Tuesday, May 29, 2012



- By all accounts, BATTLESHIP should have been a wreck, DOA from the moment it was announced that a movie was being made based on a board game with no narrative to speak of. I didn't like the idea of this movie in principle. There are enough great ideas out there that, to me, mining the world of board games for material is, truly, scraping the bottom of the barrel. And yet, maybe it was low expectations or whatever, but it turns out that I actually sort of enjoyed Battleship. It's by no means great, but it's also a perfectly acceptable Sunday afternoon sorta film that's got some genuinely entertaining bits.

Director Peter Berg and co have a pretty herculean task here - they've got to devise a story around a board game with NO NARRATIVE or aesthetic of its own whatsoever. For whatever reason, they've decided to take a cue from those other popular Hasbro icons, the Transformers, and make Battleship into a big-ass alien invasion movie. Now, the obvious knock on the movie here is that - other than a nod or two to the boardgame (peg-like missles, etc. ... seriously), everything else here feels ripped from scores of other movies, videogames, etc. Even the alien sound effects seem directly ripped from Transformers. The aliens themselves are instantly recognizable as the soldiers from the Halo games. And as for the human characters ... well, you've got every action movie cliche - from Avatar to Star Trek - in full view (in fact, our introduction to Alexander Hopper, the roguish Navy rookie played by Taylor Kitsch, is almost identical to the recent Star Trek reboot's intro of Kirk).

So yes, a lot of Battleship is generic. Super generic. But don't blame it on the actors, per se. I mean, look - Taylor Kitsch has gotten a ton of flack lately for starring in box office bombs - but he's a good actor. And he makes Hopper a far more compelling and watchable character than he had any right to be. Meanwhile, you've got Liam Neeson chewing up scenery as only he can, as the grizzled Admiral who's daughter Hopper is dating. Alexander Skarsgard as Hopper's older and more respected brother, also in the Navy. Peter MacNicol of 24 fame doing his thing as the Secretary of Defense. It's not a bad cast. Even Rihanna - she's basically fine, and she's got the tough-girl look needed to pull off a role usually played by Michelle Rodriguez. The one weak link is, certainly, Brooklyn Decker. She's got a pivotal role, and is asked to carry the load in many key scenes. Unfortunately, she just doesn't really pull it off - and so all the scenes focusing on her really, really drag. It doesn't help that her screen time consists of a rather aimless subplot where Ms. Decker is just wandering through the hills looking nervous and giving words of encouragement to a disabled former soldier who happens to be her patient.

But here's the weird thing ... Battleship really dragged for a lot of its running time, with the only highlights being some well-shot scenes of mass destruction at the hands of the aliens and their admittedly cool hi-tech weapons. But then, with about a half an hour to go, it felt like Berg and co. just threw up their hands and said "aw, screw it - let's just have some fun with this." The result is a totally preposterous yet undeniably sort-of-awesome twist that, dammit all, actually gave me chills for a moment or two. Maybe I'm just a sucker for stories about old guys having one-last-great-mission, but I fell hook line and sinker for some of the big story developments in the film's final act.

And on that note, the cool yet sorta-weird thing about Battleship is that it is really reverent of the armed forces and of the Navy. Honestly, that is one of the things that makes the movie work even when the plot gets absurd and/or lame. Berg clearly has a high level of respect for the military and for veterans, and it comes through in the film. All of the military stuff is pretty grounded and surprisingly depicted with a relatively high degree of realism. This isn't a movie about superheroes or other unlikely heroes combating aliens - it's about trained military professionals, and it keeps that fact in mind as it goes. It's a nice change of pace from seeing, say, Shia Lebouf or whoever play the annoying-loser-as-hero. So again, even amongst all the B-level alien action, this is a movie that pays a lot of homage to America's military and is very much patriotic - sincerely - in a way that most film's aren't. That too helped to make it much more endearing than it had any right to be.

That said, a nice undercurrent of patriotism and some clever twists don't a great action movie make. Like I said, it's only in the last half hour or so that business really picks up. Before that, the movie is a slog. And the characters here are just not that great. There's plenty of clunky dialogue, and the overarching plot is weak. There's also little sense of scale or scope, with the film focusing on the Navy sailors combating the E.T.'s, but barely expanding to show reactions of the general populace, the President, other nations, etc. In other words, even though it tries to emulate Independence Day, this ain't no Independence Day. The alien villains are devoid of personality and are visually unmemorable. And while the action is occasionally exciting, there's also never a great sense of internal plausibility to it. Meaning, for most of the film, the humans look to be on the verge of total decimation. Halfway through the movie, earth seems royally screwed. And not just in the usual movie way, but like, whoah, our guns do nothing against these things, they can annihilate us with one or two well-placed missles, and that's that. I guess there's such a thing as stacking the odds a little *too* high, you know?

So ultimately, Battleship is better than it might have been. As cynical as I was going in, I at least came away feeling like I'd seen a non-cynical and well-meaning action film. But you can only put so much lipstick on a pig, as they say. And in a better world, Peter Berg would be making an awesome Naval combat movie on his terms without having to include peg-shaped missiles or aliens that look like Lego playsets come to life. Still, this is a pretty harmless, fun flick, and because its heart seems to be in the right place, I'll be generous.

My Grade: B

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