Somewhere between the brilliance of Black Hawk Down and the idiocy of Independence Day lies Battle: Los Angeles. It lacks the ambition of either film, content to deliver modest popcorn fun rather than Black Hawk’s gritty slice of life or ID4’s would-be cultural milestone. But in blending the two, it actually finds an identity of its very own. It does its job cleanly and efficiently, finding solid, down-to-earth entertainment almost without effort. Cheesy dialogue and stock characters mar the proceedings here and there, but Battle: Los Angeles never surrenders to cliché.
It also owes a strange debt of gratitude to Skyline, which tried to steal its thunder last fall and now makes it look like Citizen Kane in comparison. Battle: Los Angeles takes the same premise – aliens invading the world, with LA as the eye of the storm – and applies a few common-sense details to actually make the experience worthwhile. Instead of showing us entitled pretty boys cowering in their condo, it puts us on the ground with Pendleton Marines, who actually have the wherewithal to shoot back. Instead of focusing on the money shots of alien ships, it uses old-fashioned inference to hint at the invaders’ appearance (thus making them infinitely more frightening). And instead of casting blandly handsome leading men, it gives us Aaron Eckhart, who can deliver more grit and gumption with his little finger than an entire marina full of Pretty Young Things.
Eckhart plays Staff Sergeant Nantz, a burnt-out lifer ready to retire from the Marines when the little green men launch an all-out invasion. He finds himself running a squad of terrified rookies as the aliens march through Santa Monica on their way inland. The armed forces have drawn a line in the sand about 10 miles from the shore. Nantz’s squad goes into no-man’s land to rescue a group of civilians from an abandoned police station. As they proceed, they unwittingly become the focal point for what may be humanity’s last stand.
Director Jonathan Liebesman makes it work because we never move beyond their perspective: the larger war arrives only in hasty snippets, delivering just enough to convey the stakes to us. The aliens skitter through rubble-filled streets at a distance, pausing only to unleash devastating attacks while the Marines do their best to take them down. The keys to victory come in small, logical steps, while central characters drop dead with almost casual indifference. Our limited perspective actually heightens the authenticity, making us feel as though this could actually happen instead of falling back on ID4’s imbecilic grandiosity. Liebesman keeps the pressure on his characters at all times, while devising new ways to shake up the same basic “grunts vs. space baddies” scenario. Along the way, he slowly builds to a climax that – while a tad convenient – still earns its payoff instead of taking our goodwill for granted.
Which isn’t to say it comes without a struggle. We learn about the Marines themselves through stock exposition and tired stereotypes, from the newbie lieutenant out of his depth to the tough guy from Jersey who knows how to hotwire cars. Battle: Los Angeles can’t resist pausing every now and then to deliver embarrassing speeches or pumping up the “go Marines” subtext to almost ludicrous proportions. Furthermore, Liebesman relies unduly on the now-standard shaky-cam perspective, which seriously needs to be retired. (You can do edgy and immediate without making the audience seasick, guys. Really.)
None of that proves fatal, however; just mildly annoying and detracting a bit from the film’s undeniable coolness. The producers scored a real coup with Eckhart, who sells the dodgy lines better than anyone could expect. His embattled everyman feels competent yet human, out of his depth and yet doing the best he can. And when the actor’s signature rage comes boiling to the surface, he revels in every inch of it: allowing his supporting cast to rally around him and give the audience a legitimate rooting interest. You can’t ask for more and Battle: Los Angeles doesn’t expect you to. It delivers on its promises without a lot of excess baggage, and makes for a nice diversion devoid of summer bombast. Indeed, once the dust settles, it may be more entertaining than a lot of its so-called betters. A little humility and a lot of hard work goes much farther than you’d think.