Imagine if there were a video game called Call of Duty: Alien Invasion. Now imagine if someone made a really expensive, high end fan film of that game. You’re beginning to understand more or less what Battle: Los Angeles is. In many ways this is the first video game movie not based on a video game, and I mean that quite literally. This movie feels like a video game adaptation, and we know how good every other video game adaptation so far has been.
Battle: Los Angeles starts out promising enough, with Aaron Eckhart and his group of Marines on a helicopter flying over the flaming Santa Monica beach. The alien invasion is already underway, and a CNN newsfeed playing over the action gets us quickly and simply up to speed. I was impressed - starting in media res at such a late stage of the story felt ballsy.
And then we spend the next twenty minutes in a flashback to the previous 24 hours. The film takes us ploddingly through the personal lives of the Marines, and almost everything that we are shown in boring, shaky-cammed detail (seriously, I am not against shaky-cam when used right, but there’s a scene of a man walking calmly through a cemetery that swivels and swoops, like the cameraman can’t find the character in his lens. What’s the point of that?) will become plainly obvious later on in the film through moronic, on the nose exposition delivered during the action.
But the twenty minutes flashback does set us up for the structure of the movie - action scenes followed by turgid, flat-flooted ‘emotional’ and ‘character’ scenes. All of which feel like they’re right out of a video game. After battling to the end of one map, the player has to go through a lengthy bit of heavy-handed, poorly written claptrap - but in video games you can mash the X button to skip through the crap. Here you’re stuck listening to hollow speeches about loyalty and not giving up and all sorts of other junk.
Which wouldn’t be so bad if the action scenes delivered, but they rarely do. They’re not particularly bad, but they’re also not particularly thrilling. There’s certainly not a single new thing going on in them. The aliens are generic looking in the extreme, reminding me of Space: Above and Beyond’s Chigs mixed with Master Chief. The movie’s Black Hawk Down-riffing aesthetic means that we never get to know anything about the ETs, which is fine on paper but ends up being modestly tedious in execution. There’s a lengthy sequence where Aaron Eckhart and Bridget Moynihan - who plays a character who is a character in only the slightest sense of the term - do an alien autopsy to figure out what the buggers’ weak spots are, but that never comes into play again. That exemplifies the script’s laziness, and adds to the video game feeling - the Marines have to keep the aliens off Eckhart and Moynihan while they do the autopsy, so it feels like a timed challenge.
Aaron Eckhart is almost good enough to make the nonsense work. He has the gravitas and chin dimple necessary to pull off ‘American hero,’ and stands tall and proud, never acknowledging that most of the stuff he’s saying is insipid or nonsense. Conviction is a big part of making a movie like this work - everybody has to believe what they’re saying. But Eckhart is saddled with a silly, undercooked backstory - he got a lot of men killed in a mission in Iraq, and a brother of one of the KIAs is now in his alien-fighting squad - that keeps him from really soaring. Sometimes an actor brings all the backstory needed, and just the image of Eckhart in combat leading his men with strength and dignity would have been enough.
As for the rest of the cast: none of them matter. Michelle Rodriguez has nothing to do the whole film except deliver a couple of lines of exposition that the Marines couldn’t get on their own. Michael Pena’s character is so pointless none of the other characters in the movie bother to learn his name. And the rest of the squad is made up of mostly interchangeable stereotypes. It’s interesting how in the right hands that can work, how broad archetypes can slide from pantomime into real character work. Battle: Los Angeles is not in the right hands.
In the end Battle: Los Angeles’ worst sin is that it’s just there. It’s not engaging at all, but it’s also not so terrible that you can at least have fun with it. Skyline, the other recent ‘aliens take LA’ movie, was so godawful that I was belly laughing through the whole thing. Battle: Los Angeles just lay on the screen, never surprising, never enthralling, never even having the decency to be completely ridiculous. The only reason it isn’t completely sleep-inducing is because it’s so fucking loud.