20 posts categorized "sci-fi"


'Batman v Superman' -- Superheroes, superbattle, superboredom

Why can't these guys just get along? (Courtesy: Warner Bros.)

Look, up on the screen, it’s Superman and Batman!

On second thought, don’t bother.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the umpteenth Batman or Superman big screen adventure, is straight out of the What Else Can We Contrive to Make Big Bucks Department.

Two DC Comics superheroes battling and rolling around in the mud with the ferocity of teeth-clinched, squabbling presidential candidates?  At first I didn’t get it all.  After a little research, it seems that the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight have gone at it before in the comic book pages.

A lot of times, in fact.  But now that I get it, I don’t want it.

Ben Affleck, who can act despite some poor project choices (Gigli, Jersey Girl), does all he can for a guy trapped behind a Batman mask and limited to a seething guttural growl most of the time.  Batman to Superman: “Tell me, do you bleed?  You will.”

British actor Henry Cavill, back in the cape and with a big S on his chest after Man of Steel, has the chiseled facial features commonly associated with Superman.  Cavill’s lack of even a trace of facial flexibility, however, makes me think of him more as The Man of Rock.

This film’s two best actors, Amy Adams (American Hustle) and Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), do all they can to make the most of their screen time.  In a film where digital set pieces dominate, though, Lois Lane (Adams) and a young Lex Luthor (Eisenberg) are used merely as brief buffers to move things along to the next mega-rumble in the cement jungles of Metropolis and Gotham City.    

Honestly, I even cringe a little at the title.  Batman v Superman?  Are we to believe this is some kind of legal battle before the Supreme Court?  Nope, just a little clever title trickery from our friends in Hollywood, who, by the way, would like very much for you to spend your money and one tick over two and a-half hours of your life watching Batman and Superman throw each other through walls in the rain.

Zack Snyder (300), back in the Superguy director’s chair after Man of Steel three years ago, does an OK job of stringing together explosive special-effects set pieces.  But’s that’s all we’ve got here, except for a little monster mashing that’s been done often and better in other fight-to-the-finish extravaganzas like the Transformers franchise.

I’m thinking the best battles may have occurred in the writer’s room.  Hard to believe, I know, but there may have been one.  Chris Terrio, an Academy Award winner for his Argo script, which starred Affleck in 2012, and Davis S. Goyer, who penned Man of Steel and other Batman flicks, are credited as screenwriters here.

If you’re hoping for even a trace of character depth, plot development or more than a smattering of dialogue to explain what the fuss is all about, don’t bother looking in this sky or lighting up the Bat Signal.

Call this one Batman v Superman:  Yawn of Justice.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (violent action, some sensuality)

151 minutes

Jalapeño rating:  1½ (out of 4)


Serkis goes 'Ape,' Franco not so much

Monkey see, monkey do a major banana pile of damage in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

Like perhaps you, my first thought when I heard about a resurrection prequel to the "Planet of the Apes" cinematic library was something like, "Take your stinking paws off a new 'Apes' script, you damed dirty bottom-line profit guys."

All of that changed for me when it began to become apparent that the performance capture work in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is equal, if not superior to, James Cameron's sci-fi space adventure "Avatar" (2009).

Set in modern-day San Francisco, "Rise" predates the Charlton Heston "Planet of the Apes" primate-dominant sci-fi series of 1968 to '73 and Tim Burton's 2001 re-boot starring Mark Wahlberg and Helena Bonham Carter.

Scripted by the husband-and-wife team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver ("Eye for an Eye," "The Relic"), the new adventure goes ape with man toying with the human mind and, as you can guess, screwing everything up.

Scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) thinks he's discovered a brain-restoring drug that will end the horror of Alzheimer's, which his father (John Lithgow) is suffering from.  Things go bad at the lab, though.  A dog-and-pony show for investors yields one dead prize chimp and a scrubbed cure for damaged human brain cells.

Without giving too much away, let's just say that Will takes his work home in the form of a baby chimp and continues his work in secret.  If movie scientists could somehow pay attention to what other movie scientists learned before, Will could have screened last year's "Splice" and saved himself -- and perhaps all mankind -- some major grief.

The baby chimp, inheriting "bright-eyes" smarts from his mama, is named Caesar and is portrayed in stunning motion-capture glory by great Brit Andy Serkis, the most amazing actor you probably have never seen.

Not his face, anyway.  In a motion-capture performance, the actor wears a suit covered with electrodes to monitor every body movement.  They are attached to the face as well, then the computer wizards electronically add the character's image around the human actor's performance.

When it's done right, as Serkis has done as Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, as the title character in "King Kong" (2005) and especially here, the process is quite spectacular.

The old "Planet of the Apes" films had significant things to say about big issues (man destroying his home planet, for instance).  The ape suits, however, took away from the impact of the story.

What director Rupert Wyatt ("The Escapist") and senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri (a four-time Oscar winner) do here is make great use of film making technology that has finally caught up to the visual needs of the story.

From this aisle seat, the only drawback is Franco as Will.  He was a dud as co-host of the Academy Awards earlier this year and Franco (an Oscar nominee for "127 Hours") is about as non-interesting here.  

I liked Freida Pinto OK as Caroline, the love-interest primatologist.  And Lithgow is fine as the mentally withering dad.

But Franco.  I don't know.  He seems to be slow-walking through this one.

Overall, however, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" lives up to the title.  And once you see the ending of this film, you'll likely have second thoughts about ever wanting to face a monkey on the Golden Gate Bridge.


Yep, 'Cowboys & Aliens;' Git over it

Whoa, hold on a minute Western movie purists.

Before you get a burr under your saddle because Old West gunslingers take on high-tech aliens from outer-space in the sci-fi Western "Cowboys & Aliens," you should know that uneasy genre saddle bag-fellows have gotten into dust-ups before.

It's been a while, but left-handed outlaw Billy the Kid took on none other than Dracula himself in 1966 in a horror-Western titled "Billy the Kid vs. Dracula."  That same year, the West got a little wilder with another odd pairing.  How many of you remember "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter"?

I didn't think so.

"Cowboys & Aliens" is a genre hybrid.  Granted, it's a far-fetched one, or at least it appears to be until you realize that in fiction there are no real boundaries except the limit of one's imagination.

Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, who concocted the comic book this film is based on in 1997, obviously can go off the usual grid when it comes to storytelling.

And so can director Jon Favreau (The "Iron Man" franchise) and, for that matter, co-stars  Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, who draws top billing.  In today's ruthless Hollywood, James Bond trumps Han Solo apparently.

Set in New Mexico Territory circa 1875, "Cowboys & Aliens" begins with a jolt.  A camera pan across the dust and scraggly brush soon reveals a startled former outlaw named Jake Lonergan (Craig).  Jake awakes from some sort of unexplained trauma that has rendered him with no memory, but with some sort of newfangled bracelet that, to say the least, "ain't from around here."

Jake staggers into the saloon in the former boom town of Absolution (gotta love those town names in Westerns).  Before he can enjoy a few shots of whiskey, he's flirted with by a mysterious alluring lady named Ella (Olivia Wilde of "The Change-Up"), arrested and thrown in the pokey.

But not for long.  As the title clearly states, the Wild West is about to get a little wilder.  Strange lights illuminate the night sky, and before the citizens -- good and bad hombres alike -- know what's hitting them, several of the townsfolk are lassoed from flying machines and carried off into the darkness.

In traditional  Westerns, this would be the moment when a posse is formed.  Heck, that even happens when things get down and dirty (and thirsty) in "Rango."

In this one, though, the supposedly good guys, led by ruthless rancher Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), form an alliance with the mysterious stranger (Craig) and some equally ravaged Indians to square off against the otherworldly marauders from up yonder somewhere.

A gaggle of screenwriters throw every cliché in the book into this thing.  Dolarhyde, the toughest guy in these here parts, has a bully/wimp for a son (Paul Dano).  Nat (Adam Beach), the rancher's No. 1 hand, of course displays all the traits the old man would want in a son.

As weird as all this is, however, the production value is top notch.  The special effects live up to their title, director Favreau stirs the off-kilter genre melting pot with gusto and the acting gets the job done in all areas.  I do wish Ford had backed off just a little from his over-gruffness a little earlier than he did, though.

Think of "Cowboys & Aliens" as that odd looking, but bright and shiny dangerous ride way back at the edge of the carnival.

Then strap yourself in for a wild ride and go kick some serious alien hiney.


'Transforming' monsters and movies

I'm sitting here wondering what the word "movie" even means these days.

It used to be much easier to discern.  A feature film was a combination of story, acting, direction, sound and some special effects (if necessary) that would occasionally erupt into something magical on screen.

"Transformers:  Dark of the Moon" is proof positive that eruptions still fill movie screens.  In fact, the grandly exploding fireballs and weapons of asinine destruction seem to increase in scope and intensity with each new weekend, especially in the summertime, when students and fan boys swarm to the latest barrage of pyrotechnics.

I thought I'd seen every source of material possible when the movie franchise "Pirates of the Caribbean" launched from a theme park ride.  There no longer appeared to be a need for a novel or a screenplay, or much acting, come to think of it.  Mugging into the camera became the name of the game.

But the theme park cinematic springboard was nothing compared to what's going on with the "Transformers" franchise, which is rattling the walls of your neighborhood cineplex as we communicate.

The "Transformers" series, you see, is inspired by clicky, clacky cars and trucks that can be maneuvered like kindergarten-level Rubik's Cubes into mechanical good aliens (Autobots) and very bad hombre aliens (Decepticons) that like to duke it out on Planet Earth.

The first two violence-riddled flicks were extremely successful at the box office, as I'm sure No. 3 will be as well.  Young movie-goers and aging fan boys have bought into the hype and often cheer as one giant former Chevy beats a former 18-wheeler into a bleeding pile of twisted metal.

Pardon me for coming from the position of a cynical old grouch film critic on this.  But I liked it better when kids played with toy Transformers (I prefer the term Go-bots) instead of movie studios toying with impressionable movie-goers and, perhaps (Just my theory) attempting to convince movie-goers that real plot development, accomplished acting and the like are Old School and thus something no longer of value.

We can accuse or thank producer/director Michael Bay for that, especially since he's called the shots on all three "Transformers" flicks.

Bay has no concept of when to cut an expensive special-effects laden scene.  So they drag on in the very definition of repetition for what appears to be forever, but turns out to be just an ungodly 155 minutes.

Mechanical space-alien blood flows freely in "Transformers:  Dark of the Moon."  And, guess what, it's red like ours.  I don't really grasp that concept.  I thought they would bleed oil, or maybe transmission fluid.  But I'm sure that's just something I missed in story exposition.  Oh, I forgot.  There isn't any (OK, there's a little).

The Transformers leave quite a mess behind as what appear to be generally American made cars and trucks morph into gear-grinding warring foes.  Despite their advanced technology, the Autobons and Decepticons battle with giant swords more than you might expect.

Shia LaBeouf is back for the third paycheck, excuse me, starring role as Sam Witwicky, friend of the good Go-bots.

Megan Fox, however, has been banished from the fold for, according to published reports, saying some unkind things about her director.  So in slinks Victoria's Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as Carly, Sam's new girlfriend.  Actually, she holds her own with the sparse dialogue in her first feature film and likely will return if she doesn't bad mouth Mr. Bay.

Sitting through more than two hours and a-half of clanking heavy metal like this, I tend to look for something positive; an oasis in a desert of destruction as it were.

That can be found in the scenery-chewing performances by excellent veteran actors John Malkovich ("Burn After Reading"), Frances McDormand (a Best Actress Oscar winner for "Fargo") and John Turturro ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?").  Somehow, Turturro has managed to brighten all three "Transformers" as an eccentric human element.

A movie like this must be judged not as a literary work turned into a motion picture, but for what it is.

I have no problem with that.  My lament is this:  "What is it?"


Raiders of the lost art

I believe it's a film critic's duty to dive a little deeper into a movie than just to say, "Yeah, I liked it" or "It stunk".

For the most part, I did like "Super 8," the genre hybrid with equal parts sci-fi creature feature and a gushing valentine to kids stricken by the gnawing bug to make movies at a tender age.

I would not be fulfilling my obligation, however, if I didn't point out that writer-director J.J. Abrams, who called the shots on the "Star Trek" reboot prequel in 2009, grew up as a kid filmmaker.

And know this:  The near-legendary Steven Spielberg ("Jaws," "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial"), who also cut his cinematic teeth shooting 8mm flicks as a kid, is not only Abrams' champion and mentor.  Spielberg serves as a producer on "Super 8."  As noted in the press notes for the film, as such Spielberg and Abrams -- mentor and adoring (near-worshiping) protege -- spent countless hours sharing an editing room.

And, as it turns out, their creative force behind "Super 8" is joined at the hip.

Never mind that probably 90 percent of the target audience for this heartfelt coming-of-age teen adventure probably has no clue what Super 8 was.  Abrams and Spielberg know, and they force feed their loving memories of youth long past to audiences perhaps more interested in what's making a wrecked train boxcar shake and rumble than young artistes loading up an 8mm camera to make a zombie movie.

Anyone who knows Spielberg's impressive film library will be able to spot elements of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" all over "Super 8," and a little "E.T." as well.  

Abrams was a kid of 11 when Spielberg's "Close Encounters" hit movie screens in 1977.  Take a look at that one and you'll see Spielberg's stamp all over this one.  The "We're not alone" feel grows slowly as inanimate objects begin to move around.  The plot reaches a fever pitch as "Super 8" casts its heavy-handed spell.

Lonely, moody teen Joe Lamb (newcomer Joel Courtney) is mourning the sudden death of his mother when events beyond his involvement in a neighborhood film project begin to turn tiny Lillian, Ohio into a madhouse in the summer of 1979.

There's the aforementioned train wreck.  And, as often happens on a movie set (even a neighborhood one), Joe is falling for the leading lady, a feisty tomboy beauty named Alice.  Elle Fanning, who was very good as a pampered actor's daughter in "Somewhere," is even better here.

When Alice is asked to cry during a scene in the zombie movie, Fanning doesn't just amaze her teen colleagues, she brings a respectful stillness to a movie audience in the dark that is rarely perpetuated by one so young.

"Super 8" goes off the deep end a little when it comes to the surprise in the boxcar.  Remind yourself that Abrams produced the bouncy-cam thriller "Cloverfield" in 2008, though, and you'll have a better understanding of what drives this one.

This is a film rich in subplots, such as a feud between Joe's dad (Kyle Chandler of "Friday Night Lights"), a deputy sheriff, and Elle's father (Ron Eldard of "Black Hawk Down"), who's often at odds with the law.

The mother lode of riches comes from Spielberg's influence, however.  As the tension mounts, we get to see into a few houses of this Ohio steel town.  But not all of them.

The camera never takes us to the house where Richard Dreyfuss, or someone channeling his performance in "Close Encounters," is going crazy forging a model of Devils Tower, Wyoming out of mashed potatoes.


The new 'X-Men' has class, 'First Class'

Back before sequelitis hit epidemic proportions in Hollywood in the 1980s with the "Halloween," "Lethal Weapon" and "Indiana Jones" franchises, it was pretty much one-and-done for most big-budget movie stories.

Today's audiences, quite familiar with sequels, are witnessing the next step in prolonging bottom-line profit for tent-pole (blockbuster) flicks:  prequels.

The "Star Trek" and "Batman" franchises pulled off the out-with-the-old (tired stories, highly paid actors)-in-with-the-new (fresh stories, rising stars not yet demanding top dollar) re-tooling well enough.

Now comes the "X-Men" reboot, which I must tell you, is more fun and better conceived than most.

Gone are Patrick Stewart as telepath Charles Xavier/Professor X and Ian McKellen as Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto, of course.  Three treks around the mutant trail were enough for them, or for the filmmakers.  (See above about star salaries.)

James McAvoy (Xavier) and Michael Fassbender (Magneto) head the cast in "X-Men:  First Class," an ambitious, well-mounted origin sci-fi adventure sure to please comic book and franchise movie fans with equal fist-pumping approval.

That's because "First Class" lives up to its subtitle all the way.  The ensemble cast of mutants, beginning with McAvoy ( "The Last King of Scotland," "Atonement") and Fassbender ("Inglourious Basterds," "300") and continuing with Jennifer Lawrence (an Oscar nominee for "Winter's Bone") as shape-shifting Raven/Mystique and Kevin Bacon ("Frost/Nixon") as one bad mutated World War II Nazi, is about as first class as a prequel can hope to be.

Without giving too much of the plot away, let's just say that it unfolds mostly in the 1960s, a time of racial (and mutant) prejudice and Cold War unease.

Director Matthew Vaughn ("Layer Cake," "Kick-Ass") and a handful of writers (including Vaughn and previous "X-Men" director Bryan Singer) weave the emergence of mutants into known human culture and the growing Cuban Missile Crisis seamlessly.

As I've written many times in this space, filmmakers taking on projects that require outlandish special effects are limited only by their levels of imagination in this age of computer-generated visual magic.

Like most -- no, make that all -- big-budget productions that pre-order eye-popping effects (an anchor chain cutting a luxury yacht in half, for instance) then try to form the story around the bedazzlement, this "X-Men" overdoes it a little.

Overall, though, this origin adventure should keep audience members on the edge of their seats.  McAvoy, the Scottish rising star, is quite playful at first as a twentysomething Charles Xavier of privilege.

Flip that coin over and German actor  Fassbender is equally effective as Erik Lehnsherr, the metal-bender who will, before this adventure concludes, be called Eric and reply, "I prefer Magneto."

I prefer "X-Men: First Class" to many of the prequels that have come down the cinematic pipeline.
"First Class" is at the head of the 21st century reboot class from this aisle seat.

Malick's cinematic essay on life eternal

There are many visual and plot branches to "The Tree of Life," Terrence Malick's fascinating, spiritual, sometimes harsh, sometimes awe-inspiring drama.  

Featuring abundant shots of tree branches swaying in the breeze, Malick dares to create our universe, focus on one troubled family in 1950s rural Texas and finally look ahead billions of years in the future, when the universe that hosts us has, perhaps, worn out its welcome in the cosmic scheme of things.

It might seem that "The Tree of Life," which took the Palme d'Or (best picture) at the recent Cannes Film Festival, is a work of science-fiction.  A better description would be a co-mingling of human spirit and nature spanning time as we know it, as well as before and beyond.

Malick ("The Thin Red Line," "The New World"), crafting only his fifth feature in a career that's spanned almost 40 years, spends the better part of two and a half hours peeling away the bark on the O'Brien family tree.

Brad Pitt portrays the stern father with a stone-faced grimace of a man whom life has beaten down.  Perhaps because his own hopes are shattered, Mr. O'Brien makes Jack, the eldest of his three boys, a project.  To succeed in life, it appears, Jack -- played well as a child by newcomer Hunter McCracken and as a deeply troubled adult by Sean Penn -- must first take the abuse of an overbearing father.

In Malick's collusion of nature and humanity, budding actress Jessica Chastain ("The Debt") represents compassion and spiritual calmness as Mrs. O'Brien.  It's impossible to tell how much Malick, who wrote the sprawling screenplay as well as directs, injects his own memories.  But the family dynamic is a familiar one that'll be easy for many in the audience to identify.

If you're looking for a linear film, you've come to the wrong place.  Malick's history of the world jumps back and forth between the formation of the universe, trees waltzing in a soft AnyMidwesternTown (actually Smithville, TX) breeze, dinosaurs walking the Earth, an adult Jack (Penn) moping around the metal and glass caverns of a modern city (Houston) and, finally, the filmmaker's idea of what it might be like when human life moves on to the next stage of whatever waits.

From this aisle seat, Malick lingers too long in the special visual effects, even though some of the images created by Douglas Trumbull ("2001:  A Space Odyssey," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind") are quite stunning.

Some will say that "The Tree of Life" branches out too much, and that the family segments might be better followed if the story moved along a more identifiable, structured path.  Malick is not that kind of filmmaker.  He dares to venture way beyond the ordinary to put his vision on screen his way.

From this aisle seat, what Malick serves up can best be described as the flip side of Ingmar Bergman.  The masterful Swedish filmmaker who died in 2007 wallowed in moodiness of life's gloom and doom in films like "The Seventh Seal," in which a man desperate for answers about life, death and the existence of God plays a game of chess against the Grim Reaper.

Malick looks for answers about where we came from, why we're here, why we do what we do and where we're headed from the other end of the moody spectrum.

In "The Tree of Life," Malick, one of this country's master filmmakers, spills his creative soul as the hopeful seeker.


Stranger and stranger on a train

Think of "Source Code" as the pitch-black dark side of the Bill Murray comedy "Groundhog Day."

In each film, time repeats itself. For laughs in "Groundhog Day" (1993), featuring Murray as a TV weatherman/goof destined to repeat a dreaded assignment over and over.

Screenwriter Ben Ripley and director Duncan Jones vary the theme substantially with "Source Code" and come away with a time-repetitive sci-fi thriller that'll keep you on the edge of your seat, on the edge of your seat, on the edge of your seat.

Murray yukked it up repeating 24-hour cycles in "Groundhog Day." Decorated soldier and helicopter pilot Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is catapulted back in time over and over at eight-minute intervals. His assignment is an attempt to prevent a terrorist from blowing up a Chicago Metro train with a hidden explosive device. And, ultimately, much of the Second City itself with a dirty bomb.

A little tedious at first, "Source Code" begins to raise those little hairs on the back of the neck when Stevens -- anchored in a mysterious metal cubicle of some kind -- begins to unravel the mystery surrounding his circumstances. His only communication from the heavy metal cubicle is with Goodwin (Vera Farmiga of "Up in the Air"), a military officer who takes orders from a grim "guy in charge" (Jeffrey Wright as Rutledge).

On the train itself, Stevens plops into the body of a stranger, a stranger familiar with the girl named Christina (Michelle Monaghan of "Trucker") in the seat just across from him.

No one on the train is aware that this former soldier who took serious fire in Afghanistan is coming and going as he looks for the bomb and the bomber.

Director Jones doesn't make a big deal about being David Bowie's son. At least he doesn't in movie production notes. Jones doesn't need to. With "Moon," his fascinating, eerie first feature of 2009, and now this fast-paced, riveting thriller with a science-fiction twist, Jones' talent stands on its own just fine, thank you.

Gyllenhaal, an Academy Award nominee opposite the late Heath Ledger in "Brokeback Mountain," is quite serviceable here as a thinking man's action hero. Monaghan is adept as well at getting under the skin of her puzzled semi-romantic-interest character.

Technically, this is a film that excels. The visuals are sparkling. Also, the cubicle of whatever is constantly changing to reflect the lead character's fragile state of mind.

"Source Code" may perplex more than a little in the final reel. That's OK, though. It's delightfully offbeat, strange and daring up to that point and beyond.


The normalcy invasion

An odd combination of sci-fi alien invasion thriller and grunt soldiers on the ground facing seemingly  impossible odds, "Battle: Los Angeles" excels at neither.

It does, however, provide enough rat-a-tat action to keep action-hungry film fans on the edge of their seats.

What is first thought to be small clusters of meteors heading toward Earth turn out to be alien invaders, of course.  Driven, and perhaps even fueled by sea water, they pummel Los Angeles and other major cities of the world with extreme firepower dished out mostly from the air.  

So who does director Jonathan Liebesman ("The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:  The Beginning") and screenwriter Chris Bertolini (co-writer of "The General's Daughter") send in to take on the invasion filling the sky over Santa Monica with drone gunships?

A platoon of Marines, that's who.  There's no "Pork Chop Hill" to climb, but a platoon buoyed by Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) turn this nearly two-hour barrage of us-against-them into a modernized version of "The Big Red One," plus or minus few hundred mechanical/humanoid soldiers from who knows where.

And, by the way, Aaron Eckhart as the battle-weary Marine who signs his retirement papers, then is brought back into the fray when the aliens stage their own Normandy invasion on the L.A. beach front?

Yep, that Aaron Eckhart.  It's the strong actor who used to grace sophisticated, gritty Neil LaBute dramas like "In the Company of Men" before he went mainstream as Harvey Dent/Two Face in "The Dark Knight."

Actually, Eckhart's not bad.  The notion of a platoon of gradually bonding Marines ("Retreat, hell!") taking on an invading air force is so far-fetched that at least acting with depth takes the audience's mind off the obvious shortcomings.

I had plenty of time to ponder one notion, though.  Given a jet fighter and the urgency Will Smith displayed "to get up there and whip E.T.'s ass" in "independence Day" (1996), this could have all been handled in about half the time.

Instead, "Battle:  Los Angeles" drags on and bogs down in its own smog; a smokescreen of elongated firefights mixed with mostly clichéd attempts to humanize the small circle of key characters.

Michelle Rodriguez ("Lost" on TV) and Michael Peña ("World Trade Center") add some credence as a displaced Air Force operative and a father desperate to protect his young son.

Bottom line, though, this has all been done before and better.  But when it comes to popcorn action-thrillers designed for mass, mainstream consumption, I've seen worse.


Aliens are ready to rumble again

Why do warring aliens always seem to choose Earth as their battleground?

It's bad enough that the cranky, clanky "Transformers" keep ripping up Blue Planet real estate.  And of course the "Aliens" and "Predators" have been at each other's throats for years.

Now come aliens who look like semi-human goons out to destroy some fellow aliens who look very much like fetching high school teens in "I Am Number Four."

It's the "Superman" tale all over again, except we don't go back as far as an infant crash landing and kindly Earth foster parents.

When we first meet John (Alex Pettyfer), calling himself Daniel at the time, he's flipping over Florida waves on a jet ski and taking a late-night swim with an unsuspecting high school damsel about to witness a teen alien's major distress.

"I Am Number Four" tosses out back-story like it's flinging popcorn to a flock of ducks.  John's guardian, Henri (Timothy Olyphant), explains that back on the home planet, the evil Mogadorian Army wiped out the civilians, the Loriens.  But nine of the Lorien children, including John (No. 4), were smuggled to Earth by guardians.

Now the tall goons with gills in their faces and who prefer to dress in black trench coats are tracking down the survivors in order.  No. Three meets his dusty Waterloo before the butter on the popcorn has turned to a cool, greasy ooze.  Now they're after Number Four.

Directed by former TV shot-caller D.J. Caruso ("Disturbia"), "I Am Number Four" has explosive action that should provide an adequate Friday night cinematic adrenalin rush.

It's really a coming-of-age-and-super-powers suspense-thriller with Producer Michael Bay's (the "Transformers" franchise) stamp of "action speaks better than words" all over it.

To borrow the title of one of this year's Oscar contenders, the kids are all right.  That includes Pettyfer ("Tormented"), Teresa Palmer ("The Sorcerer's Apprentice") as Number Six  and "Glee's" Dianna Agron as Sarah, the love interest.

I just wish all the warring aliens would either learn to get along, or move along to another planet  for their battlestar galacticas.