LONDON – There is a moment about two-thirds of the way through Peter Berg’s new action opus “Battleship” where the young, goofy scientist you’ve seen in plenty other movies remarks to another character “Who talks like that?” It’s meant to be a “isn’t this awesome!” wink from Berg and his screenwriters, but instead is an exclamation point to remind the audience just how retro this brew of bad dialogue and familiar action set pieces really is.
Opening across the globe this week before debuting in the U.S. on May 18, “Battleship” is supposed to be a big screen adaptation of the old Hasbro board game where two players plot to sink each others' battleships. Instead, it stakes its claim as possibly the first unintentional Michael Bay homage flick. It’s as though screenwriters Erich and John Hoeber (“Red”) and Berg (“Friday Night Lights,” “Hancock”) were feeling melancholy for the pre-“Transformers” Bay when clichéd pumped up B-movies such as “Pearl Harbor” and “Armageddon” graced the silver screen. If that description gives you immediate pause, it should.
“Battleship” begins by introducing us to Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch
), a 26-year-old slacker who can’t live up to his much taller brother’s expectations (a seemingly bored Alexander Sarsgard). The night of his birthday, Alex gazes upon the gorgeous Samantha (Brooklyn Decker) who has no business stepping foot in the dive bar where our hero is celebrating. Samantha is hungry and is disappointed to find out she can’t get a chicken burrito at the establishment (the microwave, er, kitchen is closed). Alex decides the only way she’ll fall for him is by breaking into the convenience store across the street to get her one. When Berg cuts to a shot of Alex climbing up the side of the building to the sounds of the classic “Pink Panther” theme you know “Battleship” is going to be a “throw anything up against the wall and see if it sticks” kind of movie. Of course, Alex gets arrested during the break in, but not before managing to deliver her the burrito in the middle of being tasered and thereby winning her heart. After being chewed out by his brother for – seemingly – the last time, Alex is convinced what he needs to be a real man is to join the NAVY (a scene where the Village People’s “In the Navy” is sorely missed).
Meanwhile, NASA has set up a deep space research facility (conveniently in Hawaii near Alex’s NAVY base) to send out a signal to one of the first goldilocks planets found, Planet G. The film quickly informs us a goldilocks planet may be millions of miles away, but like our own home it has the elements and is the proper distance from its sun to sustain life. The observatory will be sending a welcoming signal every 24 hours to Planet G in hopes of getting a response. The whole sequence finds that previously mentioned dorky scientist (Hamish Linklater) giving us that “Uh, I really don’t think this is a good idea look” because if anyone responds, chances are their visit to Earth isn’t going to be pretty (although like many things in the film no one in the audience needs that spelled out to them).
Fast-forward a year later. Alex is now a somewhat successful second Lt. (yep, that was quick) and his burgeoning romance with Samantha has them talking marriage. (ditto on the quick). With 13 fleets from other nations arriving in Hawaii for the annual RIMPAC joint naval exercises, this is obviously the time to pop the question to Samantha’s dad who just happens to be the hard-nosed Admiral in charge of the whole event. Admiral Shane is played by Liam Neeson who performance is so mailed in, it makes his work in last month’s “Wrath of the Titans” seem inspiring. Alex still can’t shake his personality issues and quickly finds himself in trouble after a rough and tumble exchange with Japanese Captain Nagata (Tadanobu Asano, who deserves better). The Admiral is so angry he makes it clear to Alex that after these exercises his time in the NAVY will be over. Don’t worry, the silly set up won’t matter soon because the aliens are almost here and we already know Alex is going to turn everything and save the day (and maybe the Admiral will make him his new son-in-law!).
We return to Linklater’s character who is hailed on a video conference after five strange and fast-moving objects are heading to earth. “Toldja!” flashes across’ Linklater’s face and the Earth is in big trouble (just like last year in “Battle: Los Angeles”). Just to increase the destruction scale, one of the objects hits a satellite in orbit and gets knocked off track ripping through the Hong Kong skyline (note: Hong Kong, not Shanghai, don’t want to make that Chinese marketplace angry). The four other objects land in the Pacific, close to the RIMPAC exercises. The fleet moves in to investigate while the aliens quickly erect a force field bubble over their area and part of Hawaii. In this bubble, however, just happen to be the ships piloted by our hero and his brother, unprepared for what they will soon face, but also keen on saving the day. Meanwhile, Admiral Shane and the big guns are stuck on the outside looking in (which means no more Neeson until the end of the picture). And while these aliens have found the means to travel across space, they seem locked to the water as three Decepticons, er, futuristic looking ships emerge to protect the force field.
At this point, Berg uses many aerial shots of the ships to tie into audiences’ memories of the Battleship game. There are other visual cues including the peg-like rockets the aliens fire, but the tie-in is really just an excuse to shoot a futuristic sea battle. While “Battleship” has already strained the lines of credibility on all levels up to this point, how the aliens are treated and conceived will make it hard for any moviegoer over the age of 10-years-old to suspend their disbelief. Why don’t the aliens attack humans and only their machines? Why do they spend so much time trying to phone home and what do they even want to say? And, as noted, these creatures can somehow propel these giant ships across the universe faster than the speed of light, but they are water bound and can’t fly when they hit Earth? Every new scene seems to present more questions that don’t make any sense with no real answers to make it all easier to swallow (we’d even take some all too obvious exposition just to sleep better at night).
Even more disappointing, the whole film plays like a greatest hits collection of iconic moments from some of cinema’s biggest blockbusters. “Transformers”? Check. “Star Trek”? Check. “Pearl Harbor”? Check. “Independence Day”? Check. “Halo”? Check (yes, it’s a video game, but boy do those alien suits look familiar). “Titanic”? Yes, Berg even rips off one of the most dramatic shots from James Cameron’s epic. At times, the homages are so obvious you expect Billy Crystal to walk through and reveal it’s just one long Oscars-parody intro (if only).
Berg and his screenwriters also have a terrible problem with tone. At times it’s incredibly goofy, at other times it wants to go for the heartstrings with realistic drama (the Bay effect). In fact, there are a number of plot points in the third act where you can’t tell how you’re supposed to react. A moment with some long retired NAVY sailors is supposed to be inspiring, but the audience this writer saw it with laughed out loud. That wasn’t out of disrespect to the real men who served in the NAVY, but how the whole scene was staged and conceived. Moreover, while Berg’s adoration of America’s aquatic forces is well known, at times he’s made “Battleship” the biggest military commercial since “Act of Valor” (which makes it more strange that the film is hoping to cash in more internationally than domestically).
As for the actors, Kitsch is certainly more engaging here than he was in “John Carter,” but his character is so similar to James Kirk in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” that it’s unclear what he’s bringing that doesn’t feel like a Chris Pine impersonation. Rihanna
is more than fine as a tough member of Alex’s crew, but in many ways the role is a waste for her. The gorgeous pop star slums it in a role you’d expect the next Michelle Rodriguez to play. Can Rihanna act? Does she have screen presence? The jury is still out, because her character has no arc whatsoever. “Friday Night Lights” veteran Jesse Plemons is tagged as Kitsch’s comedic foil, but he just keeps things moving thanks to his own infectious charisma.
It would be disingenuous, however, to say “Battleship” isn’t watchable. The special effects are superb and Berg’s longtime cinematographer Tobias Schliessler gives every scene a pretty Hollywood sheen. The end result, however, is a product that so referential, so familiar and so silly that by the time you reach the finale you’re just plain bored.
Screened at the Odeon Empire Leicester Square, London.
“Battleship” is now playing in select countries around the world. It opens in the United States on May 18.