War is hell. And so is alien invasion.
That's the long and short of Battle: Los Angeles, a distillation of grunt's-eye-view, war-movie clichés with nasty, insectlike extraterrestrials standing in for every enemy the Marines have ever faced. Yet despite the predictable plot, the boiler-plate "I'm not gonna leave you behind!" dialogue and the stretched-out, nearly two-hour running time, Battle: Los Angeles builds enough suspenseful tension -- especially in its first half -- to take it out of contention for the worst L.A.-gets-leveled splatter-rama to make it to the big screen.
Aaron Eckhart is Michael Nantz, a staff sergeant stationed in Southern California who's just days shy from early retirement after a particularly grueling overseas assignment in which several of his men were killed. But, wouldn't you just know it, he can't put his uniform away just yet. That strange meteor shower over L.A.? Turns out it's the first wave of a brutal alien attack.
Nantz and his unit are tasked with rescuing a group of civilians trapped in an abandoned police station behind enemy lines in Santa Monica. They've got three hours to get them out before the Air Force executes its plan to turn the beachfront city into a bombed-out wasteland.
His Marines might as well be from Hollywood Rent-a-Soldier: There's the nervous newbie Shaun (Noel Fisher of The Pacific); the post-traumatic stressed-out Peter (Jim Parrack of True Blood), the husband-to-be Kevin (singer Ne-Yo), who has so much to live for, and the book-smart second lieutenant (Ramon Rodriguez of The Wire) who -- say it with me now -- has no idea what real combat is like.
Still, for all of that, the close-quarters claustrophobia and shaky-cam vérité realism is effective, especially when the audience doesn't yet know what the aliens look like or what they want. They're just this malevolent force intent on wiping our DNA off the face of the planet.
Eckhart displays the requisite square-jawed G.I. Joe ruggedness, and the film generally looks good. Director Jonathan Liebesman ( The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning), working from a script by Christopher Bertolini, does a pretty good job of destroying faux L.A. (The film was shot in Louisiana, though Battle: Baton Rouge probably wouldn't have the same global marketing appeal; click here for more on Louisiana's burgeoning film cache.) Liebesman avoids the usual shots of iconic structures being turned to ash and instead makes the entire landscape a nightmare of twisted metal and smoky horizons.
But as more is revealed and one battle blurs into another, Battle: Los Angeles becomes less engaging -- less of a movie and more of a first-person shooter game with better acting.
Anyone looking for the broader social implications of, say , District 9 (which shares some visual similarities to Battle: Los Angeles) or even Space: Above and Beyond -- the short-lived '90s Fox series about Marines in combat against faceless, insectlike aliens -- is bound to be disappointed.
None of that may matter though. The door, wide enough to let a mothership full of angry aliens through, is left open for a sequel.