Michael Bay must be Peter Berg’s idol. Why else would Berg’s latest be an unholy mash-up of “Pearl Harbor” and “Transformers”? Sure, “Battleship” was supposedly inspired by the venerable Hasbro board game (no innovation there—remember “Clue”?). And scripters Erich and Jon Hoeber manage to work a bit—however implausible—into their screenplay in which the two sides battling in the Pacific can’t see one another. But the real influence at work here is Bay, and if Berg doesn’t match him in bombast and stupidity, it’s certainly not for lack of trying.
“Battleship” is a two-and-a-half-hour recruitment poster for the US Navy, but given the appetite of today’s teen audiences it obviously wouldn’t be exciting enough to pit our valiant seamen against mere human opponents. So it’s been reconfigured as a silly alien-invasion tale with ships, missiles and torpedoes. The extraterrestrial menace—five shiploads of them—arrives as the unfortunate result of a radio signal unwisely sent to a distant earth-like planet by some nerdy scientists, including hippie-ish Cal Zapata (Hamish Linklater). The aliens lose their communications ship, which destroys a good deal of Hong Kong plummeting to the ground (cue lots of explosions, toppling buildings and skyscrapers ablaze, all courtesy of mediocre CGI), but the other craft plop off Hawaii into the ocean just as the Navy is engaging in a huge joint operation with ships from allied nations. However, the aliens cut off most of the fleet from the area with one of those marvelous force fields so beloved of hack sci-fi writers.
There are a few ships within the bubble, however, one including in its crew our purported hero, a complete chowderhead named Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch, freed from his “John Carter” loincloth but not, apparently, from a propensity for big-budget bombs) who’s a lieutenant despite the fact that just a year before we’d seen him engage in an imbecilic assault on a convenience store, designed to impress a woman he’d just met, that should have landed him in jail. (That twenty-minute prologue must have been intended by the filmmakers as a kind of insurance policy. As dumb as the remainder of the picture is, it’s actually brighter than this opening jaw-dropper.)
Anyway, Alex is as much a loose-cannon doofus in the service as before, and now the bane of both his straight-arrow skipper brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgard) and the commander of the Pacific fleet, Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson, who should really have suggested that the name be changed to “Shame”). Making matters worse is the fact that the woman Alex was trying to woo in that hopeless prologue—successfully, as it turns out—is the admiral’s daughter Samantha, a statuesque blonde played by Brooklyn Decker with about as much emotion as Tippi Hedren managed during her morose screen career.
After Stone’s unhappy demise at the aliens’ hands (or claws), Alex is left in charge, and must devise a strategy against them in league with his old soccer rival, Japanese Captain Nagata (Tadanobu Asano), with whom he discusses, among other things, “The Art of War” and water displacement. With the help of a bevy of other stereotypical crewmen (Jesse Plemons as the goofy one, John Tui as the brawny one) and crew-woman (spunky Rihanna), they manage to destroy the alien vessels, but not before they have to take the WWII battleship USS Missouri, now a floating museum, out of mothballs, impressing its elderly staff of vets back into service and sailing it against these new sneak attackers. Meanwhile Samantha, an army physical therapist, along with a reluctant Cal and Mick (Gregory D. Gadson), an amputee patient of hers raging over the loss of his legs, target the aliens trying to re-establish contact with their planet and invite a larger invasion. In the end, of course, Alex proves his mettle and wins widespread acclaim—something that should certainly feed the egos of all the feckless, irresponsible men-children like him who represent the target audience and like to be told that though they appear to be lazy layabouts, they will perform brilliantly when the time comes.
It’s difficult to adequately convey the utter foolishness of this nonsense, the laughable banality of the mock-macho dialogue, and the blandness of the acting (with Kitsch looking ever more like a pale imitation of a leading man). Even technically the movie is sub-par. By current standards the effects are muddy and unconvincing, and the aliens look variously like leftover Cylons, Power Rangers rejects, and (once their helmets are removed) rubber masks with big plastic teeth. Even the score by Steve Jablonsky is second-rate, sounding like every bit of thumping adventure music you’ve ever heard. If for some reason you’re not ready to flee the auditorium as soon as the final credits roll, be advised there’s an added scene after them—a five-minute hiatus or so, given the army of S/X artists—that suggests a sequel might be in the offing, though if the sequence is any indication, it would be on a far smaller scale. This “bonus” is really not worth waiting for (nor is a sequel).
Let’s hope this board-game movie business doesn’t start a trend. If it does, and Mitt Romney wins the presidency next fall, 2013 might bring us a cinematic version of “Monopoly.” Oh, the humanity!
Points to “Battleship” for not being in 3D, though.