Battle: Los Angeles begins by thrusting us straight into the action. A platoon of marines braces themselves in a chopper, under heavy fire from forces unknown. A look out the back shows a scene of massive destruction, fire raining down from the sky, chaos all around. For a few moments, right there, the movie seems like it’s on the right path. Then the story shifts, flashing back to twenty-four hours later, before the inevitable alien invasion, back when all the characters we’re about to see in battle just happened to be standing around delivering monologues which tell the audience everything there is to know about their personal life. Yeah, this is that kind of action movie.
They’ve thrown in that flashback to trick you into thinking this movie contains actual character development, but it doesn’t. At best they set up a few clichéd stereotypes. There’s the guy about to retire, the virgin, a soldier who’s getting married, and so on. It’s all pretty thin and what’s worse, none of it matters. By the time Battle: LA’s heroes are in the midst of battle they’ll all be reduced to even shallower forms and you’ll start thinking of them as the one with glasses, the Italian, that guy who’s kind of a dick, the girl, and Aaron Eckhart. Aaron Eckhart, who in one of the script’s most unintentionally ironic moments, sums up pretty much the entire movie by finishing one of his awkward character building monologues by waving his hand in the air and pronouncing, “but none of that matters”. He’s right, it doesn’t.
Good action movies develop their characters organically, in the heat of battle or in the midst of fight. Star Wars didn’t tell us Han Solo’s entire life story during his introduction scene at the Mos Eisely Cantina. That wouldn’t make sense. No one walks up to a stranger and says, “Hi I’m Han Solo. I’m from Corellia, I like long walks on the beach, sunsets, and I’m a big fan of Two and a Half Men. My mommy bought me a parakeet when I was eight, but I really wanted a dog.” We got to know what Han was all about while he was blasting around in the Millennium Falcon, scaring off entire battalions of Storm Troopers with nothing but sheer bravado. Battle: LA isn’t good enough to do that, and if it’s not good enough or smart enough to deal with its characters in a way that makes any sense, then I hope you’ve already assumed that it’s kind of clueless when it comes to everything else too.
So let’s talk about what does work in this lost endeavor. It’s interesting stylistically, as an alien invasion movie told entirely from the perspective of a small group of Marines stranded behind enemy lines. The mission that takes our heroes there, of course, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Your entire planet is in flames while under attack from hordes of hostile invaders and how does the military respond? They waste a dozen or so of their best soldiers on a suicide mission to save two or three, probably already dead, unimportant civilians miles behind enemy lines. Yeah, that makes sense. But if you can ignore the why, there’s fun to be had with the Aaron Eckhart led team skulking around in buildings and running scared out of their wits from faceless creatures taking potshots at them in the distance. The movie does a good job of building tension too, or would, if you cared at all about any of the people it’s building tension around.
Individual action sequences are well staged, though crafted in a way that probably saved the movie a lot of money on budget since alien soldiers are almost never seen up close, and always pictured far away, hiding behind things and firing at their human enemies. Still, there’s tension there. It’s everything motivating those scenes, the characters the plot moves around, that falls flat.
Battle: Los Angeles is the kind of movie that ends with one of those defeat the enemy by blowing up the one magical thing which can hurt them and conveniently isn’t guarded scenarios. And even that feels tacked on, thrown in at the end because someone realized that they’d spent the entire film skulking around in the suburbs and hadn’t actually delivered on any big set pieces. Well there is one, maybe you’ll even enjoy it, in spite of the fact that it doesn’t make any sense. I didn’t.