It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel bored. Alien-invasion movies have long been a staple of the Hollywood machine, from Robert Wise’s masterpiece The Day the Earth Stood Still to Roland Emmerich’s wonderfully silly Independence Day. Part of my apathy toward this particular subgenre stems from the fact that the cinematic destruction of Earth now happens regularly; so much, in fact, that if globetrotting aliens ever did receive transmissions of Hollywood’s countless forays into global annihilation, they might think we’re a species of simple-minded masochists. And really, who could blame them? But it’s not just over saturation that has made films like Skyline unbearable to watch; it’s their overbearing seriousness coupled with a complete lack of complexity and originality. These films exist merely to recycle the trashed archetypes of better films and squeeze out whatever cash they can muster.
Battle: Los Angeles, a brazenly redundant war film about a group of Marines and civilians trying to survive an urban war zone under attack by a faceless alien invader, continues this trend with reckless abandon. The film is plainly cut from the mold of old-school military propaganda films and rejected Call of Duty missions, mixing righteously ideological statements about faith and honor with emotionally manipulative dialogue sequences, all in the attempt to maximize its potential for cinematic offspring. In relation to the sci-fi genre as a whole, Battle: Los Angeles is a purified mission statement on the subject of stylized self-immolation, blatantly pandering to the lowest common denominator in terms of plot coherence and character development.
A pointless opening act attempts to add dimension to the plethora of military characters that will become alien fodder a few scenes later (religion, PTSD, marriage, and family all get addressed). From here, Los Angeles explodes in sweeping wide shots infested with CGI and marching terminator-like machines sweeping the streets with automatic weapons fire and missiles. Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhat) leads a small team of Marines into the shit, tasked to rescue civilians from the occupied zone of Santa Monica before the Air Force carpet bombs the shoreline. The smoky streets are piled with cars, bodies, and rubble, not to mention a hoard of seemingly indestructible aliens shooting thousands of rounds per minute at the overmatched Marines. One character even hilariously says, “I’d rather be in Afghanistan.” If you thought Los Angeles was a terrible place to begin with, wait till you see it engulfed in flying cement and splintering wood visualized through the shaky-cam from hell. Even a war-ravaged Middle East is a better option.
Nantz and his platoon eventually meet up with some civilians (hapless roles for Michael Peña and Bridget Moynahan), spouting off familiar military jargon that matches their resolutely cliché personalities. There’s the inexperienced Lt. (Ramón Rodríguez) who can’t make a right decision even if it killed him, and the medley of diverse soldiers shouldering each other when a brother goes down in battle. Even the usually reliable Eckhart is relegated to the Tom Hanks role in Saving Private Ryan, shaking hand and all. But the thin plot is simply at the service of the special effects department, which does an admirable job of shutting these characters up for long durations of time with a few thrilling firefights. The best takes place on a highway overpass, where the Marines come in contact with their alien equal and for a moment the film loses the constantly quivering aesthetic and broadens its action horizons.
Whittled down to its elemental parts, Battle: Los Angeles is about territory; controlling space until one can’t any more, retreating and hoping to survive so you can fight another day. Thematically, this might have some resonance if the screenplay by Christopher Bertolini even attempted to halt the incessant inanity spewing from these character’s mouths. That never happens. After a particularly heroic act by Nantz, one of his men yells out, “That was some John Wayne shit, man,” reaffirming the film’s interest in merely shoveling the status quo of pop culture into a growing dung pile. Later, Nantz shares an emotional moment with the young son of a civilian who was just killed, telling the boy, “I need you to be my little Marine.” If it wasn’t clear already, Battle: Los Angeles makes The Green Berets look subtle.
In the end, Jonathan Liebesman directs this film within an inch of its life, nearly strangling the material to death with his scatter-brained pacing and off-kilter compositions. We never really care if Nantz and his surviving crew will be able to destroy an alien central commander center, or figure out how these walking plumbing pipes are siphoning off our water supply for natural resources. It doesn’t matter to the filmmakers, so it certainly doesn’t matter to the viewer. All anybody can do, characters and cinema patrons alike, is survive the madness long enough to see the light. For Nantz and his crew, that equates to a rejuvenation of national pride and purpose. For us, it’s a chance to breathe fresh air again after having a self-important mess like Battle: Los Angeles constantly blow thick smoke up our asses and call it charity.