The following is a reprint of our review from the U.K. release in April.
Expectations are a tricky thing with films. In an age where every teaser, trailer, teaser-for-a-trailer, poster and publicity still are pored over endlessly, many go into a film thinking they know what they’ll think afterwards. This can lead to hopes being crushed, or sometimes, for a film that you’d previously dismissed, it turns out to be a pleasant surprise. Last summer, we were dreading “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” only to discover that it was perhaps the best blockbuster of the season. Honestly, very little makes us happier than such a film: a picture that’s been mis-marketed that turns out be an absolute treat, that is an entirely different beast to what you thought it was going to be.
“Battleship” is not one of those films. “Battleship” is exactly the kind of film you think it’s going to be. “Battleship” is a $200 million blockbuster based on the board game “Battleship.”
In an outpost in the Himalayas, scientists Cal (Hamish Linklater, playing Jeff Goldblum, playing Dr. Ian Malcolm) and Dr. Nogrady (Adam Godley, playing Ian Holm, playing whoever Ian Holm played in “The Day After Tomorrow“) set off a beacon intended to communicate with the distant Planet G, a recent discovery in another solar system that they believe might be able to hold life (even as Cal worries “It’ll be like Christopher Columbus and the Native Americans, and we’ll be the Native Americans”). Meanwhile, in Oahu, Hawaii, Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch, playing Tim Riggins, playing an insufferable prick) and his brother Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgard, playing Alexander Skarsgard with a stick up his arse) celebrate Hopper’s birthday, even as Stone laments his brother’s lack of direction. After Hopper is arrested trying to impress Sam (Brooklyn Decker, playing Rosie Huntington-Whitely, playing Megan Fox), his brother insists that he stop wasting his life, and join him in the navy.
Six years later, the two brothers are both serving on boats, Stone as a commander, and Hopper, about to propose to Sam, who, as it turns out, is the daughter of Admriral Shane (Liam Neeson, playing a man being paid for two weeks work in Hawaii, and still unable to enjoy it). They’re taking part in a series of naval exercises when four objects crash-land in the Pacific (a fifth, knocked off course, hits Hong Kong, causing devastation), that turn out to be ships, seemingly from another world. Hostile ships. Meanwhile, back on Oahu, Sam, a naval physical therapist, takes a client (real-life Iraq hero and amputee Greg Gadson, in his acting debut) up to the mountains only to find the invaders setting up… something…
All of this is, of course, relatively unimportant: the focus of Peter Berg‘s film is mostly on effects and explosions. But you can’t say that the filmmakers don’t care about the character arc of their hero. Indeed, they spend the entire first half of the movie continually reiterating what a useless, cowardly layabout Hopper is, over and over again, presumably in order to make his never-in-doubt transformation into a hero more satisfying. But the sheer repetition of it, combined with Kitsch’s charmless performance (we liked him on “Friday Night Lights” and all, but between this and “John Carter” he’s got one strike left as a leading man), means that you’re long past caring by the time the film lets him turn around.
At least he’s given two notes to play — most of the rest of the cast are given one if they’re lucky. It says something that the boats are given introductory captions, whereas the characters aren’t. Skarsgard is stiff and authoritarian, Rihanna (as a Petty Officer seemingly created in order to give the singer a role — she never really interacts with any of the other major characters) is spunky, Linklater is quirky, while Neeson is barely present even by his recent standards, and Decker is scenery, just as much as the picturesque locales. The most welcome actor appearance? The guy who plays Perd Hapley on “Parks & Recreation,” as a news anchor, which does at least let us think that “Battleship” takes place within the universe of that show.
Of course, the actors can be excused, for the most part, because they’ve not been given anything to play in the first place, thanks to a truly wretched script by Jon and Erich Hoeber (“Red“). Exposition is thoroughly spoonfed as though to a stupid child (at one point, quite literally, thanks to the random pre-teen who asks Kitsch the difference between a battleship and a destroyer), inconsistencies and bad movie logic (i.e. people behaving in a certain way because it’s what’s needed to drive the plot forward, rather than because that’s how human beings behave) proliferate, and unintentionally funny line follows unintentionally funny line (our favorite is when Kitsch’s character, after a good 20-30 minutes of alien attacks, tells his shipmates “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”). And for all Berg’s talk that the film bore no resemblance to the board game it’s based on, the script goes through ludicrous convolutions in order to pay homage, right down to a deathly dull ten-minute set-piece which involves our heroes guessing which grid coordinates they should fire missiles at. We wish we were making that up.
Indeed, the Berg who was once a promising filmmaker, thanks to “Very Bad Things” and especially “Friday Night Lights,” appears to have been replaced by some kind of pod person. “Hancock” was at least an interesting movie trying to get out from under a bad one, but here, the trailers didn’t lie — the filmmaker is channeling Michael Bay at every possible opportunity, from the leery eye he casts on the female characters and the frankly-kind-of-racist humor to Steve Jablonsky‘s horrific Zimmer Factory score (quite literally: the alien’s theme is a straight lift from “Tron: Legacy“) to the omnipresent teal-and-orange color palette.
Even Berg’s previous strengths are gone: the action never establishes the right geography, on sea, on boats or on land, to make the fast-cutting coherent, and the tone schizophrenically lurches from broad humor (Kitsch breaking into a convenience store to the tune of the “Pink Panther” theme) to flag-waving sincerity. It’s the latter that rankles most: from the nods to WWII veterans and the summoning of 9/11 imagery in the Hong Kong catastrophe to the casting of real-life veteran and amputee Gadson (who, it should be said, does better than many of his more experienced castmates), the film appropriates real-life heroism and tragedy for the sake of lending weight to a $200 million explosion-fest based on a board game.
Much of this was to be expected. But we think that even the brains-off crowd will struggle to find anything to enjoy here. The film is so overlong (130 minutes) and sluggishly paced that the heartbeat never gets raised, and the effects never look anything other than plasticky; a scene that nods to “Titanic” is less convincing than James Cameron‘s fourteen-year-old film, and the aliens look like a “Halo” cut scene with their helmets on, and like McG, of all people, with them off. Very occasionally, the film seems to realize its own ridiculousness, and there’s one moment that’s somewhat ballsy, which we won’t reveal here for fear of spoiling the film’s major saving grace — and that’s one of the few things keeping it from the bottom grade. But otherwise, it turns out that the jokes about the blockbuster movie based on a board game over the last two or three years were entirely justified. [D-]