Well, the good news is that Battleship is not Transformers.
If that seems a little like damning with faint praise, well, it is and it isn’t. If you know me, you know that the Transformers movies are something I can go on a major rant about. Primarily because they commit the cardinal sin of treating their audience like they are idiots, and in the case of the second film, having a story that basically demands that the audience be idiots for the story to work. I’m hardly going to criticize anyone for enjoying those films, as it happens, my daughter and I went to the first one and had a great time. It was big and dumb and lots of things went all ‘splody, but it was an evening of my kid and I enjoying giant robots beating the crap out of each other. And trust me, there are plenty of really bad movies I love that will keep me from telling anyone they can’t enjoy the Transformers films.
This won’t stop me from thinking they’re awful, and being vocal about it however.
“But wait!” I hear someone say, “Isn’t this a Battleship review? What’s with all the Transformers bashing?”
Well my friends, Battleship is brought to you by Universal, but it’s made by Hasbro, Bluegrass Films, and Film 44… all folks behind the Transformers series. And like that series, it’s based on a toy. And like that series, it’s all about the special effects. And if you’ve seen any of the advertising for it, somewhere in the trailer will be the word Transformers, because those films, whatever one thinks of them, were huge hits, and obviously everyone involved in this hopes that it will be too.
Currently Battleship is playing in just about every country around the world except the US, a marketing plan that has already earned it $200 million against a rumored $200 million budget. (Disney take note: This is how franchise films should probably be released, and maybe, just maybe, John Carter would have done better if you’d done it this way. Yes, I’m still unhappy about JC not doing well.) Consequently, this is going to be a VERY spoiler light review, because, as I said, Battleship is not Transformers.
It kind of wants to be though, but not in a really irritating way, thankfully.
If you’ve seen the previews, and been somewhat bemused about turning a board game about ships into an alien invasion movie, then you know the basic idea. A training exercise off the island of Hawaii turns into a fight for mankind’s survival as alien ships crash into the ocean and set up a force field around Hawaii, trapping three battleships inside. Explosions ensue. There is actually more of a story here, but not much more, and if you’re looking for something more than a standard alien invasion film, I regret to inform you that you’re not going to find it here.
Battleship stars Taylor Kitsch (John Carter, Friday Night Lights) as Lt. Alex Hopper, a US Navy Tactical Action Officer, serving on the destroyer USS John Paul Jones. He’s a smart, talented officer who has a bad knack of getting himself into trouble, and with an encounter with a Japanese officer before the training exercises begin, he’s likely to be drummed out of the Navy pretty quick. Complicating this more is the fact that his brother, Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgård), is Commander of the USS Sampson, and got his younger brother into the Navy to help straighten him out. That it hasn’t worked doesn’t make Stone very happy, but even worse, Hopper is in love with the daughter of the US Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), and getting kicked out of the Navy isn’t going to make asking him for his daughter’s hand in marriage terribly easy.
Luckily for Hopper, aliens invade.
There are two problems with Battleship. The first is the minor of the two, although it’s the one that bothers me the most. Critical to the story is something that happens that I can only call a great example of an Idiot Plot Device. If you’re not familiar with the term, an idiot plot device is something incredibly stupid that happens just to further the plot and you see it in horror films a lot (“Hey, let’s split up!”, “Hey, let’s go into the basement!”, “Hey, there’s a psycho in the house, let’s have sex!”), but it shows up in every genre. One of the great examples of the IPD is in the film Signs, where aliens with a fatal aversion to water invade the earth, a planet covered by oceans making up 2/3rds of the surface, and inhabited by many species, such as ourselves, who are made up of mostly water, without any protection against the very thing they are vulnerable to. It’s, well, idiotic to think that a species would travel interstellar distances to invade a planet made mostly of something that kills them without having, oh I don’t know, a spacesuit or something to protect them.
But the humans have to defeat the aliens somehow. Of course then there’s Independence Day and the computer virus, and certainly there’s more we could list, but ’tis true, we have one here. Without giving away the spoiler, suffice it to say that there is a reason the for certain things the alien invaders do that has a frankly stupid explanation. Should you be so inclined, I’ll be happy to tell you what it is, outside this review, and hey, if you watch the film and it doesn’t bother you, then great. There’s a reason it’s my minor problem, and that’s because we see idiot plot devices all the time in films and television, and unless they are so horrible (Signs), we sigh and try to enjoy the story in spite of them. If this one doesn’t mess up the film for you, then that’s OK.
The big problem with Battleship is that it’s just OK.
It’s full of stock characters, like the bad-boy-with-a-good-heart who has to learn responsibility, the plucky-girlfriend whose job will help save the day, and the tough-but-fair authority figure that comes to respect the hero. It’s not that our actors do a bad job here. Kitsch is good as Hopper, and Brooklyn Decker is fine as his girlfriend, Samantha Shane. Liam Neeson’s Admiral Shane is appropriately stern, although I thought he was kinda phoning it in. Rihanna also does just fine as Cora Raikes, a weapons specialist on the John Paul Jones, and Alexander Skarsgård makes the most of his limited screen time. But they are all kind of just there. One doesn’t go to watch an alien invasion film expecting much in the way of character development, but aside from Hopper’s fairly obvious hero’s journey, there’s really nothing at all. And some of the dialogue is pretty clunky. A lot of it actually.
That said, the action sequences are pretty good, and credit must be given to director Peter Berg for that. Unfortunately there’s nothing about them that’s better than “pretty good”, and that’s something this film could have used. When you compare Berg’s previous films to this one, well, it’s no Friday Night Lights or The Kingdom. Or Hancock for that matter.
This is not to say there weren’t things I liked about Battleship. Some of the secondary characters I enjoyed a lot, especially the Japanese Captain played by Tadanobu Asano, and Gregory D. Gadson’s Lt. Colonel Mick Canales. Canales is a double amputee that is under the care of Decker’s Samantha, and in real life, Gadson is also a double amputee. He lost his legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq, and became one of the first in the military to use new powered prosthetics which help him move more naturally and with greater agility. And the scenes with the retired Navy personnel are the kind of thing that gives one that positive patriotic feeling.
But then there’s the Elephant In The Room…
Yes, there’s a sequence in the film that references the board game. Yes, the script twists things around so that scene can happen. And it actually works fairly well, better than I thought it would, to be honest. I actually chuckled and thought, “Ok, not bad”, when I had expected to groan. And there’s a visual nod in the shape of the alien’s missiles, which look a lot like the pegs from the game, which I also didn’t have a problem with. So, while completely unnecessary, the tie-in to a game that has nothing whatsoever to do with aliens is actually OK.
And there’s that word again. OK. It’s OK. It’s not great, it’s not horrible… Battleship is OK.
And we’re back to damning with faint praise again.