Peter Berg’s Battleship has been constructed to do nothing more than act as a loud, noisy ass kicker of a movie. Almost nothing like the board game it gets its name from, it’s a tricked out, comically overblown American muscle car of a movie. Sleek, stylish, well-maintained, driven by pretty boys, fun to look at, but possibly annoying and tiresome if you have to stand next to one that spins its wheels for too long. It dispenses with things like “narrative credibility,” “reality,” and “science” within seconds of starting and it never looks back. It’s brazen, brash, and surprisingly far more entertaining than those Michael Bay Transformers films it will get compared to. It won’t stick in the viewer’s mind for very long, but if you’re willing to give in to its “go big or go home” style, you’ll be in for a real empty headed treat.
Lazy layabout Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) has been mooching off his military commander brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgard) for too long when he gets tazed by the police for breaking into a Hawaiian convenience store to steal a frozen chicken burrito for a random hottie in a bar. Fed up with his shenanigans, Stone forces Alex into joining him in the Navy where he’s a chronic screw up on the verge of getting kicked out. He’s also about to marry the girl from the bar (Brooklyn Decker), who just so happens to be the daughter of his commanding officer (Liam Neeson).
While out at sea (embarking from Pearl Harbor, no less) on the “military ballet” that is the RIMPAC naval championships involving navies from around the world (but really just Japan and the U.S.), a real threat arises when an alien threat from a “Goldilocks planet” (meaning not too hot, not too cold, and just the right distance from the sun) named Planet G lands in the ocean thanks to some nearby satellites that can help them take over the Earth or some shit like that. They set up a force-field around themselves, fly around in heavily fortified ships, and lay waste to most of the destroyers in the area, taking numerous lives. It’s up to the previously responsibility averse Alex to rise up and save the day.
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way early before we proceed, because thanks to the participation of Hasbro the Transformers comparisons won’t go away until we talk about them. Unlike the humourless and often icky work of Michael Bay, Berg (The Rundown, Hancock) understands how ridiculous his film is. Sure, there are some obvious surface level comparisons in terms of the film’s plot, creature design, and fawning over the military, but what it’s missing is Bay’s annoyingly right wing political viewpoint, his somewhat racist tendencies, and his sexualizing of female characters. Not once does the film stop to show some “loathsome” peacenik saying that there should be a diplomatic solution getting thrown under the ship, and the female characters are just as wooden and ill-defined as anyone else on the ship. Also the hilariously implausible and conceptually inane final act shows more love for the armed forces than any five seconds of any Bay film.
None of this means that Battleship isn’t overkill, though. The film does showcase its explosions and visual effects better than it does in the trailer, but after a while it becomes almost exhausting to watch no matter how good it looks. The sound design, oddly enough, might be the thing that divides audiences the most. It’s meant to be played as loudly as possible to the point of being deafening. It’s probably as close to a sea battle as most filmgoers are going to get, but there was a whole lot of cringing at the screening I attended from people who simply couldn’t take it. (For the record, I really dug the sound design and its Oscar for that category is probably already in the mail.)
The cast isn’t much of an entity here since there isn’t much room for performance around such constant spectacle, but Berg does know exactly how to use Kitsch as a leading man thanks to their time bonding on TV’s Friday Night Lights. He’s an affable, mercurial dumbass simply there to learn a few lessons and move the plot along. Neeson’s role barely registers above a cameo, but fans of the actor will get a kick out of just how cool he can act when the world is under attack by aliens. Decker and pop star Rihanna are really just there, with the former serving more as a last minute plot saviour and the latter doing what she does best by glowering and looking serious.
It’s quite telling that the scene that most closely resembles the board game would be the dullest in the film, but it’s almost a welcome respite from the film’s almost hyperactive desire to jostle the audience by any means necessary. Thankfully, the film comes devoid of the unrelenting mean streak and self-righteousness that Michael Bay would have brought to such a similarly themed production, but to compensate for that, everything else is as unrelenting as possible, including its almost joyful stupidity. At nearly two and a quarter hours, it’s a bit much, but if you can get behind a film where enormous bombs whiz improbably close to people’s skulls and the film’s greatest scientific mind (played here by, of all people, indie film darling Hamish Linklater) acts like a cross between Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park and Professor Frink from The Simpsons, there’s some enjoyment to be had. Battleship couldn’t be more upfront about what it’s trying to do, and it’s something you’ll either go along with or you should stay away from entirely. While I appreciated how much the film cops to its own stupidity, the final choice is ultimately yours on this one.