In the years since Independence Day cornered the market on crowd pleasing, flag waving alien invasion movies it seems that Hollywood has been trying to crack the code as to how to make the same film but with all of the camp wrung out. The fact that the success rate of making a serious, militaristic sci-fi war film seems to be so inconsistent despite the fact that these films came in all shapes and sizes proves that maybe audiences need some tongue in their cheek when it comes to impending doom at the hands of extra terrestrial marauders. Skyline, Signs, War Of The Worlds all had their pluses and minuses (some more than others) but surely the most standard and basic of all these attempts was Battle: Los Angeles.
Meteors have been striking just off the coastlines of various countries around the globe and the fact that these zippy little buggers are slowing down before impact hints that something is decidedly amiss. We are then introduced to grizzled Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz, a soldier with a tragic backstory whose best years are most definitely behind him as he struggles to keep up with the younger marines, but his request for retirement is put on hold when he’s transferred to another platoon to help with the meteor situation. Proving even further that maybe he should have bowed out a week earlier, the meteors are revealed to contain a spindly-limbed, alien invasion force who are here to colonize the shot out of us so they can claim our planet’s water to fuel their technology (maybe try solar, perhaps?).
However, there’s a problem – y’know, aside from the invasion – a previous tour for Nantz involved a no-win situation which led to his entire platoon being wiped out with him being the only survivor and apparently marines like to gossip just as much as the rest of us, so…
Upon arriving in L.A. and negotiating the rubble strewn streets looking for survivors, the platoon realise that they are hugely outclassed by an enemy that’s not only ridiculously difficult to kill but who has vastly superior air support, something that our guys desperately need if they’re ever going to relate this hair-raising tale to any future grandchildren.
Gathering up any stunned civilians they can find, the marines try to escort them to the nearest base but everything seems genuinely hopeless; can the squishily vunerable humans manage to find a weakness in the alien tech before they roll right over us like an otherworldly tank?
The idea to attempt to to create an alien invasion that feels overwhelmingly real is not a bad punt, after all, who wouldn’t want to see a movie like Black Hawk Down but with alien combatants instead – however in practice things reveal themselves to be a little more difficult to pull off. The first problem – the one that proves to be the bane of all modern war movies – is that almost all the characters look the bloody same the second bullets start flying and the shakey-cam cinematography comes into effect. In fact, by the midway point I had completely lost track of which of the stock characters were alive or dead based on their very rudimentary character traits that make slasher movie victims seem like David Mamet character studies in comparison. All the overused tropes are here: there’s the dude getting married, the dude suffering PTSD, the dude who freezes and who’s that at the back? Why, it’s tormented past guy! Welcome to the group, mate!
Familiar faces here are a godsend, if only to give the slightest of shits as to what’s going on – you find yourself only caring about these jarheads because you recognise them from other, better movies – thus only Aaron Eckhart and the welcome appearance of Michelle Rodriguez (not to mention Michael Peña as a dusty civilian) are the only things that keep you remotely invested. It also doesn’t help that they make a huge amount of decisions that end up being forehead slappingly stupid, for example, when trying to transport everyone out of the blast radius in an area where the skies are packed with trigger happy alien aircraft, they choose a large bus with a luminous orange roof… On top of this, the plot is thin to the point of being anorexic with the standard humans-taking-a-kicking-in-the-first-half-and-fight-back-in-the-second being followed to the predictable letter and therefore containing all the suprise of an empty jack in the box.
Even the aliens, usually the saving grace in movies like this, seem horribly dull and with their bulbous, dome-like helmets and their robot-y limbs they don’t so much inspire fear or awe as much as they distractingly resemble Alpha 5 from Power Rangers after a five-year meth binge. Nothing about these guys are that intimidating, their crusty, battle-worn look and their loud, spluttery machines are supposed to give them a look of a race of beings constantly fighting to claim the resources from other planet but instead it looks more like they’ve bought all their gear second hand from a storage locker advertised on Craigslist and the realisation that their vunerable point is just right to where the heart would be is a major turning point in the battle but surely having their weak point just a smidge over from where you would normally shoot an enemy means you could probably hit it by accident and somewhat lessens the creature’s threat factor even further.
A pedestrian sci-fi war movie with direction flatter than a blind steamroller driver’s cat, it’s almost impressive how bland Battle: Los Angeles actually is considering it’s about rampant alien warfare in one of the most famous cities in the world, but director Jonathan Liebesman mercilessly sucks all the colour out of things like a hungry joy vacuum. Say what you will about the more absurd moments of Independence Day (and I have), at least it had characters you could tell apart and it treated it’s aliens with a sense of wonder instead of coating everything in dust and then waved the camera around like someone’s trying to swat a wasp with it.
It’s scale maybe initially impressive but these extra terrestrials ultimately prove to be a waste of space invaders…