The night before my screening of Battle: Los Angeles, I happened to catch Aliens, James Cameron's sequel to Ridley Scott's original, on television. And as much as I enjoyed it, I found myself lamenting the difference in the directorial approaches; Scott's atmospherics making way for Cameron's gung-ho, all-guns-blazing attitude. But compared to Battle: Los Angeles, Cameron's take on marines versus aliens seems positively sedate.
Of course, in apocalyptic, humans versus aliens in a battle to the death films, subtlety is usually the first casualty. Some credit then to director Jonathan Liebesman, and writer Christopher Bertolini, for keeping the “America, fuck yeah!” jingoism in check; the boo-yah exuberance by the US marines, called upon to save the day and the human race when Earth finds itself under attack by extraterrestrials, is akin to footy players partaking in a paint ball team bonding exercise.
They're led (but not at first) by newly-retired Staff Sergeant Nantz (an unfortunate name for a soldier), played by Aaron Eckhart, the only recognisable actor among the troops. That is until Michelle Rodriguez shows up, packing far more personality – and testosterone – than her fellow grunts. For despite the multicultural make-up of this band of brothers, they're indistinguishable from one another (apparently R & B singer Ne-Yo was one of the marines. Who knew?). In this genre, character development gets a toe tag not too long after subtlety.
The platoon picks up a group of civilians along the way, mostly to provide some moments that will tug at the heart strings, but one of them, played by Bridget Moynahan, hits the funny bone with arguably the best line of dialogue heard at the movies in 2011 thus far.
The aesthetic of Battle: Los Angeles is very much that of a computer game in keeping with the target audience (teenage boys and those of similar IQs). In fact, I was surprised to learn that it's not based on game but a wholly "original" idea, but that aesthetic doesn't allow for any engagement other than on a purely sensory, visceral level, or story and character development beyond cardboard.
Somewhat impressively, the film was produced on a budget of just $70 million but then we're not treated to much scenery; it's mostly handheld, p.o.v camera work, with the occasional vistas of LA burning. Most of that budget must have been spent on the sets (the film was actually shot in Louisiana) and the visual effects, including the creation of the aliens and their spacecraft, the larger of which resembles the one stalled over the Johannesburg skyline in District 9.
That may be a deliberate nod to that far superior 'aliens on Earth' film (also produced by Sony), but does nothing for the cause of Battle: Los Angeles; reminding us just how good these kinds of films can be with a bit more intelligence and originality.