For those who get lumps in their throats each time a Marine shouts “HOO-rah,” “Battle: Los Angeles” brims with acts of martial derring-do. Indeed, one brave, bordering-on-crazy feat is dubbed “some real John Wayne shit,” which is accurate, especially if the Duke had to save Santa Monica (and by extension, Earth) from a murkily shot, poorly explained alien invasion. Although Aaron Eckhart and a slick trailer might inspire some curiosity among those not normally drawn to such mind-numbing fare, longer-term prospects appear limited to those who like their movies stupid and very, very loud.
Mostly, this is the cinematic equivalent of a first-person shooter game, one where the Marines possess only slightly more personality than the faceless invaders. Director Jonathan Liebesman (who helmed “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning”) and writer Chris Bertolini squander only the barest amount of time necessary before initiating their urban-renewal project, as what are presumably meteor showers turn out to be an alien attack. Crashing into the Pacific Ocean, Cylon-like thingamajigs (which is about all you see of them for most of the movie) emerge to begin indiscriminately eradicating the human population in what’s described in military-speak as a “campaign of rapid dominance.”
Before the hullaballoo starts, Staff Sgt. Nantz (Eckhart) is ready to quit, having had a bad experience on an earlier assignment. Now, however, it’s save-the-world time, as his unit launches a rescue mission to try to stop a planned aerial bombardment (from Lincoln Boulevard to the ocean, we’re told), placing a ticking clock on the proceedings. On the plus side, if you can survive the merciless killing machines, traffic in that usually congested part of town is a relative breeze.
In addition to Nantz’s almost wholly nondescript companions, the Marines pick up a few surviving grunts (Michelle Rodriguez) and civilians (Michael Pena, Bridget Moynahan) along the way, including a couple of understandably terrified kids. Yet no matter how much Brian Tyler’s score swells — and it does so early and often — the action is seldom stirring enough to merit those crescendos.
“Battle: Los Angeles” employs an old trick of tackling a global threat at a micro level (see “Signs,” or the most recent “War of the Worlds”), capturing the mysterious extraterrestrials in jerky bursts of chaotic action, relentlessly played at an ear-splitting din. Alas, the visuals are mostly a bust, owing a small debt to “District 9” but too often shot through a dense pea-soup fog that consistently obscures what’s firing back at our intrepid heroes. Then again, murkiness is also the strategy employed by the plot, which has no patience for the “why” of anything.
Eckhart doesn’t do many movies in this vein, but his square-jawed earnestness is no match for the jargon-heavy dialogue, which lets up only briefly for clunky rally-the-troops speechmaking. Of course, the location ensures these noble warriors fight on behalf of the U.S., but as with the aliens in “V,” we’re told these visitors have landed at strategic metropolises around the planet.
Unabashed patriotism is usually a pretty safe bet, but “Battle: Los Angeles” never gets beyond the platitudes. As for making an audience care about what happens when the smoke clears, that’s the sort of uphill battle even John Wayne would be hard-pressed to win.