In recent years, movies like Cloverfield and District 9 have used up-to-the-minute multimedia tropes (grainy whiplash shaky-cam, high-definition TV and Internet images) to turn fairly traditional monsters and aliens into something new. They’ve made it feel as if old-fashioned movie creatures were looming right up into our reality. It’s a catchy technique, but in the paramilitary alien-invasion head-cruncher Battle: Los Angeles, the digital-era clutter serves a different and much lower purpose: It’s basically there to cover up the fact that, except for the relentless, jittery way that the film has been photographed, there’s nothing of interest going on in it. It’s all fractious guerrilla-newsreel ”style” masquerading a void.
Battle: Los Angeles is an apocalyptic action casserole that mixes together elements of War of the Worlds (both versions), Aliens, Starship Troopers, Independence Day, D9, and Earthquake. Yet it makes every one of those films look like a study in dramatic nuance. In theory, Battle: Los Angeles sounds like fun, but in execution it’s a shapeless and impersonal dud in which the extraterrestrial invaders, glimpsed mostly from afar, generate so little visual interest that it almost doesn’t matter whether you’re watching a bigheaded droid or a circular warship that comes apart in the air like the pieces of a pie. They all blend together into the same faceless, hurtling, flame-throwing enemy: The metal from another planet!
At one point, a crew of Marines, led by the granite-jawed Aaron Eckhart, wounds and captures one of the robot-armed extraterrestrials that have come to Earth to wipe out the human race. (L.A. is the last front in the alien-vs.-Earth war, but I’ll keep their motive a secret.) As the alien lies there, the Marines poke and prod its squishy insides (the usual gelatinous mess of weird organs and gooey membrane), until they figure out how, exactly, to kill it: with a gunshot to the right of the heart. That’s a standard horror-movie ploy, derived from the moment in Night of the Living Dead when the besieged victims hit upon their survival strategy: ”Kill the brain and you kill the ghoul.” Except that Battle: Los Angeles establishes this point and then does almost nothing with it. And that’s the way the whole movie works. It creates token tidbits of drama that are just filler in between endless repetitive scenes of haphazard firepower.
The director, Jonathan Liebesman, certainly works on a grand scale, creating an epic landscape of smoke, rubble, and chaos. (If there were an Oscar for Best Debris, this movie would take it.) Yet he doesn’t make the attack on the planet, and on Los Angeles in particular, feel like a cool trashing of civilization. The way he shoots L.A., it looks like a pile of trashed concrete before the aliens even get there. Battle: Los Angeles is so inept it’s exhausting. Watching it is like playing a videogame without rules. D