Review: “Battleship”

There’s a moment about 3/4 of the way through the 131-minutes of Battleship where the film’s leads actually engage in a battle with the bad guys in a way that looks and feels like the classic “Battleship” board game that the film is supposed to be based on. Grid, letters and numbers, “Hit” or “Miss” – it’s all there, believe me.

That moment represents about ten minutes of screen time, and they are ten pretty intense minutes, no question. But the convoluted, sometimes nonsensical manner in which the film’s writers get us to that moment might remind you of another alien invasion flick of bygone days, Independence Day. Remember when in that film Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith (Come on-do you even remember their character’s names? Please.) set the stage for defeating the aliens and their all-powerful super-advanced technology by uploading a virus using a Mac computer?

Feel free to giggle a little. I did as I wrote that out.

That’s the kind of silliness that makers of popcorn movies insist requires your suspension of disbelief, and there’s LOTS of that in Battleship. Is it silly? Sure. Does that mean it’s not fun or not worth seeing? No, not at all, as long as you don’t mind the formula that the film follows to a “T”.

Before the explosions start rocking you in your seats, you get the obligatory introduction to the plot and characters. In 2005, having discovered a planet in a faraway galaxy that has similar size and position in its solar system to Earth, NASA uses a powerful transmitter in Hawaii to send a signal to that world in the hope of finding intelligent life. About the same time, on another part of the island, U.S. Navy officer Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgård) and his slacker brother Alex (Taylor Kitsch) are celebrating Alex’s birthday at a bar. Alex lays eyes on the beautiful Sam (Brooklyn Decker) as she walks in and is immediately smitten to the point of committing a minor crime in order to buy her dinner. Unfortunately for Alex and potentially for Stone, Sam is the daughter of Stone’s superior officer, Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), who also happens to be the commander of the Pacific Fleet. Infuriated by his brother’s antics possibly damaging his career, Stone forces Alex to join the Navy.

Flash-forward to 2012: Alex is a lieutenant and weapons officer aboard the USS John Paul Jones, a U.S. Navy destroyer, cleaned up but still prone to making bad decisions. Brother Stone is commanding another destroyer, the Samson, and still trying to keep Alex out of trouble. Alex has managed to win over Sam, and they’re ready to get married once Alex musters up the courage to ask the Admiral for her hand. And everybody is involved in some way shape or form with RIMPAC, the Rim of the Pacific international maritime exercise that biennially brings together the naval fleets of the U.S. and its allies in wargames and training exercises. It’s in the midst of RIMPAC that the answer to the “phone call” that NASA placed to that distant planet finally gets its answer, and that’s when things start blowing up as only Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) can blow things up.

BTS_31_5_Promo_4C_5.indd

And that’s about it. The rest of the movie revolves around the efforts of the Navy–in particular three ships who happened to be closest to the alien’s landing site in the Pacific–to fight an enemy vastly superior in technology than they are. Bravery is displayed, lives are lost, ships are spectacularly sunk, and explosions abound, and it’s all handled rather deftly by director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom), who also served as producer of this film and clearly had a vision of how this adaptation of a Hasbro board game could be made into rousing crowd-pleaser entertainment.

The leads do their best with what they’re given, which is parchment-paper thin, of course. Kitch keeps Alex and his maturation into a leader grounded and believable, while Skarsgård handles the exasperated, straight-laced older brother role well while still keeping the character likable. Neeson once again proves that he can deliver weak dialogue in a manner that elevates the material far more than it deserves (see Star Wars: Episode I for the finest example of that skill). Decker, in her role as Sam, is really given the least to work with–no doubt we’ll see more of her acting in just a few minutes of What To Expect While You’re Expecting later this summer than we see in all of Battleship.

The rest of the cast is more memorable for their work outside of this movie than within it. There’s pop superstar Rihanna, in her first feature film role, not given a whole lot to do as Petty Officer Raikes, a weapons specialist aboard the John Paul Jones, except look and sound like a badass for her fans, which for the most part she does. There’s also Japanese film star Tadanobu Asano, who appeared as one of the “Warriors Three” in Thor last year and now gets a far more substantial role as Captain Nagata, commander of the Japanese destroyer Myoto and a rival for Alex at the outset. And there’s real-life U.S. Army Colonel and bilateral above-the-knee amputee Gregory Gadson, who plays an Army officer coping with the loss of his legs and with them the will to live and to fight. Gadson more or less playing himself in the film — he lost his legs to a roadside bomb in Baghdad in 2007 — personifies and humanizes the efforts of the film’s heroes to overcome tremendous odds in their fight against the invaders.

Are we ever told why the aliens attack, aside from the fact that we dared try to communicate with them? Nope, sorry. (We didn’t even call collect – maybe THEN the attack would be justified.) Do we ever really get why Sam is so in love with Alex, who’s a pretty face but seems to screw everything up? Not really. Are some of the plot turns and the actions the characters take to stay in the fight with the invaders unbelievable to the point of being comical? Sure, but even the characters themselves seem to realize that. “I can’t believe that worked!” one of them says after one such instance. You won’t believe it, either, but that’s hardly the point of this movie and so many others like it.

There IS fun to be had here, especially if you have any affinity at all for the U.S. Navy, Navy vessels or Navy aircraft–lots of those on display, both current and historical, and all of it plays a role in saving the day for humanity. Don’t be surprised if you go to see this film and find people around you cheering and applauding by the end, and don’t be surprised if you’re one of them.

Now, is this movie AS fun as sitting down and playing “Battleship” the board game? I won’t go THAT far.

Score: 6.5 out of 10

Battleship
Starring Taylor Kitsch, Liam Neeson, Alexander Skarsgård, Rihanna, Brooklyn Decker, Tadanobu Asano, Hamish Linklater, Gregory D. Gadson, and directed by Peter Berg.
Running Time: 131 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, action and destruction, and for language.