Chasing Visceral Thrills
Peter Berg must have looked at Michael Bay (or at least his bank account) with great envy before signing on for Battleship. That’s the best way to explain the movie Berg has made, a lumbering attempt to mount a crowd-pleasing summer spectacular in the manner of Bay’s Transformers trilogy. Like that series, Battleship is based on a Hasbro toy, here a board game rather than action figures. The new film introduces Hasbro’s new production company logo, brashly announcing its ambition to expand its brand.
Hasbro’s clumsiness is unsurprising; who expects a toy company to know how to make movies? Berg, though, should know better. He’s a popcorn director, but his other big-budget efforts, like The Kingdom (2007) and Hancock (2008), showed some personality, even some effort to parody action conventions. Battleship strives for less: less character, less storytelling, less thinking. It’s the type of movie that introduces new locations primarily to blow them up.
The reason for the explosions, to the extent that his movie evinces any reasoning, is alien spaceships newly landed in the ocean near Hawaii. Scientists sent out a signal in 2005, the movie explains, and the aliens have answered. It’s not clear what they mean to do now that that they’ve arrived. Battleship never explains, for example, why the alien ships form a force field around a segment of the Pacific, trapping several Navy destroyers, but remain most concerned with a control tower on a nearby island.
The movie is less coy about its human characters’ completely generic purposes. Before the alien attacks begin, we meet Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), a handsome, impulsive screw-up who has joined the Navy at the behest of his straight-arrow brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgård). Alex wants to marry Sam (Brooklyn Decker), the daughter of Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), but must first indicate his worthiness, learn to make selfless decisions, inspire his crew, etc. Aliens provide just such an opportunity.
That’s about the extent of the character development. It’s belabored by Kitsch’s weird misplaced intensity, which Skarsgård matches and then tops while trying to make lines like “There is a new dynamic at play” sound remotely human. Indeed, humanity is a problem throughout. All of the would-be ingratiating banter early in the movie has a yammering, time-filling quality. When talk turns serious, the dialogue turns secondhand, from an analogy about Columbus and the Indians (get this: earthlings may be the Indians!) to grave pronouncements about an “extinction-level event” to jokes about E.T. phoning home, the script jumbles together alien-invasion boilerplate with the conviction of last quarter’s big marketing meeting.
Despite the overripe clichés and uncharismatic performances, Battleship is generally less frantic than a Michael Bay picture. And when the action kicks in, Berg films it with more clarity than Bay typically does, which is to say that he shoots like Bay making a conscious attempt to slow down, as in Pearl Harbor and Transformers: Dark of the Moon. But what he’s shooting is just as noisy, and it’s not just an issue of jacked audio: there’s plenty of visual noise, too. Enormous yet indistinct ships crash through the water and shoot peg-like missiles by the half-dozen. Most of the fiery destruction emits an over-processed computery haze.
Amid all the unwieldy discharging, Berg does engineer a few neat tricks, like an escape from a shipwreck that unfolds in a single unbroken take, but also takes time to pay ridiculous homage to the movie’s roots as a game for ages seven and up. Any Battleship game purists entering this movie fearful that it would fail to include a sequence where people look at a grid and blindly fire missiles at numbered coordinates can rest easy. Everyone else, meanwhile, must do their best to enjoy the sight of grown men playing Battleship with real hardware.
The movie’s mix of stupidity, bombast, and occasional visual inventiveness recalls Bay to be sure, but Berg more earnestly genuflects at his master when turning Battleship into a sop to veterans, to the point where he casts a number of actual vets in the movie. It’s a nice idea; it also makes some nonpro acting seem downright experimental in its stiffness, particularly over in Sam’s subplot. She’s paired with the large, surly Lieutenant Colonel Mick Canales (real-life veteran and motivational speaker Gregory Gadson), struggling with his pair of artificial legs and sense of worth. One of his shining moments comes when he bullies a cowardly, foolish scientist (Hamish Linklater) into heroism. Later, he punches an alien, for America. Take that, cosmic forces we don’t understand!
In this movie, we don’t need to understand. The aliens’ origins, technology, and goals are secondary to the challenges of being Alex Hopper, which is to say, figuring out how to kill all the invaders with giant guns while also learning how to lead a team and make sacrifices. He gets some help from the Greatest Generation in a final twist that might have been fun were it not montaged over and punctuated by the movie’s second instance of an R-rated swear word getting muted by an explosion, trailer-style.
Battleship has plenty of trailer moments, 15-second expensive-looking money shots of stuff blowing up in all sizes and shapes. I’m not opposed to chasing visceral thrills. What Battleship lacks, apart from actual thrills, is any sense that Berg wants to do more than serve as a self-satisfied Michael Bay stopgap. He’s made a loud, empty suggestion of a big summer movie.