On a settee at SETI Institute, a scientist is scratching the two-week-old growth on his chin, scanning his computers for signs of Intelligent Life. Someone should tell him that the aliens who routinely visit us are anything but intelligent. Consider, for instance, the soot-covered stick figures from outer space in Jonathan Liebesman's Battle: Los Angeles. They marshal enough numbers, enough firepower, to terrorise every major city on the planet — but where do they park the mother ship? In the titular city, which, of course, is home to Hollywood, which, of course, is going to respond with a ragtag band of second-rung actors armed with clichés, bad dialogue, hokey music and smoky special effects.
With all the movies and all the cultural artefacts being beamed into space, don't these extra terrestrials know they don't stand a chance? Don't they know that America always saves the world? Seriously, folks, the next time you visit us with your colonising notions, you may want to hover menacingly over Mumbai. The only thing the powers there can throw at you is a Katrina Kaif item number. World domination, thereon, is a piece of cake.
The alien attack that strikes earth early on is termed a “textbook military invasion” — and accordingly, the film is a less special-effects spectacle than a textbook military drama. We follow an outfit of Marines as they engage in combat with the enemy. For those who want to dig deep, there is, I suppose, the opportunity to paint these invaders in the insurgent colours of their choice. Are these bug-eyed bad guys blowing up things supposed to be the al-Qaeda? A regrouped Eastern Bloc, perhaps, instigating a brand new Cold War?
Liebesman stages his scenarios with shaky hand-held cameras, going for a grimy, you-are-there docu-realism, and he's so hell-bent on recreating military hell — this looks like the first alien-invasion movie set in Dunkirk — that I half expected the surviving extra terrestrials to be detained in Guantánamo Bay and interrogated with a glowering cigarette mere inches from their vital organs.
There is no comedy, no calm-between-the-storm moment like the disorienting Tim Robbins interlude in War of the Worlds, no nail-biting suspense about the fate of the cuddly kid or the one-armed grandfather or the family pooch — it's war from beginning to end, which is surely how war is in real life, unrelenting hell. But does this subversion of the popcorn movie serve much purpose?
Liebesman has reimagined the landscape of the summer sci-fi blockbuster, the externals, but he hasn't thought things out from the inside. The aliens are uniformly generic creatures, and the good guys — led by the craggy Aaron Eckhart, who looks, in close-ups, like he's been carved from the Cliffs of Dover — are so undifferentiated that we never come to invest in their living or dying.
The sheen of graphic realism, in the end, comes off as mere affectation. Even the mother ship isn't the gleaming craft of chrome we know from more entertaining films with more modest aspirations, but a higgledy-piggledy agglomeration of what looks like space junk — a bombed-out Lego construction. How can you hope to conquer far-flung galaxies if you've flunked Spaceship Design 101?
Battle: Los Angeles
Genre: Sci-fi Adventure
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Michael Peña
Storyline: Aliens invade earth and Hollywood fights back
Bottomline: Brand new look, same old clichés