At least it isn’t in 3-D.
Battle: Los Angeles is an extraterrestrial invasion movie that seems tailor-made for a studio executive to demand a retrofit for the extra dimension. It is commendable that someone in the chain of decision-makers did not go that route.
The movie as is remains hard enough to watch. Most of it is shot with a shaky camera that is supposed to signal “reality,” but usually just leaves the viewer a bit queasy. This effect makes some sense during the chaos of battle, but it persists even in the moments where nothing else is or should be moving. Combine this tremulous camerawork with a tendency toward unnecessary close shots and the unfortunate effect is distraction rather than absorption.
Repeatedly, Battle: Los Angeles emulates a first person shooter videogame, a look that, again, makes most sense during its many combat scenes. These manage at times to convey the intense claustrophobia of warfare and the paranoia that death could come from any angle at any time. That the setting is a burned out Santa Monica adds a sense of creeping dread to the exercise, particularly in the early scenes, as the unit of marines realizes how outmatched they are by the invaders.
Most of the plot that follows is structured exactly like a videogame, as the marines encounter the aliens in increasing levels of difficulty. At first, it appears that there are only ground troops, though they are eight-foot tall metallic hybrids. As soon as it becomes clear that those aliens can be killed, we move to the next level: flying unmanned drones. Bring one of those suckers down and you move up to ion-cannon tanks. And so on and so on.
To the movie’s credit, the aliens are given a recognizable command and control structure, as well as a clear battle plan. Where most alien invasion movies make the otherworldly completely inscrutable, here the marines can follow exactly what the adversary is doing. It is, after all, the way we might invade another country. Like those other countries, the U.S. military is here powerless against a vastly superior army. That is the scariest part of the movie.
Our emotional investment subsides, however, as the human combatants are nearly as faceless as the aliens. Subtitles that accompany their first appearances give each grunt only a first initial along with a rank and last name. A prologue before the invasion reports that each has a defining characteristic: about to get married, still a virgin, dead brother, just graduated officer school. But this half-hearted nod to differentiation never surfaces again once the troops put their helmets on.
In fact, when the troops actually talk, the movie teeters on the verge of being ridiculous. The hero is nominally Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhardt), referred to mainly as “Staff Sergeant.” Predictably, he’s about to retire when the invasion occurs, and just as predictably, he lost all his men on a previous mission that is never fully described. When he delivers his redemption speech about three-quarters of the way through the movie, it’s so banal and poorly written that it almost derails the entire film.
His situation is hardly improved when the unit takes on five civilians, including three children. Watching these kids suffer through the invasion borders on mawkishness. It’s giving nothing away to say that the kids won’t be killed, which makes most of what happens after their initial appearance hard to accept.
Because kids will be watching this PG-13 version of a war zone, the movie quickly abandons its Black Hawk Down-like mayhem and takes almost every plot point directly from Independence Day, which is still a landmark in the alien invasion genre but seems hopelessly dated in a cinematic landscape that includes District 9. There are times in Battle: Los Angeles where it appears the moment has passed for using aliens as stand-ins for irredeemable evil. District 9 gave us extraterrestrials who look like they should be sucking our brains out through our noses, but were just trying to live their lives with dignity. Having seen that, it makes it nearly impossible to watch the mindless march of death in Battle: Los Angeles without pause.
Battle: Los Angeles may be the first movie in need of a director’s cut that is significantly shorter than the theatrical version. Get rid of all the dialogue and any scene that isn’t direct combat and you’d have a much better movie. Look for it coming to your Xbox or PlayStation soon.