The makers of alien-invasion movies tend to have a low opinion of human military prowess. Sometimes the space invaders are so completely invincible that our only options are to heed their demands or perish utterly. (The Day the Earth Stood Still remains the archetypal example of this genre.) Sometimes they’re so invincible that mankind can be saved only by a bacterium ex machina, as in the endless adaptations of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. (M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs took this conceit to its illogical conclusion, by positing an alien race that invades our blue planet despite being mortally allergic to water.) And on the rare occasions when humanity’s armed forces actually figure out a way to defeat the alien menace, it nearly always involves some sort of ridiculous Hollywood conceit (think of the computer virus that Jeff Goldblum cobbles together to save humanity in Independence Day), rather than the grueling labor of an actual military campaign.
This means that nearly every flying-saucer movie comes with a major third-act problem. One minute the aliens seem all-conquering and invincible, and the next they’re being completely wiped out by Will Smith, or the common cold, or a glass of water to the face. The result is a genre that consistently teases, and just as consistently disappoints. Even Steven Spielberg’s recent take on War of the Worlds, which demonstrated that a well-crafted invasion story can harrow as well as thrill, squandered this achievement by recapitulating Wells’s cop-out of an ending.
The new film Battle: Los Angeles, in which aliens take the City of Angels by storm and a squad of Marines has to fight them street by street, has many faults but one great virtue: It credits humanity’s military with the ability to adapt to a foe from outer space, and tries to imagine what a grueling battle against an alien enemy might actually look and feel like. This gritty approach is telegraphed by the title: There’s no pretense that the filmmaker, a young South African named Jonathan Liebesman, is showing us anything more than one front in the much larger war for Planet Earth. And it’s backed up by the execution, which keeps the jockeying scientists and pontificating presidents safely off stage, and confines the movie’s focus to the grunts doing the fighting.
Like Spielberg in War of the Worlds, Liebesman understands that invasion stories are more powerful told from the ground level than from 30,000 feet (or from deep within a Pentagon bunker). The uncanniness of an extraterrestrial incursion is heightened when it involves ordinary people, and the shock of seeing America go the way of Iraq or Bosnia feels that much more shocking when you see it happening in Bayonne or Santa Monica. But unlike Spielberg (and so many others), Liebesman also grasps that an invasion story benefits from an alien enemy who’s neither militarily omnipotent nor equipped with an absurd Achilles’ heel — an enemy, that is, who can make a war movie feel like war.
What the young director doesn’t have, unfortunately, is a decent screenwriter, an adequate special-effects budget, or a talent for shooting action sequences. Battle: Los Angeles assembles a solid cast of journeyman actors (Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Michael Peña, and Bridget Moynahan, among others) and then sends them into battle with dialogue that seems to have been cribbed from the interstitial “scenes” in a first-person-shooter video game — and a lousy first-person-shooter video game at that. (I thought it couldn’t get any worse than the eye-rolling inspirational speeches that Eckhart, as the platoon’s staff sergeant, is required to deliver during lulls in the action. But then the script required him to tell a war orphan, “I need you to be my little Marine,” and I threw up in my mouth.)
This imagination deficit shows up in the design of the aliens as well: They’re dull heaps of flesh and metal, rejects from the Star Wars prequels, and their ships look more like flying junkyards than a proper interstellar armada. (If only Battle: L.A. could have imported the far more vivid aliens from 2009’s District 9.) The scenes of street-to-street combat, while vastly preferable to the stretches of deadly conversation, are noisy and jittery without being particularly comprehensible. Liebesman’s intended model is clearly Black Hawk Down, but he needs to learn how to lead the viewer through a battle scene, instead of just assaulting us with smoke and shouts and gunfire.
So all in all, the movie is a disappointment. But it’s an interesting effort nonetheless: a misfire that had promise, an honorable failure. Here’s hoping that its virtues are recognized by the Spielbergs of tomorrow — and that it serves as an inspiration, someday, for the alien-invasion epic that movie audiences actually deserve.