Battle: Los Angeles
Battle: Los Angeles, like last year’s Resident Evil: Afterlife, can’t help bringing to mind Pauline Kael’s comment about 1974’s Earthquake: “There is something peculiarly gratifying about seeing the smoking ruins of the city that movies like this come from.” But the comparison isn’t entirely fair; Battle: L.A. is better than either Afterlife or Earthquake; it’s probably better than it has any right to be.
Like every such movie, the premise is traceable to H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds, which was updated (with great success) by George Pal in 1953 and again (with much less) in 2005 by Steven Spielberg. Battle: Los Angeles updates Wells even further, to the house-to-house street-fighting era of Black Hawk Down and The Hurt Locker. The viewpoint here is that of the individual combat grunt, characters that, in Wells’ novel and Pal’s movie, were there mainly to be annihilated, and in Spielberg’s movie hardly existed at all. We see the action with a squad of U.S. Marines inching their way through and behind enemy lines while trying to figure out exactly how that enemy works and where the chinks in its armor are. Be warned: Battle: Los Angeles is not a movie to bring your leftist politics to; the humans are the good guys, and the military are the heroes.
Christopher Bertolini’s script begins, in a direct crib from Wells, with mysterious meteor showers dropping all over the world, splashing into the ocean off major cities. The first reaction, as we see it reflected in CNN-style newscasts, is mystified curiosity, then mounting alarm and panic as a massive invasion force of spindly, robotic creatures wades ashore, dealing death all around, including to network news teams (like the ill-fated Carl Phillips in Orson Welles’ radio version of The War of the Worlds). Bertolini and director Jonathan Liebesman pause here for the movie’s only touch of wry humor, a deadpan parody of network talking heads in the form of a pontificating speech about colonialism from a pompous academic who obviously doesn’t know what he’s talking about (“We are being colonized”).
By this time, Bertolini and Liebesman have already introduced us to most of the Marines we’ll be spending the next couple of hours with, beginning with Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), a crusty career man haunted by lost comrades whose pending retirement goes on a back burner as the aliens swarm out of the surf. Then there’s 2nd Lt. Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), who must leave his pregnant wife and report for duty (hopefully she makes it to one of the civilian evacuation centers, but we never find out); and Cpl. Harris (singer Ne-Yo), whose brother died while under the command of Sgt. Nantz. In time others will be introduced: Michelle Rodriguez as a spunky, tough-gal warrior (does she ever play anything else?); Bridget Moynahan as one of the stranded civilians Nantz and his squad are sent to rescue; and others. But character-driven drama isn’t what this movie is about; those who want dramatis personae thicker and deeper than quick-sketch cardboard had best keep looking.
The squad’s mission is a search-and-rescue operation to find a group of civilians huddled in an abandoned Santa Monica police station, right smack in the middle of a swath of L.A. that’s about to be carpet-bombed by the desperate Air Force. As attrition takes its toll, Nantz finds himself in command of his dwindling detail, with aliens closing in from all sides. Nantz and his crew improvise on the fly, learning by trial and error. These aliens have fearfully sophisticated weapons, but they aren’t the invincible force of Skyline; they’re mortal and comprehensible, and they can be fought and killed. There’s a grisly but grimly convincing scene where they capture a wounded alien and experiment with its physiology, testing where best to aim killing shots against the other invaders. (OK, technically they’re torturing a prisoner of war. So what?)
Liebesman overdoes the vérité shaky-cam photography; this is a movie designed more to be watched on an iPad than on a big screen. But with Battle: Los Angeles, the heretofore humdrum director of Darkness Falls and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, delivers the goods at last.