Staff Sgt. Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) is too old for this shit. He’s about to retire and has one last troop to train. He’s notorious because his last squad didn’t make it. He had to make a tough call and he’s living with it. We meet the gang. Lt. Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) has a pregnant wife. Cpl. Harris (Ne-Yo) is planning a wedding. Everyone gets a defining prologue.
Then aliens land. Seeing an invasion of Santa Monica beach via news cameras is pretty cool. Then Martinez has to take the unit into battle on the streets of Santa Monica. They should call it Battle: Santa Monica. The military has a blockade at Lincoln Ave. and they’ve got three hours to evacuate civilians before an air strike.
The war zone effects look really good. It actually does look like the streets of Los Angeles are burning (downtown in wide shots, but mostly close up rubble.) There are some great shots of decimated freeways. The action escalates well. The finale really is the biggest battle, and there are plenty of thrilling sequences before. Nantz’s decoy mission with the walkie talkies incorporates tactics with alien drone ships.
The camera could shake less but it’s okay. At least the excuse could be it’s Black Hawk Down style, with brief glimpses of the aliens at first and disorienting perspective. It’s honest though. They teach you the geography and identify locations with on screen text. You can mostly tell who is who. Everyone has enough visible distinctions, including war paint, so you know it’s “that guy” even if you don’t remember his name.
Midway into the operation they run into civilians Michele (Bridget Moynahan) and Joe (Michael Pena) and his kid. There’s no juicy civilian drama. Nobody’s a reprehensible convict or anything. Just a veterinarian who can get her hands dirty on an alien carcass, and a family man with kids. Other military stragglers like Tech Sgt. Santos (Michelle Rodriguez) join up to explain how the alien ships work.
Somehow you do care about these characters. You want Lt. Martinez to make it back to his wife so no one has to deliver the letter he wrote to her. You can see that Nantz is visibly shaken by his alien encounter. You can totally tell who’s going to make it and who’s not by movie rules, but it works.