BATTLE LOS ANGELES is a rousing and rip-roaring action flick expertly crafted by people who know what they are doing. And by that, is meant that rather than actively fighting the clichés inherent in this genre, they have consciously, even joyously, embraced them. By doing so, they revisit why the clichés have persisted, and by mining them for what made them persistent, they have made a popcorn flick that is fun, fast-paced, and at times, even moving. That last is strictly due to lead man Aaron Eckhart, an actor who can carry a characters emotional baggage with respect and clarity, while not letting it bog him down in melodrama. In this tale, the melodrama can take care of itself.
The eponymous battle is against aliens, whose planet-wide invasion is precise and ruthless. Within hours, coastal cities and world capitals are in ruins and humankind is fighting for its existence against an enemy for whom first contact equals extermination. The initial approach is misidentified as a series of meteor showers, and that wont be the first miscalculation made. Los Angeles quickly becomes the last line of defense, and the last line of the defense force is Staff Sergeant Nantz (Eckhart), a 20-year veteran on the cusp of retirement after a disastrous mission in Iraq. Following the laws of the genre, he is paired up with a lieutenant just out of officer candidate school, and a company of men who run the gamut of stock characters, from the 17-year-old virgin, to the guy just about to get married, the guy with PTSD, and, of course, the guy with the dead brother killed in the line of duty on Nantzs unfortunate Iraq mission. In keeping with the general spirit, Michelle Rodriguez is cast as the de rigeur female solder, in this case the tough-as-nails tech sergeant on the trail of what makes the alien technology tick.
Its Nantzs job, ultimately, to get the platoon through their mission to rescue the civilians stuck in Santa Monica before the military bombs the area out of existence in a desperate attempt to hold the aliens back. The aliens have a curious lack of air power, it seems, and Nantz has a curious way of inspiring the men despite their suspicions about his commitment to getting them back in one piece. Nantz is also good with civilians, small children, and dealing with an enemy about which he knows nothing except their complete determination to destroy the human race.
The unreality of the alien invasion is balanced nicely with the gritty realism of hand-held camera work and the constant barrage of firepower lobbed back and forth. The special effects also stay within a realistic frame of reference, with aliens that are more mechanical looking than human, but whose weapons are bound by recognizable physical limits. On the other hand, by having aliens as the enemy, it obviates any necessity on the part of the soldiers or the audience, to have any empathy for them as fellow beings, this is strictly a battle of good versus evil, though there is one sweet moment where a grunt with a gun muses to his fellow grunt that the odd things they are shooting at might be grunts, too, just doing what theyre told. The moment passes doing little to taint the way Nantz literally deconstructs a captured alien in order to learn how to kill it most effectively. The alien makes odd noises, a combination of chirps and whirrs as the viscous guts are probed and the unsettling discovery is made that its weapon is surgically fused to its body.
Events move swiftly and as logically as a premise like this allows, and while there is little time to make detailed sketch of each of the soldiers aside from Nantz, or for the audience to make a deep emotional investment in them. There is, however, enough time for the actors involved to make them individuals that become integral to the compelling sweep of the story as the aliens surprise at every turn with what they can and cant do, and the humans of the piece cleverly cobble together ingenious plans on the fly to keep themselves alive (mostly) and the aliens at bay (somewhat).
Things bog down a bit when the script turns syrupy instead of tart, as perhaps is inevitable when cute kids are involved, but it is remarkable that for all the doughty cuteness, it doesnt happen more often.
Courage under fire is played out without irony while also eschewing both cheese and corn. While it will never be mistaken for a profound film, BATTLE LOS ANGELES becomes a credible tale of redemption and validation, one that keeps the tension and suspense of facing down an enemy that seems unbeatable going from beginning to end.