It's sunny day at the beach, humans have made first contact with extraterrestrial life and Southern California is being obliterated. Somehow "Battle: Los Angeles" manages to turn this scenario into a downer. The film strands a platoon of overmatched Marines in the middle of L.A. during an alien invasion, and gets almost all of them killed. You can never really be sure who's dying, how many have died, or what. The movie tells you the names of a few of them, but you'll forget 'em, because you're really just eager to skip ahead to more aliens. Bit of a bummer, that. If there's one thing this alien-invasion movie needs, it's more face time with the aliens.
You will bother to remember one staff sergeant: Nantz, played by Aaron Eckhart (of "The Dark Knight" and "Thank You For Smoking"). He tries to retire a few hours before the alien invasion, but you know how it goes, end of the world and all. Trouble is everyone is aware that he got a couple of guys killed during his last tour of duty, including the brother of one of his current charges, so no one trusts that he won't get them waxed, especially when the aliens start running roughshod over the earthlings. And those first moments are truly a lopsided romp, with aliens landing in the Pacific and storming beachheads with cannons blazing. The humans get smeared so quickly, you almost feel bad cheering for the aliens.
Director Jonathan Liebsman doesn't so much follow these soldiers as embed us with them, setting an urgent tone with tight framing, scribbly camerawork and a score pregnant with snare rolls and thunderbellied brass. What begins as a darker, less Will-Smith-y "Independence Day" soon swerves toward "The Hurt Locker." Aside from an impromptu, grisly alien autopsy and some fleeting exposition via CNN (the aliens are here for our liquid water!) your imagination will go hungry. There's none of the delightful complexity of the alien society from "District 9," to choose but one example of a sci-fi with more sci-. To put it another way: Liebsman's "Battle: L.A." aliens may as well be Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" Germans.
Really, you should just turn your brain to "lo" for these two hours. Suspension of disbelief is one thing. But there's also the matter of some damn kids who turn up midway through the carnage. Their perpetual rescue gets tiresome. Come to think of it, this movie would be about a hundred times better if every scene of a child being told to be brave were replaced with one of Marines torturing rad space facts out of an alien POW.
"Battle: L.A." is not only a war movie, it is one of the most unabashedly pro-military movies made since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan almost 10 years ago. It was freak timing that this disaster flick, in which catastrophe rises from the ocean, opened on March 11, the date of the Japanese quakes and tsunami. Yet in the scenes of men in fatigues rushing to the aid of ruined cities, the parallels were hard to miss. Sometimes a military comes in damn handy.
You simply can't get ahold of this many working helicopters and tanks without buttering up the armed forces, and for sheer hooahism, "Battle: L.A." is a veritable recruitment film. But if there's one redeeming, semi-subversive thought undergirding this exercise in ka-boomery, it's the disorienting sense of dread that comes with seeing technologically overwhelming foes through the eyes of the American military. The marines are fighting vastly superior aerial drones. They're reduced to jerry-rigging roadside explosives. They rely on a wounded soldier's blowing himself up in order to take out alien artillery — a suicide-bombing that makes a martyr. Combine that with the ubiquitous palm trees and smoldering rubble (Iraq, anyone?), and it becomes clear. These Marines are playing the role of insurgents. At last we have met the alien, and he is us.