It’s generally frowned upon in film reviews to lead off with a declarative statement like “it was great,” or “if I need information off of a terror suspect I will force them to watch this movie until they give.” Film reviews are the domain of opinion, and when people read reviews they either agree with what they hoped would be the case, or disagree and assume I am a fool (which is fair enough). A few stay for the full review, but they are the exception. With Battleship I am going to break that convention, but I hope you’ll bear with me.
Battleship is not a good film. It is not a clever film, and the explosions are not all that spectacular. The acting is also painfully bad on almost every level.
That being said, I kindly ask you to continue reading as I make my case for why this movie is a new level of dumb. Not because I feel I need to convince you of something, but because dammit, this movie owes me.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…
Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) is a loser, sleeping on his brother Stone’s (Alexander Skarsgard) couch and looking for work. Then one day, the stunningly beautiful Samantha (Brooklyn Decker) walks into Alex’s local Hawaiian dive bar and orders a chicken burrito. Things go badly.
Fast forward seven years. Despite what we assume is a criminal record, Alex has somehow managed to join his brother in the Navy and rise through the ranks to Lieutenant. But despite his potential, Alex is a maverick. He’s a loose cannon! He operates under all the stereotypes that you would expect: He gets in pointless and inexplicable fights with other officers, shows up late to major events, and probably has a problem with authority. That last one never really comes up, but it is expected with this type of archetype.
Of course, the lovely Samantha, who Alex is now in a relationship with and plans to marry, is actually the daughter of Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), the Fleet Commander. Twist! He wants to ask for her hand in marriage, but he may be about to get thrown out of the Navy. Then aliens attack.
A few years earlier, scientists (no particular field of study was ever mentioned, so they are just “scientists”) had discovered an Earth-like planet in the cosmos. The scientists then construct an array of satellite dishes feeding into an orbital satellite that beams a signal to the planet. The aliens follow the signal back.
The first thing you just have to accept is that the writers Jon and Erich Hoeber seem to have an active dislike for the conventions of science. Sure, that is common with movies like this, as pesky “facts” tend to die a horrible death in the face of plot convenience, but Battleship takes that up a notch.
Some films at least have the courtesy to make up a reason for things, like how a radio signal can travel fast enough to reach the far-flung nether regions of the galaxy, but Battleship can’t be bothered. It has its hands full with its loose cannon hero, who is participating in Naval exercises when the aliens decide to cordon off the Hawaiian islands for reasons that are supposed to be mysterious, but end up being frustratingly dumb.
There is a checklist of action movie cliches Battleship follows: Fast talking comic-relief guy that borders on annoying? Check. Rogue hero who is his own worst enemy? Check. AC/DC song playing during a montage? Check. It’s all there. There is also a heavy reliance on coincidence in the plot which further dumbs it down. There are almost no surprises to be had in the plot, and from the first moment you can take a solid guess as to what will happen.
Why bother with 3D when you can have 1D
I know several people who were alarmed from the start about the adaptation of a board game into a big budget action movie. Most notably, they were worried about how Battleship would choose to portray the original nature of the grid based board game. Oddly, the film actually takes a fairly clever approach to this. Or perhaps the bar was just set so low by that point that it earned a pass.
Regardless, the film’s heritage is the least of its problems.
The story feels as if it was written by children, and the cast is barely up to that challenge. Almost without exception, they are bad. Kitsch tries, but he doesn’t have the right type of charisma to save what is a flat and predictable character. There is a great role out there waiting for Kitsch, but this isn’t it. The character needed humor, and that is not something Kitsch excels at.
Perhaps the biggest surprise on the acting front is Neeson. He isn’t bad, but that is primarily due to the fact that he may be in the film for less than five minutes, despite his title billing. He’s even featured on the poster. But even when he is on screen, he seemed almost reluctant to be there, as if he knows what he has done in supporting this film and he hopes you will forgive him.
But a special shout out goes to Rhianna as Gunner’s Mate Cora Raikes. She is not just bad — she is tremendously bad. Both she and Brooklyn Decker are in the film to sex it up a bit, and while neither are good (Decker is trapped by some seriously ridiculous scenarios and dialog), Rhianna is painful to watch. You almost feel bad for her.
Each of the characters is so one-dimensional that it is almost sad. You expect this in action movies of this ilk, but director Peter Berg even manages to outdo the one-dimensional nature of Michael Bay’s characters. This film makes the characters in Transformers seem deep by comparison.
And then there are the aliens
Man, the aliens suck. I rarely say that about big, explosion-friendly aliens, but they are never well defined. Both in action and in description, they are never given a clear morality. They are obviously the bad guys, but whether the aliens are somewhat complex beings perhaps laden with a touch of guilt, they see us as beneath notice, or they are just badly written is never clear.
There is one scene that perfectly sums up the film. During the initial attack, the aliens launch a wheel-like device into Honolulu. It lands in the middle of a little league baseball game, and the device seems poised to attack a child. It then recognizes the child as a non-threat and moves on… to collapse a freeway, presumably murdering dozens of people. Why it does this and what the results are is never again discussed. Maybe it was cutting off lines of transport, maybe it just wanted to break stuff.
The digital effects, as you might expect, are the star of the show, but the scope is never that impressive and there is no emotion attached to them. This is a direct result of the poor use of the alien invaders. Their lack of mustache-twirling acts of evil makes their encounters with humanity far less interesting and threatening, and their ambivalence has them sidelined for much of the movie anyway.
The aliens are also comparatively weak. In their first appearance, they prove their vulnerability in a pathetic and bumbling plot contrivance that is so ridiculous it takes a while to actually understand what just happened. It would be like a Predator chasing someone then stumbling, falling, and scraping their knee so badly they need a few moments before resuming the chase.
Despite their ability to travel through space, some impressive personal armor (that looks more than a little like Master Chief’s armor from Halo), and massive ships with cool weapons, they aren’t that much more powerful than our current military. Again, that just robs from the tension. This breeds a distinct lack of any real consequences for the characters, which leads to Battleship’s biggest problem: it is dull.
There are large chunks of monotony to wade through, and it all builds to an unremarkable climax. In a movie like this, you at least expect to get a thrill as the forces of the ‘Merican military deliver the awaited justice over evil. That isn’t there, which is just one final note in a symphony of meh.
Battleship isn’t a broken film, which is sort of sad. Despite the terrible acting, the film does exactly what it wants to do. That just happens to be slow and dull witted. You expect a certain level of “turn your brain off” action with these types of movies, and that is perfectly fine. If you go that route, however, you need to make sure the characters are at least fun to watch, and the action is exciting. That isn’t the case here. The plot is just silly, and the dialog does the bad acting no favors. But even though the film is like getting punched by stupid, then kicked with dumb while on the ground, the one unforgivable sin of Battleship is that it just isn’t that interesting. The narrative is muddled, and the tension is nonexistent. It also doesn’t help that it keeps one upping itself with facepalm moment after facepalm moment.
I expected more from Berg. More than just a pale imitation of a Michael Bay film, at least. But that’s all Battleship really is. It is a construction as much as a film, borrowing from dozens of others movies, taking the elements it needs and plugging them into the formula, and yet doing them badly. Battleship just lacks that spark that made its brother and sister action movies work. Good luck to the cast and crew when they receive their well earned Razzie nominations for the worst of 2012!