Director: Peter Berg
Screenwriters Erich and Jon Hoeber actually made paying Hasbro a boatload of cash for their seemingly-unnecessary board game property a relevant story point in their big budget, science fiction actioner Battleship. The fact they had to conjure up a humanoid alien race with reptilian characteristics and cloaking technology to keep gigantic flying nautical vessels off radar is besides the point. The American public loves extra-terrestrial invasions, thinks Andy Roddick‘s wife Brooklyn Decker is hot and cannot help getting revved up when their armed forces are depicted kicking foreign ass. Even bringing a handful of grizzled veterans – actors or not, I can’t quite find a definitive answer – had the guy next to me saying he’d ‘fight alongside those OGs nine times out of ten.’ Yes, we love patriotism and director Peter Berg knows it.
A blink-and-you’ll-miss-him gunner halfway through, Berg knows how to have fun. The guy who helmed both the brilliant, underappreciated black comedy Very Bad Things and brought a sense of poignancy to high school football in Friday Night Lights is also someone who quoted in interviews about having wanted his Dwayne Johnson vehicle The Rundown named Helldorado. The dude enjoys comedy and therefore makes you understand the decision to open his latest flick with a slapstick opening of lead Taylor Kitsch drunkenly and smittenly attempting to acquire a microwavable chicken burrito for the stunning blonde standing at the bar (Decker’s Sam). With the culinary treat’s name constantly muttered under his breath as he breaks into a convenience store by falling from the ceiling, you realize the next 131 minutes might end up enjoyable after all.
Getting ahead of myself, Battleship, in fact, begins with a heavy-handed expository fabrication of NASA scientists, The Beacon Project’s hope for space communication, and America’s good ol’ hubristic way of biting off more than they can chew without thinking about the consequences. Dr. Nogrady (Adam Godley) and the Pentatgon come in to put a damper on the entertainment by turning everything into a Roland Emmerich-scale disaster flick while one egg-head is luckily given the kind of sarcastic streak necessary to cut through the MacGuffin’d science for a more human touch of prickish behavior. Cal Zapata (Hamish Linklater) snarkily foreshadows the coming Colonist-versus-Indian massacre with us in the out-gunned position when our message to Planet-G is sent and later memorably does his best Jeff Goldblum, entitled nerd, from Independence Day.
To get the Navy men currently engaged in training exercises ready to fight on water while pedestrians go above and beyond to help save the world on land, we are treated with more comic character development as under-achieving brat Alex Hopper (Kitsch) becomes a Lieutenant under the wing of brother, Commander Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgård). Still possessing a chip on his shoulder with a lack of team-building decision making skill piled on top, we somehow blindly accept the younger Hopper earned his officer’s title – and girlfriend Sam, daughter of Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson being his usual formidable self) – while we blinked forward in time. The fact he’s days away from being booted out when we’re introduced to his newly cropped hair only makes this ascent more impossible. But it’s an alien invasion film; grains of salt must be taken.
With little need to go into plotting as a result, let’s just say the aliens land, separate three Destroyers from their fleet with a force field and look to shred every piece of metal their sensors can pick up inside the bubble. Explosions wreak havoc, circular pods of rotating knives tear steel like paper, and highly volatile missiles – bearing a striking resemblance to the pegs used in the board game – begin to fall through the sky ripping apart each vessel. Deaths occur, cowards become men and comic relief from the likes of Jesse Plemons‘ ‘Ordy’ helps cut through the manufactured tension. The situation escalates and Alex must grow into the potential so many believed he would never reach, becoming a leader of men alongside his rival Captain Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) to kick some alien butt.
Thankfully, Kitsch retains his cocky demeanor and Berg never allows the drama to supersede the fun. Nothing is necessarily original, besides our terrestrial weaponry actually packing a punch when Hollywood aliens are portrayed as immortal to everything but the common cold and we have to watch all the otherwise normal characters rise to the occasion because the plot needs them too. We knew this going in, though, as Battleship is not the kind of film to create expectations beyond extravagant special effects or to give you more in terms of story. Less chaotic than Hasbro-sibling Transformers, going from the metal gnashing to the subtle pings of the game’s trademarked ‘hits’ and ‘misses’ on a grid is a welcome reprieve. And for every Rihanna only adequately performing while running from Halo-esque spacemen, there is an Asano or John Tui to add flavor to the fight.
Devoid of any surprises – the conversion of an old, obsolete Battleship into a museum can’t be the last you see of the titular collection of nuts and bolts – Berg shoots everything with an in-the-action eye while letting his characters be fallible heroes instead of stern, serious automatons. For this, I applaud him and give thanks he and the screenwriters understood how outlandish the subject matter is. They allow it to laugh at itself as it showcases a blatant sense of patriotism through its ‘band of brothers’ mentality and the showcasing of non-actor, paraplegic veteran Gregory D. Gadson as Decker’s wingman on the ground Mick. We rally around the underdog – us – and relish in the unavoidable hope of victory. To win on screen makes the battlefield less impossible and for that reason alone Battleship shouldn’t be completely dismissed. It’s not great, but it definitely knows how to rouse an audience.
Battleship is currently in wide release.
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