Touted as “Blackhawk Down meets Independence Day”, Battle: Los Angeles is all of that without the silly moments from Independence Day. In fact, it’s more Blackhawk Down and less ID4, and that’s what makes this film work. While we’ve seen Marines vs. Aliens before in Aliens and Starship Troopers, those films are futuristic and rely more on the sci-fi elements. This film is by no means comparable to Aliens, but it’s so far removed from that universe that there should be no whining from the nerds about it ripping Aliens off or anything. Starship Troopers, while delivering insane action and graphic depictions of soldiers being ripped apart by the bugs, was very tongue-in-cheek and not to be taken seriously. Battle: Los Angeles, however, is VERY rooted in the real world and that draws the audience in, in a totally relatable manner.
The film opens with a scene during the beginning of the invasion where we see a military commander on CNN giving us an update on the situation so far: meteors that were undetected suddenly popped into Earth’s atmosphere and landed all over the planet off the coast of several major cities. Weird, robot-like ground troops emerge and come ashore in an eerie nod to the landing of the forces at Normandy. They start laying waste to the beach goers and move inland. The military commander tells us that it’s a full-scale invasion and that Los Angeles must not fall.
We then jump back 24 hours and get a chance to meet the main characters: a group of Marines stationed in L.A. Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz is played surprisingly well by Aaron Eckhart. I have to admit, he was never on my radar until he did a decent job playing Harvey Dent/Two-Face in The Dark Knight. I really didn’t think he would be convincing as a military man, but Eckhart pulls it off unbelievably well, balancing his personal agony with his tough Marine persona. Nantz is troubled because on his last mission all his men died and he survived. Many of the soldiers whisper behind his back that he allowed his men to die. This is eating away at him and he ultimately decides to resign his Staff Sergeant post after 20 years of service, worrying that he won’t know what to do with himself in retirement. His boss begrudgingly signs the papers, and Nantz says that he will finish training this particular unit that he had started before departing the military.
The rest of the team is not your typical cookie-cutter, 2-dimensional soldier-types (you know, the hot-head, the pissed off dude, the crazy dude, the brains etc.). No these guys are very relatable and while they all have some flaw, they are able to put those aside when working as a unit. One guy is having mental problems from a previous combat mission, one guy is getting married and terrified of what lies ahead, and then there’s 2nd Lt. William Martinez, played by Ramon Rodriguez. He’s fresh out of the academy with ZERO combat experience (I know, I know, you’re thinking about Gorman from Aliens, aren’t ya??? Well, watch the film to see if you’re right or not).
The movie takes just enough time to let us into these characters’ lives and nicely moves menacingly forward. We were teased at the very beginning, and now that we know the characters, the tension starts to build for what we know is imminent: invasion. Keep an eye out in the background for TV sets here and there that fill you in more on what’s going on around the world as the invasion unfolds.
Okay, once we’re comfy with the main players, we are carefully drawn in to the main story. First the meteors landed. The soldiers are now tasked with evacuating people from the coast near where the meteors fell, and Nantz (while training the men) is ordered back into action to serve under the wet behind the ears Martinez. Once back to base, we are told that the invasion has begun, and Nantz and the gang must head to a police station to rescue some citizens that were left behind in the evacuation. They only have 3 hours to do this, upon which the military is going to obliterate Santa Cruz.
From there, it’s non-stop, pulse-pounding action in very much the same vein as Blackhawk Down, but without the graphic gore. It worked there, and while they could have made this an R-rated extravaganza, I’m glad they chose story over gore and made it a PG-13 film. Without giving too much further away, we are treated with a visit from fellow soldier Michelle Rodriguez, who totally manages to let us forget her run on Lost as the annoying Ana Lucia (okay, she was good in Machete and Avatar, too). We also meet one of the citizen survivors played by the eternally hot Bridget Moynahan.
The story moves forward at a good clip, but you are never left in the dust wondering what the heck is going on. Things are explained in nuggets and in context of the characters. There were no silly one-liners that make you groan. Eckhart really plays it well and there were no moments where I cringed at something hokey or bad dialogue. It’s all played as if it were absolutely real, and the acting is top-notch across the board. We really believe these guys are hardcore soldiers who are also flawed humans. There are no orders like “Resistance is Futile!” from the enemy, nor do we even fathom why they’re invading or even what the heck they are. And we’re not so far hidden in the panic room that we’re wearing tin foil hats at Mel Gibson’s farm! We’re right on the front lines with these guys and I tell you, it’s gripping!!
I will warn you that there is quite a bit of shaky cam in the film and I did have to look away a few times (I got sick in Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project, after which I will NEVER watch those films again!). I think the director took a page from George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, in which the horror icon perfectly balances shaky cam with regular cam to give us a sense of relief that we’re not going to vomit. While Battle: Los Angeles is not a perfect balance like that, the shakiness does subside midway through the film to let the story play out.
Battle: Los Angeles is truly an edge of your seat action/sci-fi tale, rooted in reality and told with heart and substance.