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The streets of Santa Monica will have to be added to the halls of Montezuma and the shores of Tripoli in the annals of Marine Corps lore according to Battle Los Angeles, a combat picture so gung ho that it qualifies as The Green Berets of sci-fi war films. An effects-laden docu-drama-style action fantasy in which a few stealthy American soldiers take everything some fearsome alien invaders can throw at them, this on-the-cheap mash-up of Black Hawk Down and War of the Worlds promises a lot more than it delivers despite a few spectacular shots of massive destruction; the deadening and sometimes laughable litany of shouted military-style dialogue eventually pummels into submission any hope for fresh creative angles on this well-worn format. Good young male-driven opening weekend business looks to drop off rapidly.
Director Jonathan Liebesman (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) must have thought that shooting the whole film from a shaky, constantly readjusting camera perspective would give it the immediacy of you-are-there documentary coverage; instead, it makes it look like an affected TV show, provoking the nagging urge to fast-forward through all the speeches to get to the good parts.
The cliches are so abundant in the script by Chris Bertolini (The General’s Daughter) and the rah-rah stuff is delivered with such straight faces that, with just a slight adjustment in tone, Battle Los Angeles (the title of which features no punctuation onscreen) could stand as an effective parody of alien visitation pictures. If Mystery Science Theater 3000 was still around, the gang would want to put this one in its sights pronto.
“Aliens? That’s not possible, right?,” trembles a green young Marine when the evidence on television shows very much to the contrary. When Los Angeles joins many other world cities in being bombarded by “meteors” of unknown origin, choppers full of Camp Pendleton Marines embark for Santa Monica, where beachfront property has suddenly plunged in value thanks to Transformer-like marauders possessed of devastating artillery power.
Although only a staff sergeant who’s just announced his intention to retire, grizzled Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) is positioned as the leader and hero-apparent of a rainbow-coalition platoon that must make its way through rubble from the forward operating base at Santa Monica Airport to a police station on 10th Street in order to rescue some civilians. And they’ve only got three hours to do it, as a big bomb will then be dropped.
From this point on, much of the action is confined to dark, cramped indoor quarters marked by innumerable shots designed to create fear of what might be around the next corner or behind a door. This is when you realize that the film is abjectly failing to generate any genuine suspense, mystery or awe and instead is saddling itself with inane cliches involving saving a couple of little kids and ramming home respect for the military (“Marines don’t quit!”), as if courage and honor are going to have any effect on mechanized aliens of infinitely greater technical sophistication. Dumb luck, on the other hand, can come in real handy.
As in countless prior combat unit movies, every grunt is bestowed with one identifying trait (here there’s a virgin, a Nigerian doctor and a by-the-book lieutenant who’s never led men before, among others) but it hardly makes any difference, as the dialogue is scarcely differentiated and they’re mostly just alien bait anyway. Ramon Rodriguez as the insecure tyro officer and Michelle Rodriguez as a more than secure Air Force tech sergeant who turns up part-way through get more screen time than the rest, but there’s a sense that the latter and Eckhart are prevented from fully cashing in their hard-ass characterizations by the PG-13 restraint on too many dirty words.
To be sure, there are some impressive individual moments, nearly all of them briefly revealed looks at the devastation wrought by the relentless aliens, towering, metal-clad warriors that make funny little electronic gurgling noises when not fighting. If the film possessed any resonance or sense of poetry at all, the sight of the vicinity of Lincoln Blvd. and the 10 Freeway as a war zone might sting with Iraq-comes-to-California-like reverberations. But, as it is, it can’t even hold a candle to similar scenes of coastal devastation in the recent 2012.
Partly shot in Louisiana, the picture is further weighed down by a bombastic musical score.
Opens: March 11 (Sony)
Production: Columbia Pictures in association with Relativity Media, Original Film
Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Ramon Rodriguez, Bridget Moynahan, Ne-Yo, Michael Pena
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Screenwriter: Chris Bertolini
Producers: Neal H. Moritz, Ori Marmur
Executive producers: Jeffrey Chernov, David Greenblatt
Director of photography: Lukas Ettlin
Production designer: Peter Wenham
Costume designer: Sanja Milkovic Hays
Visual effects supervisor: Everett Burrell
Editor: Christian Wagner
Music: Brian Tyler
PG-13 rating, 117 minutes
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