What a gloriously stupid movie. And I write that in a mean way. Battleship is the type of adrenalin-fuelled CGI monstrosity that assumes its audience didn’t pay attention in high school. From an introductory scene that will produce epic eye-rolling from Neil DeGrasse Tyson to a climax that demands we believe a museum ship can get underway at a moments notice AND carries live ammunition, Battleship requires the suspension of a lifetime of critical thinking skills in order to be enjoyed.
Directed by Peter Berg, Battleship is based on the classic Hasbro board game of the same name. That fact alone should be enough to make a viewer suspicious. There is now a decades-old pedigree of bad cinema based on video games, but at least the source material for those films had readymade narratives associated with them. Battleship is a board game. There is no narrative more complicated than tiny pieces of molded plastic. What a mountain the filmmakers raised for themselves.
According to the story, in 2005, scientists beamed a signal to an extrasolar planet that they believed harbored conditions ideal for life, hoping to contact an alien civilization. Meanwhile, the hero of the film, Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), is a downtrodden sap celebrating his birthday with his successful older brother, Stone (Alexander Skarsgard), an officer in the United States Navy. Some idiotic shenanigans ensue as Hopper tries to impress Sam (Brooklyn Decker), a hot blonde who wants nothing more out of the night than to get her hands on a chicken burrito. Hopper is arrested for breaking and entering, and possibly resisting arrest, but is out of jail and nursing a hangover the next day as his brother issues a stern command for Hopper to sort his life out and join the Navy.
Fast forward to the present, and not only has Hopper joined the Navy, he’s an officer himself, the Navy apparently cool with criminal elements in its leadership pool.
It’s a glorious day for the Navy. The Pacific fleet, led by Admiral Terrance Shane (Liam Neeson), is set to embark on joint exercises with the navies of the world. But before that can happen, Hopper must talk to the admiral. It turns out that Sam, who found a soul mate in Hopper’s lovable rogue, is the admiral’s daughter, and Hopper is going to do the old-fashioned thing and ask for the admiral’s permission to marry her. But, Hopper is a screw-up at heart, and he never gets the chance, owing to a bathroom fight with a naval rival. Such melodrama, and the movie has barely gotten started yet.
The fleet moves out of the harbor, just in time for the long-awaited reply from the aliens, and that reply is less than friendly.
A group of alien vessels splashes down in the sea not far away from the fleet. Admiral Shane, rather than turn the entire fleet, dispatches just three destroyers to investigate. The brothers Hopper, of course, are on two of the ships. Now, finally, trouble ensues.
The aliens turn out to be an aggressive sort of extraterrestrial, quickly dispatching two of the three destroyers in a sequence meant to evoke the board game. The aliens’ weapons are modeled on the pegs used to mark hits and misses in the game. In the film, things are ratcheted up a bit, as the pegs explode with devastating effect after burrowing themselves in the hull of the naval vessels. Admittedly, this was a fun scene. After a dreadful start, the film was looking up, but it didn’t last.
A contrived twist cuts off the larger fleet from the action, leaving the sole destroyer, now commanded by the younger, surviving Hopper, the only defense against the alien death machines bearing down on Oahu.
Back on land, Sam, a physical therapist at a VA hospital, is taking one of her charges, Mick (Gregory Gadson, a real life combat vet and double-amputee), on a mountain hike, near the very same array that was used to send the message to the alien home world. Some more twists and turns require that the aliens occupy the array, and it is up to Sam, Mick, and a surviving scientist, Cal, to stop the aliens from using the array to send a message back home requesting reinforcements, or some such.
Things are bleak for our heroes, but this is a story about overcoming odds as much as it is about aliens, so a viewer need not despair. Just be confident that as the film progresses there will be lots of action, Hopper will make a turn and become not just an effective leader, but a super-sailor reminiscent of the one-man army that was Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker, and a battleship will eventually (with a half hour left in the movie) make an appearance to do battle with the enemy.
Battleship is a movie that lives on its action, because it has nothing else going for it. The story is not all that outlandish for an alien invasion flick, but the alternate universe in which the film resides is one where only a small number of people do the job of hundreds. The lack of people in some scenes is really striking. An engine room aboard a destroyer is manned by two people. A mountain communications complex is infiltrated by three. Pearl Harbor itself is seemingly deserted, during an alien invasion, no less, except for the old fogey tour guides aboard the USS Missouri.
It just doesn’t make sense. None of it. Not the aliens, not Hopper, not Sam, not the inexplicable lack of ass-kicking from Liam Neeson, not even the Missouri, the battleship that has been promised the audience quite clearly in the title. Only Rihanna, appearing as a gunner’s mate who just rocks the uniform, is satisfying as Battleship’s answer to Red Dawn’s C. Thomas Howell. She is a pop culture veteran, so she is clearly at home in this film.
Strangely, as the film wraps things up, a viewer can be left wondering, “That’s it?” After two hours of enduring this dog, the abruptness of the end cries out for firmer resolution. There are loose ends aplenty that aren’t even hinted at being resolved, much less set up for a sequel. As a movie night diversion, Battleship barely qualifies. For a movie that seemed intended to remove much of the audience’s need to think, it’s sheer stupidity in fact demands it, as the human brain tries desperately to reconcile what it knows with what it is seeing on screen.
Alien: Resurrection is better than watching Taylor Kitsch struggle to remember his lines.