Disaster films will really get interesting when they start running out of iconic skylines to destroy. How about "Battle: Wichita" or "Deep Impact: Albany"?
"Battle: Los Angeles" doesn't rely as much as its genre brethren on the gleeful horror of seeing familiar landmarks burn. (We don't even get a shot of the "Hollywood" sign in flames.) Instead, this West Coast version of alien invasion distinguishes itself as an urban warfare film and a patriotic advert for the Marines.
Like so many of these films, "Battle: Los Angeles" opens on urgent news reports announcing that "the world is at war." CNN snippets are laced throughout the movie, and it's easy to see their function in relaying exposition. But it's rather terrifying to think that even extra-terrestrials can't stop the 24/7 stream of cable news.
The date is Aug. 12, 2011. Alien ships, first appearing like a cluster of meteors, "breach" the Earth and quickly make their violent intentions clear, shooting gun-like weapons and discharging flying mechanical droids. One of the 12 ships lands just off the shore of L.A.'s laid-back Santa Monica.
The film flashes back 24 hours to introduce the handful of Marines whom we will follow into battle. Staff Sergeant Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) is retiring after a particularly rough mission only vaguely referred to. Though it's his last day, the weary veteran is dispatched to assist a platoon of young Marines (Ne-Yo, Cory Hardrict among them) expecting to head to Afghanistan.
We get brief visions of their soon-to-change lives, all in various stages of heterosexual development: one is a virgin, another engaged, another with a pregnant wife.
It's the first hint that director Jonathan Liebesman ("The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning") and screenwriter Chris Bertolini are most interested in a conventional war film. All the hallmarks are here, with handheld cameras and rousing, "ooh-rah" solidarity - just with the notable exception of enemy species.
Once the aliens have landed, the unit is sent into Santa Monica with the seemingly inconsequential task of rescuing a handful of civilians (Bridget Moynahan, Michael Pena) trapped at a police station. They're told to "kill anything that's not human," which can be a challenging distinction even on Santa Monica's best days.
Masked in a haze or jumping from rooftops, the aliens aren't seen straight on for some time. When we eventually do get a good look at them, they aren't anything special. Above all else, the audience demands unique extra-terrestrials in such a movie: a radical set of fangs, at least, or some new, ravishing variation of antennae.
As the marines make their way through the wreckage and various skirmishes with the aliens, great care is taken to portray military hierarchy. In command is Lieutenant William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), whom Nantz guides as a subordinate advisor.
There's great trepidation among the platoon for Nantz, who's rumored to have led several of his men into death. But Nantz keeps the group focused and grounded, much as the talented Eckhart ("The Dark Knight," "Thank You For Smoking") does for the film.
With a square jaw and reluctant eyes, Eckhart fits the part well, and does a great deal to keep "Battle: Los Angeles" engaging. He and Liebesman manage to pull off the ultra-seriousness for much of the film, before a laughable speech of teary-eyed inspiration finally does them in.
In times of great terrorist concerns, there's obvious comfort in depicting a war with such a clear-cut enemy: If we can't straighten out Afghanistan, at least we can kick some alien behind.
The spectacle of disaster is oddly lacking throughout. At one point, our jaws are supposed to drop for an obliterated freeway onramp. There's also little sense of Los Angeles: No terrified actors running from set, no jokes that a sophisticated subway system would have really come in handy with aliens buzzing overhead.
Instead, the movie stays surprisingly close to the ground, bogged down in block-by-block combat. Los Angeles traffic triumphs again. (In reality, 90 percent of the film was shot in low-tax Louisiana.)
"Battle: Los Angeles," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for sustained and intense sequences of war violence and destruction, and for language. Running time: 116 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.