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Battle: Los Angeles

Retreat? Hell!

Battle: Los Angeles

The marketing of movies is both so fine-tuned and widely discussed that it inevitably leads to a lot of assumptions. For instance, if you knew that there was a big science-fiction action movie, the kind that Hollywood believes is what the largest audience most wants to see, that cost more than $100 million, you would expect it to be released in the summer, when attendance is up. And if it were to be released some other time during the year, especially on a non-holiday weekend, you would likely suspect that it was a stinker that the studio was dumping to avoid going up against bigger competition. Right?

That was my suspicion with Battle Los Angeles, the kind of movie that you would think would arrive in theaters near the Memorial Day or July 4 weekends. (Easter, at the very least.) But here it is in mid-March, and guess what? It doesn’t stink. Not at all. Hollywood must have a lot of movies it has high confidence in for the upcoming summer and holiday seasons if it’s opening this now.

Borrowing equally from War of the Worlds, Aliens, Cloverfield, and any given Iraq War movie, Battle Los Angeles finds Earth under attack by an extraterrestrial army. Disguised as a meteor shower, they land outside of a dozen coastal cities and commence wiping us out with tremendous efficiency.

Of course, if they were too powerful we couldn’t have a plausible movie about fighting them. So as these things go, the aliens are powerful and highly organized, but still relatively low-tech: no death rays or poison gases. They can be killed, once you figure out where to shoot them.

Our focus is on Los Angeles, where a platoon from Camp Pendleton is tasked with clearing out any civilian survivors from a stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard. Their leader is the green lieutenant Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), fresh out of the academy. But the real guy whose going to get them through is played by Aaron Eckhart, identified in the credits as SSgt. Michael Nantz but always referred to as “staff sergeant.” (Is it a Marine thing not to say “Sarge”?)

I don’t understand why Eckhart has never broken through to the top rank of Hollywood movie stars. He’s good-looking, very likeable, and enough of an actor that, in a scene where he has to discuss a mission he led that ended badly, he can pull off this line without embarrassing himself: “They’re dead. I’m here. Like the punchline of some bad joke.”

Battle Los Angeles is not what you would call plot heavy. There are many explosions, much gunfire, and a general sense that the Marines need to get back to home base. In the tradition of war films, the first reel introduces us to them individually, which has always seemed to me a waste of time: Even in repose these guys tend to look alike (the Corps prefers it that way), and once they’re in uniform and laden with weapons and enough ammunition so that they never run out until the end of the movie, it’s more than I can do to keep track of who lives and who dies.

As directed by Jonathan Liebesman, whose previous work (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, Darkness Falls) I honestly cannot remember if I’ve seen or not, Battle Los Angeles efficiently doles out glimpses of the aliens a bit at a time, enough to whet out appetites for more without exhausting our curiosity. The widespread destruction of LA looked pretty persuasive to me, though viewers who watch a lot of CGI-heavy movies may be more critical.

The only mistake it makes in its goal to be a two-hour thrill machine is offering a potential motive behind the alien invasion. Granted that’s a question in our minds. But the one the script came up with (as presented by a TV talking head) only raises dozens of other questions, all of them even more distracting. There are movies that depend on you to connect intellectually with them. This is not one of those.

Watch the trailer for Battle: Los Angeles

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