Taylor Kitsch, Alexander Skarsgård, Rihanna, Brooklyn Decker, Liam Neeson
(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 18 May 2012 (General release); UK theatrical: 11 Apr 2011 (General release); 2012)
There’s dumb, and then there’s brain dead. There’s a lack of entertainment sophistication, and then there’s Battleship. For someone like Peter Berg, whose made complicated mainstream experiences out of subjects such as high school football (Friday Night Lights) and the War on Terror (The Kingdom), this is a significant step down. Instead of applying his skills to something equally complex, he’s adopted the dopiest script since Michael Bay thought a movie about clones was a popcorn jackpot. Borrowing the worst elements from the various alien invasion/mechanical menace movies of the last two decades, this amalgamation of single IQ narrative threads want to have it jingoism and shove it down your throat as well. By the time the greatest/lamest generation arrives to save the day in Act Three, you just want this loud, obnoxious mess to be over.
The storyline borrows some basic elements from the Hasbro board game. No, no one shouts “You sunk my battleship,” though such a nod to the nonsensical source of this idiocy would have showed some small amount of cheek. Instead, the Earth decides to use a super satellite antenna to contact something known as a “G” planet (for Goldilocks, or ‘just right’ to sustain life). They actually find someone who’s listening, and the results are not good. The call brings a bunch of angry, waterlogged extraterrestrial vessels to a section of the Pacific ocean right off of Hawaii.
As luck would have it, America and some of its allies are using the same area for Naval war games. Under the auspices of Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson) and Commander Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgard), practice should make perfect. Unfortunately, the latter’s nogoodnik rebel brother Alex (Taylor Kitsch) ends up in charge of a ship stranded within a force field created by the invaders. With the help of his chief gunner (Rihanna) and his physical therapist gal pal (Brooklyn Decker) on the outside, our unlikely officer must discover the creatures’ weaknesses while trying to dismantle the communications technology that attracted the beings in the first place.
Since the aliens use “peg bombs” to attack the global fleet might of Earth, we get an allusion to the classic “call and response” aspect of game play, and there is a middle act moment when a ‘water displacement’ grid becomes a high tech version of the board. Heck, we even get spiffed up shouts at potential targets (“DELTA! 19!...BRAVO! 23!). Everything else, however, is borrowed and baffling. We get a Transformers takedown of Hong Kong - complete with collapsing Dark of the Moon style skyscraper - as well as callbacks to one of Bay’s worst, Pearl Harbor. Independence Day is checked, as are such recent releases as Battle: Los Angeles. Then Berg takes pandering to a whole new level by injecting a dose of patriotism so strong that it just might threaten international box office receipts.
This is a movie in absolute love with the military, from its protocol and pomp to its potential life altering attribute. Kitsch’s Alex is the kind of cocky, self-centered jerk-off that needs a good strong stint in the service to straighten out his “me first” personality flaw. Introduced via two incredibly trite sequences (one involves stealing a chicken burrito, the other centers on an unhealthy rivalry with a Japanese soccer team), we just know the major life lessons levied by the hostile ETs will be aimed directly at him. Similarly, when we are introduced to Ms. Decker’s down to Earth therapist, we can tell that her unruly patient (actual Army vet, double amputee Gergory D. Gadson) will end up saving some part of the day. As it offers up elements - the museum like USS Missouri, a surly Japanese officer - you anticipate the eventual repurposing payoff. When it comes, you instantly realize you’ve been had.
A lot of Battleship feels like a gyp. It defies you to hate it, waving the flag in a veiled attempt to have you backing the worthy, winning team. It doesn’t make sense - and doesn’t care. Once it’s discovered that the aliens are trying to use our own technology against us, calling in a backup air strike, so to speak, the questions are confounding. Why does Alex and his crew have to take it out? Are there no other military options - planes, trains, heavy duty automobiles - that can be called to action? And if our brave science geek can sneak in and steal his cellphone descrambler, why can’t he go Goldblum on the invaders and infect their tech with a virus (or something similar)? It’s all his invention, right? Or maybe he could just sabotage it.
And it gets worse. The last act introduction of aging veterans, ready to stand forthright and help their younger brothers (and sisters) in battle are portrayed as part of the WWII/Korean era of soldiery. Yet that would make the average age around the mid 80s (Pearl Harbor was 1941 - 70 years ago - while Korea was around 60), or the mid 70s at the least. Yet these men are so spry and skilled that you’d swear their AARP cards should be revoked. Oh yes, it’s a grand gesture, a gift to those who served without a CG celebration of same. But it makes no sense. They might as well have introduced teen slackers adept at video games as a means of getting the world’s butt out of sling.
Yet for all its failings, and there are dozens, Battleship bravely sallies forth. It has an unswerving belief in itself that can be infectious at times. Of course, as with any contagion, the symptoms are more telling than the toll they eventually take. We are currently living in a cinematic clime where spectacle outranks substance and bankability is measured in overseas markets. So the “USA! USA!” angle of this movie is confusing, considering it will probably piss off as many members of the international audience as it intends to embrace. This is kneejerk filmmaking, doing what’s “right” instead of logical or legitimate. While jokes can be made over the tacky translation from toy to tent pole (with more on the way, sadly), this is clearly what Hollywood thinks will put people in seats. Battleship is bollocks. Oddly enough, it makes no apologies for being so stupid.