Battleship is a board game for children, so it stands to reason a film adaptation would also be aimed at kids. But did they have to gear it to really dumb kids? Halfway through this bloated movie, the most undemanding 10-year-old is going to think about sneaking out and switching theaters to catch the end of The Avengers again. Battleship makes you reconsider every mean thing you ever said about Michael Bay: Compared to this, even Pearl Harbor starts looking good. At least that picture, however misguided, had a pulse. You could feel the intent of the filmmakers; you could tell what they striving for.
All Battleship strives to do is separate you from your money. The only people who seem to be trying are the special effects crews, particularly the sound mixers, who must have racked up serious overtime coming up with cool whirs and booms and noises to accompany an extra-terrestrial invasion of our planet. The film is stuffed with ear candy. Particularly memorable is the grinding buzz made by the metallic orbs the aliens lob at Earth like ping pong balls – robotic Tasmanian Devils that devour everything in their path (concrete, metal, steel, you name it).
Battleship was directed by Peter Berg, who is not without talent (he made The Rundown and The Kingdom and Hancock and Friday Night Lights). He shows the proper awe and respect for the movie’s superb computer-generated creations, and he holds on shots long enough to allow you to take in the intricate details of the spacecraft (their missiles are shaped like the white and red pegs from the board game). He also shows you the stuff you want to see early on, including a nice long close-up of what the aliens look like — a cross between lizards and ZZ Top.
But Berg also succumbs to the visual bombast that has become the unfortunate norm in action pictures: Every single shot in Battleship, even ones in which people are just talking, looks like a glitzy, hyper-stylized beer commercial. Worst of all, Berg pays no attention to the logic and drive of his narrative. Characters appear and disappear without explanation. Periodically, someone stops to sum up everything that has happened (the phrases “So you’re saying that …” and “What I’m saying is …” pop up a lot). The movie goes from popcorn-dumb to aggressively stupid: At one point, a hot chick in a Jeep saves the world by ramming her car into an alien thingamajig.
One of the problems with movies like Battleship is that they corrupt and derail promising careers. Each of Berg’s movies has been bigger and costlier than the last, and now that he’s gotten a taste of blockbuster success (Hancock earned more than $600 million, and Battleship has already grossed $215 million overseas), he’s unlikely to return to smaller, more challenging filmmaking. That’s what happened to Brett Ratner, who once talked about a Miami-based remake of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie but no longer seems interested in making a movie that costs less than $100 million. Ratner could have directed Battleship, and his version would have probably looked a lot like this one.
The script for Battleship, which was written by brothers Erich and Jon Hoeber (Whiteout, Red), includes an unforgivably long sequence in which the good guys stare at a giant radar grid that looks exactly like the board game and call out coordinates to use to fire at the aliens. One guy shouts “It’s a hit!” Another dude says “They ain’t gonna sink this battleship!” Later, someone else knocks over a large container of toys that crash to the floor and spill out toward the camera, so we get a nice close-up of plastic battleship models that are probably available right now at a store near you.
There are people in Battleship. Berg cast several real-life soldiers in supporting parts, including Gregory D. Gadson, an honored veteran who lost his legs in the Iraq War. In the lead role of a navy lieutenant who leads the charge against the baddies, Taylor Kitsch runs around even more than he did in John Carter, quoting Homer and Sun Tzu but always looking like he wished he was back on Mars. His girlfriend — the one with the Jeep — is played by Brooklyn Decker, who looks so much like Charlize Theron that every time she appeared, I kept thinking “I didn’t know Charlize Theron was in this movie!” Pop singer Rihanna makes her feature film debut as a petty officer with really good aim. Rihanna occasionally seems worried about flubbing her lines, but mostly she radiates wicked cool and stoicism (she is also, apparently, the only female in the entire U.S. Navy; good thing she’s a hottie!)
And then there’s Liam Neeson. If you’ve seen the ads for Battleship, you may think Liam Neeson stars in this movie. Those ads lied. Neeson’s role of a Navy Admiral is little more than an extended cameo — his screen time amount to about 10 minutes out of the film’s two-plus hours — and although he’s too much of a professional to ever coast, this is easily the laziest, most distracted performance of his career. Like Nicolas Cage, Neeson has started gravitating toward commercial pictures that use him as a presence more than as an actor. He doesn’t really need to get into character: He just has to show up. That’s pretty much all he does in Battleship: He’s collecting his paycheck, and he wants you, sucker, to foot the bill.
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Alexander Skarsgard, Rihanna, Brooklyn Decker, Tadanobu Asano, Jesse Plemons, Gregory D. Gadson, Liam Neeson.
Director: Peter Berg.
Screenwriters: Erich Hoeber, Jon Hoeber.
Producers: Sarah Aubrey, Peter Berg, Brian Goldner.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 131 minutes. Vulgar language, sci-fi violence. Opens Friday May 18 at area theaters.