March 16 2011 12:00 AM

Sci-fi schlock fights a losing ’Battle’ with reality


Last weekend, you could turn on any TV or access any Internet news site and see horrifying footage of Japanese cities crumbling or being pummeled by massive waves. Or you could go to the movies and watch the destruction of Southern California in “Battle Los Angeles,” an empty-headed attack-of-the-aliens flick.

No prizes for guessing which sight was the more disturbing.

“Battle” brought in just over $35 million at the box office — a respectable opening, although it would be fascinating to know how much better it might have performed if it hadn’t had real-life competition. Sitting through it is a sobering reminder that special effects can’t hold a candle to the malevolence of Mother Nature.

By just about any standards, “Battle” is a lousy film, an aggravatingly hyperactive mess that drags out as many war-movie warhorses as possible — including the doomed soldier with the pregnant wife, the commander haunted by a mission gone awry, the female fighter who proves she’s fit to play with the boys and the boisterous guy from New Jersey — and utilizes them sloppily.

The dialogue, when you can hear it over the explosions and gunfire, is jaw-droppingly horrendous. Poor Aaron Eckhart, playing that luckless leader with the troubled conscience, has to choke his way through a soppy speech about the men he’s lost, a soliloquy that wraps up with him braying, “But I’m still here — like the punchline of a bad joke!” As a tank rolls through the streets, mowing down dozens of extraterrestrials, Michelle Rodriguez — as designated Tough Girl — gasps, "They’re goin’ down — like bowling pins!" The cosmic creatures that want to colonize Earth emerge from the ocean (creating killer waves along the way) and quickly begin blasting their way into town. The sight of Santa Monica and Los Angeles being reduced to smoldering rubble via second-rate visual trickery is unimpressive, but contrasting what’s on the big screen with what we’ve been seeing regularly in the news makes it all seem even cheaper and cheesier.

Although the hand-held camerawork tries to intensify the action by constantly jiggling, swaying and zooming, no one’s going to be fooled into thinking this is a documentary. The movie may have been designed to send pumped-up young people straight to the local recruiting station (the next best thing to fighting space invaders, right?), but most moviegoers will leave the theater feeling like they’ve wasted two hours watching someone else play Xbox.

“Battle” is staggeringly dumb and ultimately numbing — and, thanks to events far beyond the filmmakers’ control, it’s even more unpleasant to watch than it would have been only a week ago.