A pro-war movie masquerading as a disaster film? This is the anti Hurt Locker.
SSgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart ) is a Marine who has opted for retirement rather than the desk job he’s heading for. With a twenty-year career in the US Marines behind him capped by a vague incident where he lost members of the team under his command, Nantz has no idea what to do next with his life. As if in answer, reports of an invading force presumably not of this Earth begin targeting coastal cities all over the world. San Francisco and San Diego are quickly overrun, but if the West Coast of the US stands any kind of chance to repel these invaders, Los Angeles cannot fall.
We’ve heard the story before: aliens invade the planet for some reason. Since it’s politically incorrect to specify religious fundamental terrorist groups or even actual countries as villains now with getting feathers ruffled, non-humans make for convenient bad guys (at least until we make first contact and “non-human hating” becomes taboo.) Every military trains for this scenario, resisting forces that cannot be reasoned with. This is where the film creates its moral center. With just enough back story on the characters to get the film going, it’s a series of tactical strikes, running for their lives, and brief speeches about burying the emotional toll of seeing friends and fellow warriors put down to get the job done and honor sacrifices to the cause. Isn’t it nice to see a movie about the volunteers protecting the common citizen who are allowed to try and win for a change?
The banality of the alien invaders threatening our heroes is immediately clear; they might as well be the villains from Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks. Aaron Eckhart has the enviable job of selling the entire premise, the reluctant warrior looking for his own strength while providing the same to fellow combatants who doubt his resolve. Because Eckhart’s character survived an incident where no one else did, the assumption is that he saved himself. This sets up the only real complexity of the film, coming to terms with survivor’s remorse and pushing through it by embracing the unwanted opportunity to get back on the proverbial saddle. If the bad guys weren’t alien invaders from space, Eckhart’s performance would likely be commended for its authenticity of strength instead of pigeon-holed for being the lead in a popcorn disaster flick.
With Cloverfield-inspired in-the-trenches cinematography and no sense of where all these things are taking place (unless you happen to be a resident of LA), the rest of the film is essentially a disaster flick that either ends when everybody dies or the disaster stops. The alien threat is so vague that you can’t help but focus on the plight of the Marines even though their characterization moments are constantly upstaged by each subsequent battle sequence. If this situation had been set with any real war as a background instead than a sci-fi popcorn flick, the overall impact might have been much more significant. As it is, the pro-military drumming beats so loudly by the end of the film that the filmmakers should just assume no self-respecting US Marine would be without a personal copy to watch over and over… and that’s not such a bad thing.
(a two and a half skull recommendation out of four)