On December 7, 1941, the naval base at Pearl Harbor was attacked by 353 Japanese planes. It was a day that lives in infamy, but now director Peter Berg has reconciled the Americans and Japanese (finally!) in the dumbest, broadest, most pointlessly explosive way possible with Battleship.
This obnoxious chore of a movie suffers from two cardinal sins. One, it’s probably the smallest-feeling big movie of the past three decades. Two, it steals so much from other, better movies that there’s no doubt Universal‘s legal team spent time considering possible action.
Everything from the script to the CGI are low quality, making this $200m tentpole feel like it was made for fifteen bucks and a pack of gum.
It’s a shame, because it definitely earns some good will right out of the gate. The science community has built a deep space satellite that can transmit signals to what are called “Goldilocks Planets” because they are so similar to Earth that they could possibly support life. On the other end of the educational spectrum, Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) is celebrating his birthday with lined up shot glasses and his older, military-minded brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgard) when the chance to impress a mess of blonde hair named Sam (Brooklyn Decker) arises. His enthusiasm and hilarious search for a late-night burrito get him in trouble with the law which enrages big bro – leading to the ultimatum that young Alex join the Navy.
Some time later, he’s preparing for a massive, international naval exercise (and trying to work up the courage to ask Sam’s dad, Vice Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), for permission to marry his daughter) when aliens attack. Explosions ensue.
That lead-in synopsis takes up about half an hour of screen time. The first act drags on, repeatedly trying to remind everyone that Alex is a rebel and a hothead loaded with potential but without moral fiber. It comes up at least three times even as all of the characters race around providing no real background or insight into who they are. None of this is helped by the acting. Kitsch is an empty vessel of a hero, Neeson is a snarling cartoon constantly checking his watch to see when the bank opens, and Skarsgard manages his best with bad material. The worst offender of the main bunch is Decker who seems to be professional large-cupped – a breathing pair of breasts who doesn’t have a single instinct for acting between the two of her. She’s eye candy that’s given a subplot. To illustrate just how bad the script treats her, they don’t even give her a name until probably her 6th scene. When she’s first asked at the bar she just says she’s hungry, then she becomes Burrito Girl, and centuries later they finally tell us her name. As if something like that were important.
Speaking of which, all that earlier intellectual jargon about the Japanese is a too-deep reading of a script that was probably written in crayon on the back of a Shakey’s Pizza menu. Why the Japanese connection? At the international exercise, Alex learns to begrudgingly work with the visiting Captain Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) when human life is in danger. Fortunately, Asano can actually act, which helps keep things afloat even as the movie’s lungs are filling up with water.
Beyond a bloated first act, there’s no sense of scope or immediacy after the murderous aliens land. They’re after something, and to help them get it, they’ve put up a protective barrier covering Oahu and five ships (which used to be surrounded by dozens). Still, even with the action isolated, the entire world is given lip service in a few short news clips, a few doctored lines from President Obama, and a scene or two with a random assortment of government officials that go nowhere. Also, apparently no other active branch of the military exists in this universe. It’s effectively the summer blockbuster version of a capsule episode.
Whereas a movie like Independence Day (in all its cheese) told a globe-hopping story with enough time to take a breath and get to know the people being blown up, Battleship spends over two hours (over two hours!) doing exactly one thing: lobbing explosives back and forth. No matter what’s happening, we stay with the ship, and that makes a massive, world-involving crisis seem isolated and claustrophobic. Aliens have just attacked, but apparently not much is being done about it.
In fact, people don’t even seem to know about it. After the initial news-grabbing crash into the water (and a huge crash in China that kills thousands) people seem to catch on that something’s happening in waves during the story. Even blonde Burrito Girl whatshername sees the initial ocean crash (which happens right by where the love of her life and her father are supposed to be) and she just keeps hiking. No biggie.
Seriously. This thing is an Asylum movie with hundreds of millions of dollars of gloss on it.
And much like that hallowed studio, Battleship also feels free to snake ideas from other flicks. In fact, all of its ideas come from somewhere else. Its alien design steals from Halo and Power Rangers as well as a highly recognizable character from Green Lantern. The plot tricks come straight from ID4 (including a “Welcome to Earth”-style line for Rihanna (who, no kidding, is one of the few actually trying hard to deliver a real performance)). By the time they copy Transformers, Terminator and Predator, it’s sad. When they copy Titanic and Space Cowboys, it’s downright depressing.
However, congratulations have to go out for finding a way to legitimately work the game of “Battleship” into the movie it’s based on. In a rare scene of true tension and cleverness, Alex and Nagata figure out an inventive way to fight back which leads to probably the only well-crafted action sequence. All of the others suffer not just from the attention deficit disorder of flashing up a bunch of shots as fast as possible without creating context – they somehow manage to make it even worse. Part of that is CGI that never looks like it fits in with reality, and part of that is because of a score that is all heavy all the time. Even when things that aren’t intense happen, the score is right there in the background to remind you that THINGS ARE VERY INTENSE.
And that’s the real problem plaguing this whole exercise in largeness. The movie wastes a huge amount of time getting to the point without gaining anything on the character front. Then, when the action gets going, it’s crafted by unbelievably long sequences – making the movie feel like it was made up of only 5 or 6 scenes total (which makes it feel even smaller). A huge set piece of one ship firing on another, followed by that other ship firing back. A huge set piece showing large alien robo-spheres taking out a bunch of helicopters and a highway and more highway and then another section of highway. A huge set piece where they battle the biggest alien ship. That’s the whole flick. It’s like nothing made it to the cutting room floor. If they shot it, it went into a singularly-focused sequence that lasts five times longer than it needs to.
There’s a scene where Alex is told to do something, he asks why, and the response from Unnamed Character Who Just Showed Up is “I don’t know why. Just do it.” That embodies the entire philosophy of this leaden pile of stolen ideas, bad writing, boring action, acting that barely rises above audibly saying the lines, and editing that may or may not have ever even taken place.
What’s worse is that it’s not so bad that it’s entertaining. It never crosses that threshold, content to simply be bad and to somehow make Pearl Harbor and Transformers look like they were directed by a Rhodes Scholar that can bench 550. It’s unimaginable that the man who wrote the outstanding pilot to Friday Night Lights would get within ten feet of this garbage, but there’s his name, right there under the words “From Hasbro the company that brought you Transformers.”
The Upside: Implanting the game into the movie was a stroke of cleverness, some of the action looks cool because it’s large (if unoriginal), the opening hints at some fun charisma, and there are least 3 moments that are so bewilderingly awful that they’re laugh-worthy
The Downside: A ton of sound and fury signifying vomit
On the Side: Some of the shells the aliens shoot are shaped like pegs, and they sink into the ship to blow a section up. Another sly nod to the game.
On the Other Side: Battleship opens in the US in May, but it’s already out internationally, which is how I got to see it early here in Germany.
On the Other, Other Side: Possible review titles also included “Thar She Blows,” and “Battleship Will C2 it That You Throw Up B4 the Credits.”