In the very first scene in Battleship, a $200m summer popcorn flick based on the Hasbro board game (“based” being used in the loosest terms imaginable), a scientist explains what a habitable planet is to a room full of NASA staff.
Let me reiterate that, for added impact: He explains the meaning of the term “habitable planet” (using bright, colorful and childlike graphics)… TO A ROOM FULL OF NASA SCIENTISTS.
If you had any doubts what level of intelligence the film would aim for, it’s considerate enough to banish them within 2 min of its start.
The script for Battleship, while attributed to Jon and Erich Hoeber, feels like it was born entirely out of a boardroom meeting involving some of the most cynical and calculative executives in Hollywood. Every single plot point is something you have already seen somewhere else (and was probably used in the film for the same reason). We start with the launch of a revolutionary and groundbreaking scientific project commissioned with the purpose of communicating with space via transmission of a beacon called, err, “The Beacon Project” (guess the spirit of innovation didn’t extend to the naming stage). We quickly move on to Alex Hopper and within seconds we are told what a burnout he is, what a rebel he can be, how he doesn’t like sympathy and – a few more seconds later – that he will be joining the Navy. If nothing else, the sheer economy with which the film gets superfluous stuff like character development and plot out of the way is astounding. With similar relentlessness, we are introduced to Vice Admiral Shane (who obviously doesn’t approve of Hopper’s brashness and who, coincidentally, is the father of the girl Alex likes) and told that, because of his sub par performance, Alex will be fired as soon as he returns from his current exercise at sea. But, blimey, while at sea we learn that The Beacon Project “worked,” some alien ships have landed into the water and before you can say “Oh, how convenient” the aliens start attacking the Navy. Over whatever remains of the film’s 131 min runtime (at least 31 min too many), we get answers we didn’t want to questions we didn’t ask based on things we never cared for, such as “Will the aliens lose?”, “Will Alex be fired?”, “Will he get the girl?” and so on.
Sure, there have been blockbusters that have been just as dumb and just as broad in the past but Battleship feels like the pinnacle of this trend and the nadir of its output, a film where dialogue is as extraneous as it’s egregious. I have a theory that this film would make just as much sense if you watched it with all the lines somehow muted out. Even the action is staged in a painfully simple way, with one entire setpiece explained to us by characters staring avidly at bright blips on a screen. We are shown many instances from the point-of-view of the aliens and it’s fascinating (if simultaneously convenient) to see that their eyesight is color coded, with green = good and red = bad. You’d think that with elements broken down in such reductive fashion the action would be at least easy to follow. You’d be wrong. Peter Berg, like almost every other action director today, thinks that holding the camera still and letting your audience in on what’s going on is a crime. An extended setpiece which takes place in the interiors of a ship is nearly incomprehensible because of how much the camera zaps around. Worse still, there’s no sense of awe or even fun to the action. The entire film has this pervasive sense of joylessness to it that hurts it more than anything else.
It’s not like the cast save this Battleship from being sunk. (Boom) Taylor Kitsch is strictly serviceable as Alex Hopper. He has charisma to spare, but that he is playing a character so generic shoots him in the foot as soon as things start. Liam Neeson just has an extended cameo, popping up to bookend the film with his usual gravitas and baritone. Alexander Skarsgård is actually nice as Stone, Alex’s elder and straight-faced brother. But, then, even he’s doing no heavy-lifting here. Rihanna is actively irritating as Petty Officer Cora Raikes. She’s one character I wouldn’t have minded the aliens killing off (the sooner the better, actually). Brooklyn Decker has nothing to do except stand around and look charmed/in love/anxious/scared and, to her credit, she doesn’t botch any of the four looks.
There are three good things in Battleship. The first is a genuinely funny line that mocks a particular disaster movie cliché and its unrealism (it’s a shame, and ironic, that the rest of the movie devotedly adheres to other such clichés). The second is a “team assembly” shot towards the end of the film that’s so gloriously over-the-top and cheesy I burst out laughing. The third is scene where a physically impaired former soldier punches an alien in the jaw so hard the alien’s teeth fall out. I loved that. Whatever rating I’m giving the film is for these three things.
PS – You might want to stay through the credits if you’re watching the movie. Afterwards you’ll get to see the biggest cliché of them all.
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Photo Credit: Universal