Transformers at sea? That’s an apt description for Peter Berg’s Battleship, which features the same gung-ho patriotism, simplistic save-the-world storyline, and giant, morphing alien threat (though here, the hulking metallic junkpiles are spacecraft for human-sized aliens) of the Michael Bay films.
Thankfully, Battleship never takes itself too seriously – providing a number of laugh-out-loud moments that straddle the line between intentional and unintentional comedy – and proves a mindlessly fun diversion. It’s about as good as you could reasonably expect a movie based on a board game to be (and no, it’s not the first – see also 1985’s Clue – nor will it be the last – get ready for Ridley Scott’s Monopoly.)
Battleship stars Taylor Kitsch as Alex Hooper, an aw-shucks slacker who somehow becomes a US Navy lieutenant in the film’s first fifteen minutes. There’s no love lost between Alex and Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), who is about to dismiss him from service for getting into a bathroom brawl with Japanese naval officer Nagata (Tadanobu Asano). Bad luck; and Alex was just about to ask the Admiral for his daughter Samantha’s (Brooklyn Decker) hand in marriage.
For the first forty or so minutes, Battleship seems to be headed into Top Gun (or better yet, The Guardian) territory; the kind of gung-ho military propaganda with a rebelling-against-authority-only-to-learn-your-lesson-the-hard-way-and-become-a-better-person-by-falling-in-line theme. There are all the clichés, which also include the strict but well-meaning brother (Alexander Skarsgård), the green cadet (Jesse Plemons), and the tough girl (Rihanna, in the Michelle Rodriguez role).
And certainly, Battleship does become that movie. But it also seems to suddenly realize it’s a $200 million blockbuster a third of the way in, so we have a full-scale alien invasion. Yep, the fate of the world hangs in the balance as giant transforming ships crash-land off the Hawaiian coast.
And would you believe that the aliens set up an impenetrable force field over a small section of ocean? That only a few ships, including Alex’s, are within that field and able to combat the aliens? And that the aliens disable the ship’s radar, and somehow have no radar of their own, leaving the two forces blindly firing missiles at each other? (Mind you, never firing the missiles directly at each other; that would be too easy. No, they fire the missiles a few miles into the sky in giant arcs, despite being a few hundred feet from each other, giving the other ship plenty of time to navigate out of the way.)
Yeah, that’s right: the film takes its strategy directly from the damn board game. At one point, there’s a big grid display made up of water-displacement data from buoys, and the characters are choosing letter-number combinations, firing missiles, and calling out “hit” or “miss”. It’s absolutely ridiculous, but you can’t help but smile.
Battleship never seems to make up its mind about the alien menace, though. We occasionally see things through their eyes, which colors targets either red or green: if red, they attack, if green, they leave alone. They never strike first; they only return fire. They never attack a person unless that person poses a threat. They only want to contact their home planet. And yet we’re expected to root for their demise. I felt a little sorry for them; I mean, how do we know they wanted to decimate the Earth or whatever the characters in the film presume their intentions to be?
Overall, Battleship is just big, dumb fun, which director Berg (Hancock, The Kingdom) somehow finds the right tone for. Turn your mind off and you might enjoy yourself, even if you start feeling the 130-minute runtime by the end. That’s the only way to approach the film, by the way: try to make sense of what’s happening and you’ll drive yourself crazy (in terms of story, that is; thankfully, Berg avoids Bay-like overkill on the visuals).
In a rare distribution strategy, Battleship sees release in European (and some Asian) territories a good month before it hits US screens; this is the first major blockbuster (unless you want to count Spielberg’s Tintin) that I can recall seeing this kind of release.
Note: the local press screening for Battleship was delayed an hour for technical difficulties before a rough, jittery, overly-soft 35mm print was eventually presented. A more competent projection would have undoubtedly looked better (and been easier on the eyes), but I think this well-worn feel only added to the film’s dumb charm.
Also: stick around after the credits for an additional (extended) sequence that seems to set up a sequel.