Maybe the proliferation of computer-generated imagery in contemporary film has so inured us to visual magic that we don't even appreciate what a miracle Jonathan Liebesman's Battle Los Angeles is.
Or maybe there's just a lot less to Battle Los Angeles than meets the eye.
Interestingly, while all the ads and posters have the title as Battle: Los Angeles, the opening titles have it Battle Los Angeles, with no colon. So let's just call it by an acronym: BLA.. Too bad it wasn't called Battle Los Angeles/Hollywood because BLAH seems much more appropriate.
But yes, there's way less here than meets the eye. Shot in what seem to be all handheld close-ups, this movie is so jittery and jumpy that you can never get a firm fix on what it is you're seeing, which is, I think, Liebesman's point. And yet, with a movie like this -- or Independence Day or, on a much smaller and higher quality scale, District 9 -- you want to see what's going on.
In most respects, Battle Los Angeles is really just a standard-issue war movie: "Saddle up, Marines, we've got to rescue civilians behind enemy lines. We may not all come back alive but hey, we're Marines." Except the enemy is an invasion of aliens. And, this being California, you have to make the distinction: aliens from outer space.
So, while there are a number of big processed shots of Los Angeles in flames, with big alien ships raining fire down from the sky, in fact this is a story told in miniature. All of that stuff is seen in the distance while the film's central characters -- and I use that term very loosely -- operate in the foreground.
Leading the way is Aaron Eckhart as Staff Sgt. Mike Nantz, who is seen in the opening scenes submitting his retirement papers. He's put in his 20 years -- and he's still anguishing over the men he lost during his most recent tour of duty in Iraqistan or wherever in the Middle East he was posted. He'll finish out the week training a squad of newbies and then he's out. Cue the space invaders.
So Nantz has to help lead a squad into darkest Santa Monica to rescue civilians who are trapped in a police station. They fight their way in, then they have to fight their way out -- and the focus is firmly on them, rather than the big picture.
Too much of this movie is shot through smoke, haze or shadow. You only get the scantest glimpses of the aliens -- who look like a cross between the alien from Alien and the clones from Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones: bio-mechanics at its most indistinct.
Suspense and tension are squandered in the name of formulaic melodrama: Will they get the kids out alive? What about the father (Michael Pena) who's trying to be brave for his young son? And the tension between Nantz and one of his Marines, whose brother died under Nantz's command in (insert name of American-Middle East conflict here)?
If you just want noise and explosions and by-the-numbers war-related action, well, Battle Los Angeles is the product for you. But as a movie, this is just another piece of multiplex fodder whose $100-million budget seems like an awful lot of money, given what that money has created.