April 17th, 2013 | 02:33 AM
"You sunk my battleship!" Ah, the countless hours I spent blowing away friends' ships as a kid. Hasbro's Battleship was one of my favorite board games growing up, right above Monopoly and just below Clue. (The only other board game-to-film adaptation in existence.) On the surface, Universal Picture's Battleship looks like nothing more than a Michael Bay imitation, and perhaps there's some truth to that. It's got Bay's sense of epic filmmaking and a similar stark sunny-crisp cinematography. It's got Transformer-looking alien ships, a hot chick bouncing around in a tank top and shorts (although Brooklyn Decker is much nicer to look at than Megan Fox), some scientists squeezed into the proceedings, and a sense of military duty that makes you want to pump your fist in the air and declare, "I'm enlisting!" But one thing Battleship has over Bay's films (besides smoother editing) is an awareness of its own absurdity. It has no allusions about being anything other than big dumb fun and there's nothing pretentious about it. For me, that makes all the difference and allows the film, for whatever flaws it may have (and there are plenty), to just be a rollicking good time that any fan of big, loud, mindless action movies should enjoy.
The film stars Taylor Kitsch as Alex Hopper, a hotheaded lieutenant serving aboard the Navy destroyer USS John Paul Jones. Hopper has been forced to enlist by his older brother, Stone (Alexander Skarsgard), who has grown tired of taking care of him and hopes serving in the Navy will finally give him a stable direction in life. Both serve under Admiral Terrance Shane (Liam Neeson), commander of the Pacific Fleet and father of Samantha (Brooklyn Decker), with whom Alex is in a relationship. While on maneuvers around the Hawaiian islands for the RIMPAC war games, three ships are sent to investigate when what appear to be alien spacecraft land in the ocean. They find a mysterious structure in the water that begins to emit an energy field, which forms an enormous dome that cuts the vessels off from the rest of the fleet. The aliens launch an attack, taking out two of the ships and creating massive destruction on the mainland. When his superiors are killed, Hopper is forced to take command of his destroyer. It turns out the aliens are planning to use a satellite station on Oahu to establish communication with their homeworld, after their own communication ship crashed in Hong Kong upon arrival. Left on their own, Hopper and his men race against time to plot a course of action to stop the otherworldly threat from wiping out humanity.
What all of that has to do with Hasbro's board game, I couldn't tell you. It's funny. When I first heard the announcement of a Battleship movie, I immediately pictured it having a war games scenario. Something light and comedic, perhaps along the lines of 1996's Down Periscope. Instead, for whatever reason the filmmakers decided to turn the concept into an epic tale of alien invasion. The result is a fun, if occasionally goofy and sometimes just plain dumb, mix of Independence Day and Pearl Harbor, with a little Top Gun and The Hunt For Red October thrown in for good measure. I liked how elements of the game were worked into the movie. There are three Navy ships and three alien ships, and at times they alternate salvos of missiles as they attack each other. The aliens' missiles actually look like the pegs used to mark hits in the game. But the biggest homage comes late in the second act. With the destroyer's radar functions disabled, the soldiers use tsunami tracking buoys to make blind-eye missile launches against a couple of approaching alien vessels. The computer screen is a grid that resembles the board game's playing field, and again the ships exchange fire back and forth, with calls of "hit" or "miss." It's actually a fun and creative little sequence.
The story is straight forward and nothing we haven't seen in similar films: aliens arrive, aliens attack, small group of humans fight back, win the day. Hopper's character arc is entirely predictable every step of the way, although Taylor Kitsch gives a competent performance, making Hopper impetuous and a little arrogant but still likeable. I really like Kitsch and think he makes an appealing, if sometimes unconventional, action hero, as also seen in one of my favorite movies of last year, John Carter. The rest of the cast is passable in stock character roles, never really standing out as memorable. That said, I liked John Tui as Chief Petty Officer "Beast" and especially Tadanobu Asaon as Captain Nagata, commander of a Japanese destroyer who survives his ship's destruction and lends his expertise to help Hopper. The two have a rocky relationship that develops into respect, and I enjoyed the humorous exchanges between them. Liam Neeson adds some old-world gravitas to his few scenes, but his presence is little more than a glorified cameo. I would like to have had more of him in the movie. I was really hoping to see him utter "You sunk my battleship" in that gravely voice before decking an alien. I'm still not exactly sure what Rihanna is doing in this, however, other than checking "be in a movie" off her to do list.
And I'll say this: the special effects are terrific. The alien ships, their wicked buzz saw-like weapons that roll across the ground destroying everything in their path, the massive amounts of destruction, exploding ships, even water (which is hard to pull off in CGI) are absolutely fantastic. No question this movie will look spectacular on an HDTV. And some of the action is insane! The attack on mainland Oahu is wild stuff, with those giant buzz saw contraptions bouncing and rolling across military airfields, taking out vehicles left and right, and even demolishing a stretch of freeway. And I'll be damned if this movie doesn't have one of the most action-packed and satisfying third acts of any movie I've seen in recent memory. Who knew director Peter Berg was capable of making something that was actually entertaining? Based on The Rundown (boring) and the black comedy Very Bad Things (overrated), I never would have guessed he was a director capable of such pure, unadulterated, balls-to-the-wall action.
But make no mistake. Despite the abundance of fun action, the movie is certainly absurd at practically every turn. Navy vessels stop and turn on a dime, and go from zero to sixty -- in reverse! -- in seconds. The aliens are discovered to have an aversion to sunlight, which begs the question of why they would want our planet in the first place, given how close we are to the sun. And why does an alien species, with the capability of interstellar flight and a myriad arsenal of awesomely-destructive weaponry, travel in ships that can't fly but can only "hop" across the water? How exactly does a soldier as hotheaded as Hopper, who's apparently impressed the top Navy brass so little that they're about to discharge him, manage to make a rank that puts him in position to assume command of a ship? And why does the USS Missouri, a floating museum, have live munitions on board? These (and much more) are questions best left ignored if you want to simply enjoy the pretty pictures. Other flaws include a meandering subplot involving Decker's physical therapist character and a patient, played by real-life Army colonel and double amputee Gregory Gadson, who spend most of the film wandering around the mountains until they are conveniently pulled into the fight.
It is a little long, clocking in at just over two hours, but the only part that really drags is the beginning, namely the first forty minutes or so. The early scenes are awkward and almost feel transplanted from a comedy. A scene where Hopper breaks into a convenience store, all shown in the form of surveillance footage, is funny in and of itself, but otherwise feels like padding. The whole first act could have been more tightly constructed. Once the action moves out to sea and the aliens show up, however, that's when it finally gets going, staying pretty constant for the rest of the running time. And one of the things I really liked was the movie's sense of patriotism, especially evident in the third act. The story is allowed to be patriotic in a way a lot of movies these days aren't, either for fear of being ridiculed or just out of embarrassment. I don't want to give anything away, but the film embraces the past and . . . well, let's just say that the Greatest Generation still has what it takes to save the world. And this may just have the single best use of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" in a movie I've ever seen.
After watching it, I began to wonder if Battleship was actually intended to be a spoof of Michael Bay and his ilk. If so, it would certainly explain a great number of things. While it offers nothing new to action cinema, I think the fact the heroes are Navy (instead of the usual Marine or Army grunts) and that much of the film is set at sea helps it stand out among others of its kind. As an '80s kid who grew up on a heavy dose of Top Gun, I've always gravitated toward the Navy as my favorite branch of the armed forces. So it's nice to see aircraft carriers, destroyers and battleships (somebody forgot the submarines) instead of fighter jets, tanks and Humvees for a change. And while the characters may lack depth, they're good people just struggling to survive and have a good sense of honor, duty and humility. Certainly, no points are earned in its favor for good dialogue, deep acting or even a memorable story, and it has more than its fair share of flaws (some structurally, most logically). But if you can overlook that, make it past the sluggish first act and are willing to completely shut off your brain and just enjoy action for action's sake, I think you'll have fun. I sure as hell did.