After you've seen Battleship, come back and listen to our spoiler special:
Battleship (Universal/Hasbro) must have prevailed in whatever war it was waging on me, because three days after seeing it all I can remember is that it’s about battleships, and is based on the board game Battleship, and is about a lot of ships that … battle. Battleship (directed by Peter Berg of The Kingdom and Friday Night Lights) is a dumb action blockbuster, but not generously, life-givingly dumb, like the Mission: Impossible movies or Roland Emmerich’s 2012 (ahhh, 2012). This is the kind of summer movie that softens your brain tissue without even providing the endocrine burst of pleasure that would make it all worthwhile. It even—please fine me for saying this—makes Michael Bay’s Transformers movies look rollicking by comparison.
Given that it spends a good 85 percent of its 130-minute running time bludgeoning the viewers’ senses with explosions and CGI naval battles and hurtling alien vessels, Battleship has a lot of nerve asking us to care about the hastily sketched human dramas unfolding on the periphery. You know how, even in a terrible movie, there’ll often be one subplot or performance that you find yourself looking forward to during the dull parts? This film offers no such respite. Every storyline, from the ne’er-do-well Navy lieutenant who suddenly finds himself in charge of defending his ship from aliens to the physical therapist scaling a mountain with her double-amputee client, is equally worthy of dread.
In the main plot, Taylor Kitsch plays Alex Hopper, a pouty, trouble-prone bad boy whose upstanding older brother (Alexander Skarsgard) manages to man-shame him into joining the Navy on his 26th birthday. But as a sailor Alex’s rebel ways continue, and he’s on the verge of getting kicked out of the Navy by his girlfriend’s father, the daunting Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson, sort of phoning in the dauntingness). First, though, Alex and his brother must take part in RIMPAC, an international training exercise in which the navies of different countries meet to simulate battle scenarios at sea.
But RIMPAC becomes WTFPAC when, in the middle of the first day of exercises, Alex’s ship, the John Paul Jones, encounters an inexplicable looming monolith that turns out to be the base of operations for an invasion from outer space. Thus begins a long run of poorly differentiated scenes in which the John Paul Jones pluckily, and perhaps unwisely, takes on the alien megaships. It’s all a blur, but there were a lot of shots of people looking up slack-jawed at inconceivably large and powerful objects and saying things like “Jesus God in Heaven.”
In the B-plot, Alex’s girlfriend Sam (Brooklyn Decker), an exercise therapist, tries to coax a disabled vet (Gregory D. Gadson, a real-life Iraq vet who lost both legs above the knee) to join her on a hike up a Hawaiian mountain.* As it turns out, this is the mountain the aliens are trying to get to in order to use its SETI-style satellite base to send a message back home—one that will, we may only assume, boil down to, “Send more ships.” Will Sam and Mick make it to the satellite base in time to blow it up and save the world? Or will Alex and his comrades at sea get there first? What of poor Liam Neeson, looking on impotently at both action plots while separated from them by an alien force field? Will Alex’s derring-do in battle be enough to convince the admiral to grant his daughter’s hand in marriage? (That seriously is an important plot point in the story. In Battleship II, the issue of Sam’s bride price will be hammered out.)
Complaining about the acting in Battleship seems like misplaced aggression; it’s not the actors’ fault that the lines they’re speaking are so terrible. That said, there are some performances in this movie that are not so much wooden as Styrofoam. Kitsch, who showed promise as an action hero in the less-bad-than-it-could-have-been John Carter, does what he can with the role Alex Hopper, but his character arc basically consists of jutting his jaw out with steadily increasing stubbornness. The scenes with Decker and Gadson on the mountaintop alternate between frantic and placid, as if they can’t decide how much energy to invest in the impending destruction of Earth. Rihanna is more credible as a tough-as-nails petty officer on Alex’s ship; at least, unlike Sports Illustrated model Decker, she isn’t always filmed in Megan Fox-style soft focus in front of a wind machine.
One of Battleship’s biggest mistakes was not to spend more time exploring its aliens’ culture and physiognomy. We only see two of the invaders up close for a few brief moments, and never hear their speech or observe them aboard their own ship. There are signs throughout that the aliens observe some sort of moral code—they tend to target technology rather than living beings, and at one point deliberately bypass a Little League game that lies in their path of destruction. Yet when it’s convenient for the jingoistic boo-yah energy of the story, the aliens once again become faceless monsters whose obliteration we should cheer mindlessly. I’d welcome a summer movie with morally ambiguous villains, but these are just out-of-focus villains—it doesn’t seem to have occurred to any of the writers that it would be more fun to hiss at the reptilian-eyed invaders if we knew what we were rooting against.
I should take back the above claim that Battleship lacks any saving graces. There are at least two deliberately funny moments that hint at the existence of a zanily witty Airplane!-style spoof buried in this movie’s turgid depths. In the first, the commanders of the John Paul Jones come up with a computer program to track the movement of the underwater alien ships, and the grid on their screen precisely echoes the look of the old Battleship board game—it’s as if, in the midst of all this thunderous manliness, Berg wants us to remember he knows it’s all a silly game. The second moment of wit occurs in the climactic battle sequence, when our ragtag heroes leap aboard a decommissioned WWII ship that’s been turned into a floating museum. For no reason that’s ever explained, a group of elderly veterans is standing by on the old ship (were they docents?), and the old salts proceed to help their juniors ready the ship for intergalactic warfare. As the concessions stand is triumphantly overturned, ACDC's “Thunderstruck” kicks in to accompany a sprightly fixer-upper montage. For those brief moments Battleship becomes something different, a jaunty mélange of Top Gun patriotism and Starship Troopers looniness. If a sequel is truly inevitable, maybe Peter Berg can be encouraged to steer the ship in that direction.
Correction, May 17, 2012: This article originally described Gregory D. Gadson as having lost his legs below the knee. (Return to corrected sentence.)