The first big, dumb, and loud movie spectacle of the summer has arrived in the form of Battleship, ostensibly based on the Hasbro board game and directed by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom) with something for everyone: tons of heavy ordnance and explosions for the boys, and plenty of chiseled eye candy for the girls, all set to a cock rock soundtrack almost as ear-splitting as the sound effects.
Fortunately, Berg is a skilled director most of the time, and he successfully apes the excessive style of Michael Bay, but with the restraint that constantly eludes Bay. Battleship knows it’s silly, is content to be so, and rides high on the courage of its silliness, making it slightly less of a soul-sucking exercise in vacuity than the usual fare of this caliber.
Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights, John Carter) stars as Alex Hopper, a directionless slacker who gets in trouble with the law while trying to impress hot blonde Sam (Brooklyn Decker), and is summarily punted into the U.S. Navy by his straight-laced older brother, Stone (Alexander Skarsgard, Straw Dogs).
Flash forward a few years: Alex is serving as a lieutenant on the destroyer USS John Paul Jones, while Stone is commanding officer on another, the Sampson, both supervised by Sam’s father, Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson, The Grey). Alex is still hot-tempered and impulsive, not only stalling his career in the Navy but also his chances of getting permission to marry Sam.
Things really go south during a round of international naval war games of the coast of Hawaii, when aliens arrive on earth with a less-than-benign response to a friendly transmission broadcast to them years earlier. Circumstances leave Alex in command of the one out-classed ship in a position to do anything about the invasion.
What follows is roughly two hours of cartoonish and suitably bombastic combat maneuvering and reheated race-against time peril that feel like leftovers from Independence Day and the Transformers series crosscut with the most expensive Navy recruitment film this side of Top Gun. It’s also hard not to snicker just a bit when the USS Missouri is dusted off for action.
The cast is a mixed bag, though their characters are more fleshed-out than is usual for this type of movie. Kitsch comes across as slightly less wooden than he did in John Carter, Skarsgard and Neeson are fine but under-used, and Decker is a fairly generic screen hottie. It’s the supporting cast who breathe any life into the formulaic tale, namely Tadanobu Asano as a hard-nosed Japanese officer and John Tui, Jesse Plemons, and pop-star Rihanna (in her screen debut) as Hopper’s crewmates. Especially of note is Gregory D. Gadson, a decorated Iraq war veteran who lost both legs to an IED; the non-actor stars as a bitter Army colonel who rises to the occasion. He cuts a strong presence, and seeing a wounded warrior allowed to shine as an action hero with dignity and respect is inspiring.
Battleship has its moments of cheap thrill, but they are few and far between, especially when its bloated 131-minute runtime is factored in. There are the obligatory references to the board game — it is a licensed property based on a pop culture icon — but they thankfully stop short of dredging up the “You sank my battleship” line. It’s not a beating to sit through, but it is ultimately forgettable.
Ah, well. There’s always Stratego: The Motion Picture.