Take Independence Day and Skyline or pretty much any aliens-invade-L.A. thriller. Strip it of Will Smith and any one-liners the heroes might snap off upon killing an alien. What you have is Battle: Los Angeles, a straight-no-chaser war movie in which the enemy is extraterrestrial.
It's a house-to-house, street-by-street infantry-combat movie in the modern video game mold: smoke, laser blasts, explosions, fleeting glimpses of the foe and chance encounters with civilians. Remember, you lose points for shooting civilians. This isn't Libya, for Pete's sake.
Meteors are splashing into the world's oceans, the cable news folks tell us. But what they're not telling us is what the military knows: "They're slowing down before impact."
Armored warriors storm the beach at Santa Monica, and the Marines scramble to get civilians out of a free-fire zone along the coast, territory they plan to bomb to stop the invasion.
Aaron Eckhart is the staff sergeant with a troubled past, a guy who is about to get out of the Corps, suddenly hurled back into combat. Ramon Rodriguez plays his lieutenant, and Ne-Yo, Noel Fisher, James Hiroyuki Liao and others make up the squad that sets off into the no-man's land of Santa Monica to face off with an utterly unknown foe.
Jonathan Liebesman, director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, nicely handles the early scenes, shooting the confused soldiers' point of view with a shaky hand-held camera and lots of fog. The lightning-quick enemy troopers don't seem all that bothered by bullets. The whole "you kill anything that is not human" ethos and esprit de corps of the Corps (their unit slogan is "Retreat? Hell") is straight out of a hundred other combat films. That's not a knock, but this isn't a movie that stands up to a lot of pondering.
The squad reaches a police station where a few civilians (Michael Peña and Bridget Moynahan) are holed up, and they all try to figure out how to get out of the to-be-bombed zone and how these space invaders might be killed. Let's dissect one. And when you're doing a live alien autopsy, it helps to have a veterinarian around.
The aliens seem like preliminary sketches of the revoltingly real critters of District 9. Even though most of the movie was shot in Louisiana, the locations are almost convincing as corners of that filmed-to-death metropolis, Los Angeles.
It's a film of noble sacrifice and "good deaths" but surprisingly few chuckles. A medic mutters, "I'd rather be in Afghanistan." That's what passes for foxhole humor here.
But as corny and predictable as it sometimes seems, this Battle works on a visceral level, playing out like a video game that has you hooked. Eckhart stoically anchors the picture, and tough-as-nails Michelle Rodriguez shows up just in time to give it a testosterone boost.
It's not new, it's not novel and it's not art. But as a popcorn movie a couple of months out of summer season, Battle: Los Angeles will have to do.