Science fiction loud and science fiction quiet’ and neither quite hits the mark

by Mark Burger

The self-explanatory, self-hyping and disposably titled Battle Los Angeles offers a feature-length recruitment poster for the military, as soldiers are pitted

in combat against a massive alien invasion that strikes under the guise of a worldwide meteor shower.

It quickly becomes apparent that the interstellar baddies are adopting an absolute “scorched Earth” policy. It’s us or them, and an ethnically diverse contingent of US Marines — soon joined by some civilians and Air Force babe Michelle Rodriguez (thereby adding to the diversity) — represent the trueblue spirit of gung-ho America.

After all, we’re all in this human race together, aren’t we?

Nuanced it’s not, but nor is Battle Los Angeles dull. The well rendered, heavy-duty battle scenes (echoing Saving Private Ryan, Blackhawk Down and others) are effective and exciting, and the cast — headed by Aaron Eckhart as a veteran sergeant With a Past — brings a no-nonsense tightness to the proceedings.

The City of Angels tends not to fare so well here, as familiar Los Angeles landmarks are leveled in a barrage of special effects. Battle Los Angeles isn’t based on a video game, but it sometimes feels that way. Story and characterization take a backseat to presentation, which isn’t at all unimpressive.

Less hokey than Independence Day (1996). Less hoary than War of the Worlds (2005). Less gimmicky than Cloverfi eld (2008). Less stupid than Skyline (2010). Battle Los Angeles is all of these things and not much more, but the special effects are worthy of the hype and the film entertains, if primarily on a no-think level.

The characters and dialogue seem as if they could have been lifted from any number of World War II B movies, although the special effects on display here likely cost more than most of those movies in their entirety.

The Adjustment Bureau is a respectful adaptation of the short story by Philip K. Dick that strives to retain the essence of Dick’s story. But in expanding the parameters of the original story (which was published in 1954 as Adjustment Team), the film version has been diluted in impact somewhat. It’s not a bad film, nor a boring one — but it is a curiously vague one.

Matt Damon stars as David Norris, a hotshot young politician, whose seemingly random encounter with ballerina Elise (Emily Blunt) somehow throws off the course of impending history.

This is explained to David, in no certain terms, by a group of wellgroomed, fedora-clad, poker-faced “bureaucrats” who lurk in the shadows, ensuring that destiny proceeds as planned.

By wooing Elise, David is not just tempting fate, but altering its course. These are familiar themes to devotees of Dick’s work (the screen adaptations of which have included Blade Runner, Total Recall and Impostor). Identity and reality are called into question throughout. There are mysterious and powerful forces at work, with an agenda beyond normal human comprehension.

Or something like that. Despite repeated warnings, by the likes of John Slattery (as Mr. Richardson) and Anthony Mackie (as Mr. Mitchell), to leave Elise alone, David’s romantic impulses win out, and he’s determined to win her.

What’s ultimately at stake, however, is never clearly defined in director George Nolfi’s screenplay. The film builds to a climax that ends not with a whimper or a bang, but with an ironic wink.

Damon and Blunt are an attractive and personable screen couple, while Slattery and Mackie imbue their roles with gravitas. The always welcome Terence Stamp brings a menacing ambiguity to his role as Mr. Thompson, the most-feared member of the Adjustment Bureau, whose reputation for wiping slates clean precedes him.

Yet there are some distracting inconsistencies in the storyline.

Although he is an orphan, David leads a remarkably lonely lifestyle, with only a campaign manager (Michael Kelly, in red-herring mode) to talk to. In a city teeming with millions of people (that would be New York), David and Elise are isolated and solitary. This makes the characters vulnerable, thereby lending the film a measure of suspense, but it doesn’t quite compute.