The story goes that the terms of the deal between Hasbro and Universal that has yielded such lasting works of cinematic excellence as the Transformers and GI Joe films were such that the studio had to pay the toy/game company a large sum of money every year they DIDN’T make a film based on Battleship, a game of such pre-technical feebleness that it’s almost sublimely cool (in the movies, it’s hard not to love William Sadler as Death snarling ‘you have sunk my battleship’ in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey).
Someone once made a film based on Cluedo (Clue in the US), but that at least has characters and a marketable genre – Battleship derives from WWII naval warfare, and indeed this project has been in development so long that the US Navy no longer deploys battleships except in the sense that armoured vessels might all technically be classed as such, which the frankly bonkers Erich Hoeber-Jon Hoeber script goes so far as to build a major plot twist about as the decommissioned battleship Missouri (Mighty Mo) has to be put back into action with a crew of senior citizen veterans who get to sail under the command of junior hero Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) – I bet he’s called Clod Hopper in the superfluous MAD Magazine satire that can’t possibly be more ridiculous than the actual script – though the old-timers are notably jumped-up extras rather than, say, Sam Elliott, Robert Duvall or Clint Eastwood blowing away the second-rank leads. Even Liam Neeson, cast as the gruff Admiral, has a much bigger part in the trailer than the film, which means that Kitsch (it’ll be sad if this does better for his career than his genuinely appealing work in John Carter), Brooklyn Decker, Alexander Skarsgard and Rihanna at least aren’t too badly upstaged. Real-life legless veteran Gregory D. Gadson has a major role, irresistibly reminiscent of Jim Brown in Mars Attacks! as a vet who recovers his sense of purpose fighting alien invaders – it’s hard not to feel that Harold Russell’s special Oscar for The Best Years of Our Lives is not under threat of eclipse, and also mildly depressing that these days the biggest resources in Hollywood go on Battleship rather than The Best Years of Our Lives.
Frankly a shambles, the script owes a lot to Independence Day, Transformers and even Battle LA, but with an extra helping of try-anything: twenty minutes of set-up burrito-based would-be comedy; slathering-on perhaps the worst ever selection of MTV noise rock songs ever assembled for a soundtrack album over action; a major plot device set up by a secondary character (Jesse Plemons) showing a cameraphone photograph of his pet lizard and reminiscing about a disastrous trip to the beach (which reveals the invader’s silly weakness); a chart recording star taking the Michelle Rodriguez role; unearned sentiment about the deaths of characters who weren’t around long enough or were even remotely bearable to care about; the usual vast CGI spaceship/alien/explosion nonsense being monotonously spectacular; an attenuated subplot about lingering WWII resentment as the Yank hero has a rivalry with a Japanese ally (Tadanobu Asano) who kicks him in the face during a soccer friendly but defers to him when he has to take command; a Robert McKee-approved character arc whereby Hopper starts out as one kind of dick and transforms into another by the end; the flickering echoes of the pro-military patriotic attitudes of this year’s oddest commercial venture, Act of Valor; and in desperation a lengthy scene which actually does dramatise the game even though that means this big-ticket widescreen 3D action picture spends long minutes looking at an animated map of tsunami buoy signals as shots are exchanged between the good guy Navy and the aliens’ flotilla.
As an alien invasion movie, it’s thin: the aliens are lizard-eyed, tentacle-goateed bastards who answer one of those unwise deep space signals with an attack that has strange limitations – they seem to be militarist bastards, but refrain from destroying anything or anyone they deem harmless or civilian and it might just be possible to read their behaviour as misunderstood – and a weakness (a communication link) poached from Battle LA. There’s a lot of science talk at the beginning, mouthed by Jeff Goldblum knockoff Hamish Linklater, which only makes things worse since it throws a lot of stuff out there about the nature of life-supporting planets that simply throws up premise-holes later in the day. Peter Berg directs like someone who’d like to be Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich but forgot to sell his soul first.