There are three separate essays to be written about this film. I'm just not sure my thoughts are organized enough to write them.
First, this movie came out the same day as the extraordinarily well-documented Japanese tsunami, so you could begin the day looking at scenes of real mass destruction that look like special effects, then go see a movie with special effects that look like real mass destruction. Which again brings to mind the whole question of: WHY do people want to see something like this? What is the weird, death-drive appeal in our culture that wishes to see spectacles of mass death and destruction as entertainment? I'm not saying I'm above it--hello, I was there on opening weekend. It just seems an odd impulse that deserves further examination.
Second is how movies continue to lionize small bands of rebels who use their wits and small acts of sabotage to chip away at the power of an invading army that is technologically advanced and hides behind pilotless drones... although we are NOT supposed to admire such small acts of resistance when the United States is the technologically-advanced invading force using the pilotless drones and, say, Iraquis are the ones defending their country against invasion through small acts of sabotage. The point is not specifically about Iraq, but the dissonance between movies portraying a certain kind of rebellion as heroic, and then that same kind of activity being cast as distinctly non-heroic in real life.
The third is how we've reached a point where the people making movies are of the age that have grown up immersed in mass media and a proliferation of images without meaning, while living lives weighted more toward vicarious experience through TV and movies, and less actual experience out there in reality, amongst actual humans. The result is movies like this, which are just echo chambers of previous movies and TV images, with much more to say about media saturation than anything to do with actual reality. And who really needs to hear any more about media saturation?
All that said, let's get to the movie. Ah, but we can't yet, because this movie needs to be seen entirely as a piece with the previously-released Skyline. Special effects for both movies were done by some of the same companies. At the time of Skyline's release, there was an article in which The Brothers Strause, who directed that film and also run a special effects house, discussed their realization that instead of just pumping out special effects for someone else's movie, they could make their own movie and thus make more profit themselves. Going from what we can see, it's easy to guess that THIS is the project that inspired them to make Skyline--essentially to offer a cheap knockoff of a forthcoming product and get it to market first. There are a great number of similarities between the two movies [the aliens ships look very much the same, some of the shots of L.A. in destruction are essentially the same], to the point where you can almost imagine effects made for one rejiggered a tiny bit and included in the other one.
The movie opens exactly like Skyline did, with a quick sequence right in the thick of battle, then flashing immediately back to just before the invasion. We meet my fiance Aaron Eckhart as Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz, who is haunted by the men he lost on his last mission. But wait--only one cliche? How about two: He's on his last day before retirement! There we go. It's too bad to see Eckhart have to do this kind of stuff, but I know he's only racking up funds to provide me with the kind of lifestyle I deserve once we finally decide to run off together. Thanks, Aaron! I have to say up front that he has the chiseled face to fill out the expected [again, cliche] look of a tough Marine, and he gives the part his all.
We then start meeting the rest of our cliches, the one who's about to get married, the mouthy Latino, the one with the psychological issues, the arrogant Sergeant who crumples under pressure, etc. They are all introduced with their names appearing on the screen, which seems a bit superfluous as they remain indistinct through the rest of the film. It's just one Marine or another, I can't tell them apart. One review of this film saw the entire thing as a huge recruitment film for the Marines--and Marine pandering is certainly at a high [Marines don't quit!]--but my feeling is that it will only reinforce whatever feelings you already had going in. For example, a friend of mine who is sensitive to the way police and military are often portrayed in movies [they are often portrayed as corrupt, disposable or both] was really into the way they were handled here. I was sitting there thinking what an utter nightmare it would be to be a Marine and have to hang out with these people who seem never to voice a thought that didn't originate in a beer commercial or James Cameron movie. Different strokes! People make the world go round. They can just make it go round... over there.
So the deal is the Marines are being sent into the battle zone to rescue some civilians and bring them out--very much a video game-type objective right?--and they only have three hours to do it before the military is going to raze Los Angeles. By now we have suspected what turns out to be the case: that our perspective will remain very tight in with the Marines--we will see what they see, and experience the battle from their viewpoint, right in it. This means that we do not have the kind of objective long shots on the action such as are found in 2012, and the only time you get a further-back, objective viewpoint is when the guys pass a television that it showing it on the news. Part of this is that this is supposed to be a war movie, and thus it stays with the guys in the thick of it. And also because, if I'm not mistaken, this kind of thing is generally cheaper.
So they go here, battle aliens, shout, go there, battle more aliens, shout some more, etc. Pick up some people, some get killed, etc. Along the way they learn a bit about the aliens, like what they want and how to kill them. I have written in my notes: "There's always time for an alien autopsy!"
Now another reason I am somewhat cynical about this film is I know this is intended to be just the first of a series of films every bit as disposable as this one, just changing out the city with each one [Battle: Kalamazoo, Battle: Ronkonkoma]. This is well-prepared for by the set-up here that shows aliens landing around the world [not to mention the tagline: "This is only the beginning"]. So you might be able to guess that this movie is going to end with the winning of a significant battle, but little to no progress made in the overall war. And one thing you can say for it is it doesn't let you down.
Oh, one other thing: The aliens considerately seem to slow down their attacks toward the end of the film in order to allow our heroes time to make several big, stirring speeches.
So ultimately? It's exactly what it looks like: a fairly crass product stuffed with excitement and special effects meant to separate people from their money, which it accomplishes with efficiency. I was certainly amused and engaged from beginning to end, though I did feel a little dirty and used afterward. As I said, my friend found it perfectly servicable [and it does seem more concerned than, say, Skyline, with providing an actual shape and a story with momentum]. But I have to say that I was a little pleased when 10 out of 15 pages of IMDb reviews appeared under the "hated it" filter. It wasn't awful--it's exactly what you expect. Maybe they'll have a chance to improve the formula over the course of the next 20 installments.
There's no real reason to, but if you do you'll get what you expect.