelle Rodriguez) try to dissect the body. It’s gooey; that’s all you get. Viewers never really get a grasp of how the aliens operate or exactly what they look like. The invaders do several shocking things like track radio frequencies, and bury massive bases underground, but you don’t get a sense of how it happened. They just love H20. There is also a brief moment when the marines compare the alien soldiers to standard military grunts, but this potentially interesting plot thread is never explored.
What hurts the film the most is a scene that happens about ten minutes before the climax. It’s an extremely emotional scene that you know is coming. Every war movie has a motivational speech. Some leader has to figure out a way to get his men in gear to keep fighting. Sadly, the lines in Battle: Los Angeles’ motivational speech feel like they were stripped from several movies from the 80s and 90s. It’s a moment when less is more. There are so many scenes when Nantz simply shows his steel that it makes you wonder why they decided to drift into lofty monologue for this moment. Once the scene passes, it’s hard to get back into the zone for the film.
Battle: Los Angeles won’t win any awards at the box office. It’s a film that had a lot of potential, but tried to do too much. Liebesman should be commended for focusing on the character relationships and focusing on making a war movie over an invasion film. Unfortunately, the relationships are not explored enough and the cursory examination of the alien race leaves you wondering what was left on the cutting room floor.