In "Battle: Los Angeles," aliens have invaded, and they seem to be mocking us with cartoonish depictions of our science fiction. To be fair, our side has seen too many movies as well, the fighting men and women in this story leaving no action-genre trope unturned as they defend the West Coast from space invaders.
Critics have similarly swarmed on this film, a cross between "Independence Day," "Blackhawk Down" and "District 9," eviscerating it with the ferocity of a rampaging Alpha Centaurian. It's hard to say why the consensus is to loathe this one, except that it stinks as sci-fi. Otherwise it is no different or worse than dozens of other better-positioned action movies that get more leeway but are just as predictable and inane.
You know what kind of territory you're in when the movie opens with one of the most pervasive and lazy contemporary clichés of them all: fake CNN footage, used to introduce the basic premise. Meteors are striking the Earth at the beaches of major world cities, we learn, unleashing an invading army of extraterrestrials laying waste to everything in their path as they march ashore. According to an American general, most of these cities have dropped out of contact, leaving Los Angeles as one of the last ones standing. The movie then skips back a few hours before the meteor impact to introduce the human cast — including Michael Peña, Bridget Moynahan and Michelle Rodriguez — mostly a predictable band of cannon fodder led by the square-jawed Aaron Eckhart as Staff Sgt. Nantz, an Iraq-war veteran.
Background snapshots — goodbye scenes and expository dialogue — are all that we get on the characters, but at least the movie makes an effort, doing a competent if unremarkable job differentiating among the cast. We know who's who and can probably guess who will live and who will get the intergalactic hook. The aliens are given much less attention. Presented as mindless and merciless drones bent on destruction, they never fully form as anything more than easily replaceable bad guys. They aren't even that scary, and there's certainly never the sense of awe one feels when first encountering the strange beings in better movies such as "Alien." They might as well be invading Russians or Chinese.
The scattered glimpses of the aliens suggest why director Jonathan Liebesman, working from a script by Christopher Bertolini, has decided to keep them in the background and behind billows of smoke and dust. Indistinct, lanky green puppets with what look like Ikea lamps as heads, they have weapons surgically implanted in place of limbs and chittering voices. (Aliens that resemble insects — very original.) The alien mother ships look like giant, flying construction magnets that have sucked up hundreds of building sites. In other words, they look completely generic.
Movies like this spend a lot of effort making explosions and military gear awesome and accurate, but then seem to run out of steam when it comes to anything that needs to be invented, usually resorting to stock ideas. "Battle" is no different. Everything of the Earth looks great. The military looks like the military; Santa Monica is impressively reduced to rubble; frequent flyovers of Los Angeles replicate realistic disaster. The aliens are merely vague and sometimes ridiculous. The reason is it takes imagination and ingenuity to invent something nobody has ever seen before, whereas recreating something real only takes money. Unfortunately, imagination is what this film lacks.
"Battle: Los Angeles" is an OK action movie during its first half, but it grinds to a halt in its second with unnecessary dialogue and the decision to leave the battle at hand to take on the entire alien war. There are enough cheap thrills overall to justify the ticket price for some, but never an attempt to engage the audience's sense of wonder. The second-half slog is only alleviated by copious dialogue that sounds cut and pasted out of terrible '80s movies. The stale and the repetitious — "Marines never leave a man behind," "Crazy bastard, you should have left me there," "Leave me here Marine, that's an order!" — eventually give way to longwinded speeches, and, finally, pure camp. Expect to hear some outright laughter from those around you, especially during an alien autopsy scene, when a rescued civilian pipes up: "Maybe I can help, I'm a veterinarian!"
That's the kind of movie "Battle: Los Angeles" eventually turns into. (PG-13) 116 min. S