There’s a long-running online myth that, once upon a time, a respected chef attempted to perfectly replicate a McDonalds Big Mac despite not knowing the recipe, assuming it’d be easy considering that it’s such a cheap, nasty, low quality burger. But although he tried his hardest, he could never get it just right. Battleship feels quite a bit like that infamous failed experiment – it’s what happens when otherwise smart people attempt to purposely create a product that’s below their abilities. In this case, director Peter Berg ostensibly set out to ape Michael Bay’s Transformers formula by turning an ’80s toy property into a dumb blockbuster with loud explosions and jingoistic military propaganda. But, alas, he cannot quite get there, leaving us with a second-generation Transformers that nobody wanted. Battleship wants to be a fun ride, but it’s also exhaustively moronic and much too long, not to mention it features an incredibly bland acting ensemble who put in zero effort.
A reckless underachiever, Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) is pushed to join the Navy by his brother (Alexander Skarsgård) who hopes that it will set Alex on the correct life path. Alex may be smart, and he’s a naturally gifted sailor, but he’s unable to control himself, and needs to learn how to shape up, be a team player and take some responsibility. He’s also dating the impossibly hot Sam (Brooklyn Decker), who happens to be the daughter of his commanding officer, Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson). After a few disastrous mishaps, Alex’s career in the Navy looks to be over, but he’s thrown a curveball when aliens arrive on the planet, trapping part of the fleet inside a powerful force field. When Alex becomes the most senior officer on his ship left alive, it’s up to him to captain the vessel, compelling him to shape up, be a team player, take responsibility, blah, blah, blah.
It’s foolhardy to expect meaningful character development in a summer blockbuster of this ilk, but the story’s dramatics are absolutely woeful, serving up cliché after cliché with relish. Alex dating the Admiral’s daughter is basically 1998’s Armageddon, while Alex’s character arc is just a rehash of what James Kirk went through in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. It doesn’t help that the first act of the picture is a complete bore, trudging through half-hearted attempts at character development that only induce yawns. The script by Jon and Erich Hoeber (last seen behind Whiteout and Red, a double whammy of awfulness) also adheres to the alien invasion template to the letter. After all, it assumes that an alien race would travel a long way and expend many of their resources to wage war on humankind. It also assumes that their defeating the aliens will mean an end to all future conflicts since they apparently won’t try again. However, there is some interesting stuff buried deep inside the movie. For instance, the aliens appear to be using tactics and have a game plan, setting out to establish communications with their home planet rather than just mindlessly killing.
Nominally, Battleship is based on the classic board game of the same name, but you would hardly know it. This is simply a generic alien invasion movie tagged with the title of Battleshipfor brand recognition, though the film does incorporate one sequence in which the humans and aliens more or less play Battleship as they blindly fire into the darkness due to lack of radar. It’s an interesting idea, but Berg does fuck all with it; the sequence lasts all of five minutes. The movie is also a powerfully stupid endeavour aimed at the lobotomised. For instance, when the aliens land, they only attack the ships that open fire on them, but seem to have no problem demolishing highways on the mainland and killing civilians. And it’s seriously unbelievable just how much slack the aliens cut Hopper’s boat. One ship is blown apart after firing one warning shot, but Hopper gets away with far more before his vessel is targeted. It’s really bone-headed writing.
After spending more than 90 minutes stuck in a cinematic coma, Battleship at long last roars to life for its finale. Low on options, Alex fires up an ancient decommissioned Battleship to make their final stand against the alien invaders, enlisting the help of the ship’s former crew who can still kick ass despite their advanced age. The ensuing set-piece is somewhat fun, but over too soon. It’s a shame that these old dogs weren’t recruited much earlier into the narrative, especially since they’re manning the only Battleship in a film called fucking Battleship. Apart from the finale, the action sequences are for the most part lethally dull, an aesthetic mishmash of the filmmaking tendencies of Michael Bay and J.J. Abrams. There’s some shaky handheld camerawork peppered throughout, and the frame is filled with far too much obvious CGI and distracting lens flares. This is a really ugly-looking film, and its ugliness is exacerbated by the aggressively teal colour palette. Battleship was reportedly produced for a massive $209 million, yet the money is not visible on-screen – most of the digital effects look incredibly phoney. What happened to the days of actors in make-up and costumes portraying aliens? Someone should’ve gotten Rob Bottin to work on this film.
2012 really wasn’t a good year for Kitsch, with Battleship becoming the second box office disaster that he had headlined in a matter of months. It’s clear why the actor’s career as a lead never really took off, as he’s completely bland and charisma-free. It’s all the more disappointing considering that Liam Neeson also stars and could’ve been the movie’s hero, but instead he’s utterly wasted, disappearing for pretty much the entire second act only to achieve absolutely nothing in the finale. Making her acting debut here is singer Rhianna who’s utterly ineffectual, attempting the Michelle Rodriguez brand of gung-ho female badassery but ultimately coming off as forced. And for a film intended to launch her film career, Rhianna’s dialogue is often restricted to single sentences of clichéd action movie speak. Is this what passes for a strong female character in an action movie these days? None of the other actors make much of an impact, with a completely interchangeable Brooklyn Decker and a flat Alexander Skarsgård.
I’m not opposed to mindless popcorn-munching entertaining, and I didn’t expect Battleship to be a great deal more than explosions and mindless action. But at an interminable 130 minutes, Berg’s blockbuster is lethargic and uninvolving, requiring all viewers to literally switch off their brains. If you’re in a really unfussy movie-watching mood, then you might overlook the awful dialogue, dreary performances and manufactured drama for the sake of a few halfway enjoyable action set-pieces. But there are far better blockbusters out there which deserve your attention. If you can make it through to the end, there’s a post-credits scene which sets up a possible sequel, but it’s unlikely that it will ever materialise considering the limp box office.