Movie Review: BATTLESHIP Demonstrates the Worst Excesses of the Summer Blockbuster

0

Director Peter Berg’s Battleship is….wait a minute.  Strike that last bit.  Assuming Berg (the talented filmmaker behind such pictures as Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom) has any kind of ownership over this thing assumes that Battleship is a conventional movie; you know, the kind with writers and directors and narrative coherence and thematic throughlines and the like.

That assumption would be a mistake.

Battleship is less a movie than a conglomeration: a noisy, ungainly assembly of all the component parts that make a Blockbuster.  It’s big, it’s flashy, it’s littered with product placement (the two biggest guns: the Navy and Coke Zero, both of which deserve equal billing with human lead Taylor Kitsch), it plays just as well with the sound off as it does with it on (maybe even a little better, considering how insipid Jon and Erich Hoeber’s “script” is), and it stars a frenetically eclectic group of actors to ensure global viewer saturation (besides Kitsch, you’ve got his “Friday Night Lights” co-star Jesse Plemons, “True Blood’s” Alexander SkarsgÃ¥rd, pop singer Rihanna, Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker, Japanese movie star Tadanobu Asano, indie film staple Hamish Linklater, real-life Army Colonel Gregory Gadson, Turtle from “Entourage,” and wolf-punching aficionado Liam Neeson.  Leaves no stone unturned, this movie).  The level of marketing calculation is so high that you could be forgiven for watching Battleship all the way through and thinking it was just an extended preview for itself.

Yet despite all the attempts by Berg and Universal Studios to force the movie down the throats of the American public, it garnered an anemic domestic gross of just $65 million (“anemic” when you consider that production costs exceeded $209 million, with an additional marketing expense of somewhere between $50 million and $150 million).  Part of that was timing; Battleship opened two weeks after The Avengers, which was already well on its way to becoming the third highest grossing film of all time.  But more than that, Battleship feels pre-fab, like the only reason it exists it to separate money from people’s wallets.  It doesn’t care about educating or provoking; it’s not even all that interested in entertaining.  It just wants your money, and I like to think that the American people weren’t willing to fall for so crass a proposition.  Say what you will about Michael Bay and his Transformers abominations, but there’s a man who wants you to get off on his action arrangements, logic and common sense be dammed.

Berg, on the other hand?  He’s ticking off a checklist.  After an intriguing opening that promises a better movie than the one we get (it introduces the concept of a “Goldilocks Planet,” which have Earth-like conditions and provide our best chances for finding intelligent life in the universe), we dive into the tired, predictable story of Alex Hopper (Kitsch, a good actor having a very bad year between this and John Carter), a brilliant-but-lazy slacker mooching off the charity of his Naval Commander brother (SkarsgÃ¥rd, who gets saddled with the unfortunate porn-star-sounding name of “Stone Hopper”).  We know Alex is brilliant because he can quote Homer and Sun Tzu, and we know he’s lazy because he’s unshaven and wearing a shirt covered in mustard stains.  After simultaneously wooing a beautiful physical therapist (Decker, who, as an actress, is a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model) and getting arrested over a painfully labored chicken burrito heist (which Berg scores to Henry Mancini’s great Pink Panther theme, so, yes, it plays worse than it reads), Stone gives Alex an ultimatum: join the Navy, or you’re out on your ass.

And this shit goes on for half an hour.

To be precise, it’s thirty-two minutes.  Thirty-two minutes of lame sibling banter between Stone and his newly enlisted brother.  Thirty-two minutes of sub-Top Gun theatrics and armchair psychology (like Tom Cruise’s Maverick, Alex is an arrogant jerk who needs to learn the value of teamwork and humility, and Battleship even gives him a lightly homoerotic rivalry with Asano’s Japanese officer).  Thirty-two minutes of Kitsch and Decker mooning over each other, with a value-added subplot that finds Kitsch terrified to ask her Admiral father (Neeson, reduced to playing Dean Wormer in Animal House) for her hand in marriage.  Thirty-two minutes before Battleship starts delivering the only thing its potential viewer base cares about: stuff blowing up in spectacular ways.

To the film’s credit, once the destruction starts (Berg levels Hong Kong in pornographic detail), it doesn’t stop until the very end, and much of it is well choreographed and excitingly staged.  The Navy’s first contact with the alien species looking to colonize Earth goes horribly wrong (in a good way), and the filmmakers actually find a neat way to integrate the mechanics of the Hasbro board game from which Battleship takes inspiration (it’s silly, but neat all the same).  Plus, the good folks at ILM have created one indelible alien weapon: a sentient killing machine that looks like the unholy spawn of a wrecking ball and a buzzsaw and is responsible for Battleship‘s best action sequence, an attack on a Navy destroyer that Berg and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler present as one long camera take.  Still, the energy of individual moments can’t overcome the pervasive feeling of “been there, done that”; Berg spends more time cribbing shots from other, better movies (a smidge of Black Hawk Down, a dusting of U-571, a whole mess of Independence Day) than doing his own thing, and the familiarity renders the whole experience almost as hollow as Rihanna’s lifeless, dead-eyed line recitations.

Ironically, it’s Berg’s attempts to distinguish Battleship that fall the flattest.  While the A-plot has Kitsch and his destroyer crew trying to defeat the alien invaders in the Pacific Ocean, the B-plot finds Decker and Gadson’s characters stranded in the mountains of Oahu, where they become the unlikely last line of defense between total annihilation and us.  It’s a neat concept – putting the fate of mankind in the hands of two people indirectly connected to the main action (think Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with rocket launchers, or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” postmodern “The Zeppo” episode) – except Decker and Gadson are so unappealing that the gambit fails completely.

That Decker is awful doesn’t surprise me (she was definitely not hired for her acting ability, if you know what I mean), but I just felt bad for Gadson.  He’s an actual war hero who lost both his legs in Baghdad, and it’s clear Berg wants to make him as big a badass as Liam Neeson (Neeson in The Grey or Taken, I mean.  Neeson sucks in this movie), but Gadson lacks the screen presence or acting confidence necessary to really pop.  Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives he is not, though I will say this: he’s less irritating than Hamish Linklater’s nebbish scientist, which reaches Shia LaBeouf-levels of manic, “look at me” desperation.

And then there’s that ending.  I confess, the ending actually endeared Battleship to me because it vaulted the picture from “cynical cash-grab” to “full-throated train wreck.”  Berg’s definitely aiming for the rafters with his finale, and while I abhor what he’s done on an artistic level, the end is so breathlessly, earnestly ludicrous that it redeems much of the leaden nonsense preceding it.  Let’s just say that Kitsch and his men (and Rihanna) find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place, and that salvation comes from the most improbable of places.  It’s manna from heaven for bad-movie fans.

Pity the rest of Battleship doesn’t hit those same notes.  I think Peter Berg can be a wonderful director, but after this and his misguided superhero comedy Hancock, it might be time for him to turn in his Blockbuster credentials.  Battleship jettisons recognizable (or even semi-recognizable) human behavior for bombast and money shots, and the end result is as cold and mechanical as the film’s alien enemies.  You know when people talk about the death of American filmmaking?  Movies like Battleship make them lose hope.

At least the Blu-ray is nice.  Universal’s A/V work is exemplary, with razor-sharp digital picture and an aggressive, thundering 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.  If all you need is a disc to highlight your home-theater capabilities, Battleship is the film for you.

Bonus supplements are also strong.  We get the feature-length, picture-in-picture All Access with Director Peter Berg movie mode; six engaging behind-the-scenes featurettes (“USS Missouri VIP Tour,” “Preparing for Battle,” “All Hands on Deck: The Cast,” “Engage in Battle,” “Commander Pete,” and “The Visual Effects”); a CGI previz of the alternate ending; and Second Screen capabilities.  Taken together, this is an attractive, informative package.

And if the movie were good, we’d have something special.  Battleship is notable mainly for squandering a vast reserve of talent and creativity; it is the movie as stock option – nothing more, nothing less.

Battleship hits Blu-ray on August 28th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

You might also like More from author