Last night, a friend of mine and I decided to see Battle: Los Angeles on its opening day, mainly for some mindless special-effects fun.  Before the movie started, we had some fun playing The Pitch Game, where (as my friend explained) one tries to figure out what the one-sentence pitch for the film must have been to the studio by combining two well-known movies to explain it.  For Battle: Los Angeles, the answer to the game was easy.  It’s basically Black Hawk Down meets Independence Day.

Frankly, we both expected to laugh through the film.  Instead, it turned out to be a decent, engrossing movie, albeit with a few well-worn plot points.  Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) has decided to retire from the Marine Corps after a controversial tour in either Iraq or Afghanistan that left some of his men dead.  Unfortunately, fate intervenes in the form of an alien invasion, and Nantz has to suit up for combat again, leading a group of men familiar with his record.  His team tries to rescue civilians trapped behind enemy lines and wind up cut off.  Will Nantz get them to safety, and will he earn the respect of his team?

Aaron Eckhart carries the movie with a more nuanced and gritty performance than we probably have a right to expect.  His commanding officer, a green lieutenant, is played well by Ramon Rodriguez, whose character blessedly never falls into the 90-day-blunder cliche.  Michael Pena gives a good performance as a civilian rescued by Nantz and his team, as does Bridget Moynahan, but the movie doesn’t really focus much on her character.  Michelle Rodriguez plays her usual tough-girl role, almost the same as she did in Avatar.  The rest of the cast does well in a good ensemble in the old war-movie mold, but the show is mostly Eckhart’s to carry.

Battle: Los Angeles makes some interesting choices in both storytelling and in presentation.  First, it doesn’t try to tell the back story of the aliens.  The audience gets flashes of analysis only from occasional glimpses of TV news shows, but only in the most literal sense possible do we ever get to see what makes the aliens tick.  Some may have a problem with that, but it adds to the same sense of dislocation that the characters feel in the film.  The entire film is shot in the rapid-cut, pseudo-documentary style that is completely annoying early in the film when it makes no sense, but adds to the realism when the war breaks out.  The plot has its holes and weak points towards the end, but they don’t add up enough to lose interest in the film.

In the end, though, the film isn’t about aliens or explosions, but about the characters as they struggle to survive and learn to trust each other.  That makes it better than expected, actually quite a bit better, and more than just a popcorn movie.  It doesn’t reach the level of Black Hawk Down, of course, or even Tears of the Sun, but it’s well worth watching.

Note: The film is graphically violent, with surprisingly low levels of objectionable language.  That’s probably why it gets a PG-13 rating, again proving my point that the MPAA system is almost entirely useless.

Update: One commenter links to a review that shows a higher bad-word count than I recall.  It’s probably accurate; the language was appropriate for the setting, which is likely why I didn’t really notice it — and speaks even more to the uselessness of the MPAA rating system.

I didn’t mention this, but since commenters have begun debating it, I should mention that the film treats the military very well.  There is no “why should we be fighting” subtext (which, given the circumstances of the film, makes perfect sense anyway).  Those expecting a crypto-pacifist message from Battle: Los Angeles will find themselves either very disappointed or pleasantly surprised.