Tuesday, March 15, 2011


If the tenacious enemy the U.S. Marines tangle with in director Jonathan Liebesman’s “Battle: Los Angeles” (*** out of ****) didn’t come from another planet, then this above-average PG-13 rated Columbia Pictures’ release wouldn’t qualify as a science fiction shoot‘em up. As it is, “Battle: Los Angeles” amounts to marginal sci-fi. The guys who wrote and directed this suspenseful but straightforward 116-minute saga strive for adrenaline-laced realism. They aren’t out to imitate the outlandish audacity of “Skyline” with its “Cloverfield” style monsters trashing a coastal metropolis. Ostensibly, “Battle: Los Angeles” seems like a Marine recruiting video. The scarcity of memorable characters and scene-stealing aliens are offset by its splendid computer generated special effects and Aaron Eckhart’s bravura performance.

Like last year’s “Skyline” and many sci-fi films dating to 1951’s “The Thing From Another World,” “Battle: Los Angeles” shows aliens plunging into the Earth in meteors that turn out to be spacecraft. Unlike “Skyline,” Liebesman’s movie boasts aliens that lack reptilian features with tentacles galore. Instead, the enemy look like the “Star Wars” storm troopers. Herein lies the chief problem that “Battle: Los Angeles” faces. Since it doesn’t look like your typical sci-fi tale and the filmmakers give the extraterrestrials the short shrift, many moviegoers and critics are maligning it without mercy No, “Battle: Los Angeles” neither wallows in political allegories like “District 9” nor does it assemble a speculative arsenal of weapons to destroy the enemy as in “Independence Day.” “Battle: Los Angeles” looks more like “Black Hawk Down.” You wind up caring more about the human characters. Nevertheless, you develop considerable respect for the pugnacious aliens. They track down and kill both civilians and military alike by targeting mobile radio and telephone communication. Unlike “Skyline,” “Battle: Los Angeles” concludes with greater optimism. Basically, this movie celebrates male camaraderie as well as the indomitable human spirit of survival.

After a false start that depicts the devastation the aliens have wrought around the globe, the action flashes back to the hours before the catastrophic invasion. During this prologue, Liebesman and "The General's Daughter" scenarist Christopher Bertolini introduce a number of young Marines and their leaders. Except for a few high-ranking officers, the Marines here are grunts on the ground. Aside from their platoon commander, these Marines are the followers who wind up leading the way. As the protagonist, veteran Marine Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart of "The Dark Knight") has served 20 years in the Corps. Nantz wants to retire because his last campaign in Iraq turned bittersweet when he lost several leathernecks but received a Silver Star for valor. Not surprisingly, Nantz doesn't care about the commendation. Moreover, the memories of the men that died under his command haunt him. Naturally, when the meteors start falling, the Pentagon deploys the Marines from Camp Pendleton, and Nantz finds himself reassigned to Echo Company, 2nd battalion, 5th Marine regiment. Predictably, there is a rumble in the ranks about Nantz's gung-ho attitude, and the young Marines believe that he will treat them like cannon fodder. Indeed, Nantz behaves like 'John Wayne' in one scene, and his company commander, 2nd Lieutenant William Martinez (Ramón Rodríguez of "Pride and Glory"), orders him to knock off the heroics.

Meanwhile, Liebesman and Bertolini parcel out only piecemeal information about the aliens. They crave water and exploit it as a source of energy. Their blitzkrieg blankets the globe, and they are aggressively trouncing mankind. Indeed, Los Angeles resembles Beirut. Television news bulletins provide the modicum of information that mankind knows about these pugnacious intruders. None of it is useful to the Marines who must eradicate these miscreants. Initially, Nantz and his platoon are dispatched to an abandoned Santa Monica police station to rescue a group of civilians and then escort them to a forward operating base to await evacuation. Martinez's superiors warn him he has 3 hours to complete his mission before the Air Force obliterates everything in sight. In some way, "Battle: Los Angeles" is like "Aliens" as these smug Marines lock and load for action. The attitude change that comes over them after their first encounter with the enemy is dramatic. Initially, they desperately lack cohesion. Only after they acquire cohesion do they come together as a unit and experience success.

“Battle: Los Angeles” differs from “Independence Day” and the “Transformers” movies because it shuns the multiple levels of characters that those films contain. Typically, sci-fi movies have scientists struggling to figure out how to kill the alien invaders while the politicians scramble to placate the public that everything is being done to accomplish this goal. Eventually, when the politicians and the scientists get a clue, they pass it along to the military and the killing commences. “Battle: Los Angeles” confines its action to the Marines on the ground. Since the Marines can only see what is around them, the film resembles a first-person shooter videogame. The aliens never get up close and personal as in a “Predator” movie. “Battle: Los Angeles” isn’t a horror movie. Occasionally, a soldier is dragged by the feet into foliage and killed. Primarily, these aliens are like marauding Apaches that rely on stealth to strike. Moreover, they can be killed. Eventually, when the Marines run into greater numbers of aliens, “Battle: Los Angeles” settles down to conventional close-quarters combat. Incredibly enough, most of "Battle: Los Angeles" was lensed on location in Louisiana!