Battleship is a movie that is enjoyable beyond expectation, but doesn’t offer much more than the fast-food-style fun of a summer movie spectacle.
Let’s just get this out of the way up front: Battleship the movie has little to do with the Hasbro board game that it is based on – other than the fact that it involves Naval battle on the high seas. What we get instead is a slice of popcorn summer fun from director Peter Berg (Hancock, The Kingdom); a movie that unabashedly celebrates the valor of the men and women of the armed forces.
The story revolves around Alex Hopper (John Carter star Taylor Kitsch), a smart, capable, and totally reckless young man who is chaperoned by his older brother and guardian, Navy Commander Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgård). One faithful night, while celebrating his birthday in a local bar, Alex meets Sam (Brooklyn Decker), a drop-dead gorgeous girl who wants nothing more than a chicken burrito to fill her stomach. In typical Alex fashion, young Hopper goes to inspired (and reckless) lengths to obtain said burrito; the act of chivalry gets him the girl, but also leaves him facing severe legal consequences. Fed up with caring for an out of control man-child, Stone signs Alex up to join him in the Navy.
Alex’s intellegence helps him quickly rise to the rank of Lieutenant, but his continued recklessness makes him a boderline liability – and the bane of Admiral Shane’s (Liam Neeson) existence. Compounding the problem is the fact that Admiral Shane is also Sam’s father, and the one thing standing between Alex and Sam getting married. As the Hopper brothers take to the sea on their respective destroyers for the Navy’s annual RIMPAC war game exercises, Alex has two missions: prove himself as an effective commanding officer, and secure Admiral Shane’s blessing for his would-be marriage.
The big twist to the story comes when NASA’s probe of distant planets similiar to Earth turns up an unexpected (an unwelcome) response. Without warning, a fleet of extraterrestrial spaceships come crashing into Earth’s atomsphere, damaging their communications equipment along the way. The ships land in the Pacific with a clear military objective in mind: seize the NASA satellite that first contacted them in order to send an invasion order back to their planet. The aliens raise an energy dome over the area to keep out any opposition, trapping Alex, Stone, Sam, and a handful of other military and/or NASA personnel inside the bubble, the only line of defense for all humanity.
Battleship follows such a familiar popcorn blockbuster formula – punctuated by flat characters, predictable arcs and big, loud, action – that Peter Berg could rightly be heralded as the second coming of Michael Bay. How much (or how little) you enjoy a Michael Bay-brand action flick, will largely determine how much (or little) you enjoy Battleship - though, to be fair, Berg and Co. add a little more substance to their film.
The story by Erich and Jon Hoeber (RED) offers a standard three-act arc, with the usual smattering of two-dimensional characters to follow and root for. Alex is “the bad boy with a good heart”; Stone is the “uptight responsible guy”; Admiral Shane is the gruff, no-nonsense military leader; Sam is the hot girl with a heart of gold (she’s a physical therapist for crippled vets – such a noble model!); with a couple of one-note characters - the wimpy scientist, a bitter crippled vet – thrown in for good measure. For all the concern about having pop-star Rihanna taking on her first big feature-film role, the singer does a pretty okay job playing the smarmy (and gorgeous) Petty Officer Raikes, whose primary job is firing off sarcastic remarks and occasionally looking tough (but still pretty) as she lets the bullets fly.
The action sequences in the film were concocted by some of the same minds at Industrial Light and Magic who brought Transformers to the big screen – and this is evident in the designs of the aliens, their technology, and in the composition of the action sequences. However, visual flair is arguably the only thing that the Transformers franchise has gotten right, so Battleship is, at the very least, an impressive VFX showcase. In order to bring the loosest sense of connection to the board game that inspired its name, the film does have some great Easter egg moments which make direct reference to the board game. While these nods are implemented fairly well into the story, they are also obvious contrivances meant to justify Habro’s brand recognition cash-grab.
Peter Berg is one of the better action directors working in the business (see: the final act of The Kingdom), and here he takes his repertoire to another level, offering great set pieces on the open water, within the tight confines of a ship, and on land. Berg arguably excels over Bay when it comes to creating engaging context for the moments of action, so that we, the audience, actually care about what is taking place on screen. For instance: when bitter double-amputee Lieutenant Colonel Mick Canales (Gregory D. Gadson) finally gets a chance to prove himself on the battlefield again, we’re actually rooting for him, hard, when the situation could otherwise come off as silly.
Similarly, watching Alex go down the (completely predictable) path of growing into a heroic leader could’ve been a ho-hum affair – but a combination of Kitsch’s charisma and some smart sequencing from Berg make the journey more enjoyable than it probably should be. As if those accomplishments weren’t enough, Berg also dives deep into the patriotism well, drawing up a bucket of good ol’ fashioned military pride that is wholly infectious. By the time it is revealed just how the titular battleship comes into play (because today’s Navy has switched to destroyer warships, we are told in heavy-handed exposition), it’ll be impossible not to smile at a montage of multi-generational military valor and might. The film injects just enough international flavor (like Alex’s rival, captain Yugi Nagata, played by Thor actor Tadanobu Asano) to make the celebration a global affair, so that no one need feel left out.
In the end, Battleship is a movie that is enjoyable beyond expectation, but doesn’t offer much more than the fast-food-style fun of a summer movie spectacle. It surely is a movie best enjoyed in a big theater (alongside other viewers simply out for a bit of fun), but once the end credits roll, you’re not likely to remember it for very long - especially in this crowded slate of 2012 blockbusters.
Well… except, perhaps, when you once again have to wonder what, exactly, a board game with the little plastic boats, red and white pegs, and a two-grid board has to do with all of this alien invasion madness. Only in Hollywood.
Battleship is currently playing in theaters worldwide. It is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, action and destruction, and for language.
For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant team check out our Battleship episode of the SR Underground podcast.