Review: 'Battle: Los Angeles' delivers kinetic thrills as long as no one's talking
Alien invasion movies have been done many ways, by many filmmakers, and there's very little you can do that is genuinely innovative. In the case of "Battle: Los Angeles," the solution appears to be strip it down, soup it up, and let it rip, and in the film's best moments, the approach works for them very well.
Aaron Eckhart stars as Staff Sgt. Nantz, a career military man who is assigned to a unit of marines when a meteor shower turns out to be something far more intentional and malicious. The film actually opens with the Marines in a helicopter, en route to their landing zone, explosions all around them, the invasion of Earth already at full tilt. I wish the film didn't back up after that opening to give us 20 minutes of exposition we don't need, and you can almost hear the studio notes during those sequences.
"Well, we need to give Nantz some personal stakes. Let's explain who he is and establish why this mission is important to him, and let's meet some of those Marines and show who they are and make sure our audience knows them all before the heavy action kicks in." The thing is, all of that is covered on the fly during the action, so the early explanatory stuff feels redundant, and the film would seem much more unconventional and bold if they just dropped us into the situation, sink or swim, fight or flight, and let us figure it all out as things unfold.
Once the film makes that full circle back to the opening scene, 20 minutes or so into the movie, things start to pick up, and the film is fairly simple on a narrative level. The squad that Nantz joins, headed by the much younger 2nd Lt. Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), is sent into Santa Monica where there's a police station that has been surrounded. There are civilians and officers trapped inside, and their job is to gather everyone and escort them to a rendezvous point for extraction. That's it. Everything else that happens is just an offshoot of that one simple directive, and the way this Marine squad and these civilians have to navigate what quickly becomes an entirely hostile landscape. For someone who lives in Los Angeles, there's a definite kick to seeing familiar landmarks and mundane everyday reality transformed into a war zone with genuinely otherworldly things suddenly serving as a real threat. Director Jonathan Liebesman does a very good job of making the entire film feel experiential, and it often works as a pure pulse-pounding piece of action cinema.
The moments that don't work for me are almost entirely because of the script. Christopher Bertolini leans on standard types and characters, and his dialogue is tin-eared without exception. There are several scenes that attempt to create a sentimental lull amidst the chaos, and I think most of them land with a thud. Again, I get the notes that lead to these moments, and the conventional thinking that "requires" you to do things this way, but the brave version of this movie is one that strips out everything that's not necessary to the urgent situation at hand, and the movie is almost that enough times that it's frustrating when it feels like it buckles under expectation. Bridget Moynahan, for example, is saddled with one of the silliest scenes in any film so far this year, and try as she might, she can't get the lines to be anything but ridiculous.
It's interesting to me the way video game language is starting to creep into our mainstream cinema, and it would be fair to call this an XBox generation version of a war movie. Liebesman builds each of the major action scenes almost like a level of a game, with very specific small-scale local goals, and as an action filmmaker, he's careful to establish geography and stakes, careful to show the way the squad works, moving from cover to cover, gradually winning each inch they conquer, and it is immersive at times. The film itself builds to a couple of very particular payoffs, and as soon as they're done, he's smart enough to wrap things up and leave the film open-ended, and there's room for the viewers to put themselves into the film. That's another reason most of the attempts at making these characters three-dimensional fall flat: that's not what this sort of film should do. This is a movie where the more the film leaves room for the viewer, the better it works, and the more it tries to paint specific characters, the flatter it seems. And that's not a slam, necessarily, so much as it's an acknowledgement of the strengths of what they've done.
"Battle: Los Angeles" works in the moment, and certain performers like Eckhart and Michael Pena and Michelle Rodriguez absolutely distinguish themselves, finding just the right tone at which to play the material. I credit Liebesman with pulling off quite a bit with the film, and I'd love to see someone give him a genuinely great piece of writing so we can see just how good he really is. For now, the film works well enough that I would say see it theatrically, and if you can, beg them to turn it up. It's concussive and overwhelming at times, and that is a good thing. The film never quite becomes the "Black Alien Down" that it wants to be, but it gets close, and that alone is worth checking out.
"Battle: Los Angeles" opens everywhere on Friday.