Blown Out of the Water, by Matt Warren
Two thoughts occurred to me while watching Peter Berg’s tacky new maritime sci-fi explode-a-thon Battleship. 1) Tyler and David missed a huge guerilla marketing opportunity by not printing up thousands of “Pretension” bumper stickers to plaster over Battleship bus shelter ads all across Los Angeles, and 2) in the world of Peter Berg’s Battleship, does the titular Hasbro board game still exist? Like, when our heroes are huddled over the sonar triangulating the position of enemy ships using a pulsating green grid, guessing which coordinates to fire at, do any of them think to themselves, “Hey, this is a lot like that boring board game we played when we were kids. You know—the one without any characters or narrative? What ridiculous assholes we are.”
But just who are these ridiculous assholes, exactly? Well, our lead A-hole is scruffy civilian anti-hero Alex Hopper, played by John Carter megastar Taylor Kitsch (though this is very much the kind of movie where the characters’ names might as well be “Taylor Kitsch,” “Liam Neeson,” “Rihanna,” “the guy from True Blood,” et al.) The film opens with Kitsch’s Hopper bumbling around Oahu and being generally irresponsible, much to the chagrin of his upright naval-officer brother, Stone (Alexander Skarsgård.) Kitsch soon catches the eye of hottie Navy brat Brooklyn Decker and her titanic amber halter top goblins, but their meet-cute goes awry, landing Hoop in the pokey for federal grand larceny of a frozen burrito. Looking to avoid jail time—or perhaps just inspired by the Village People song—he joins his brother in the service.
Cut to an indeterminate amount of time later. Doing his best Bill-Murray-in-Stripes, Kitsch has somehow managed to dipshit his way into the Naval equivalent of middle-management under the grumpy stead of superior officer Liam Neeson (who, judging by the gruffitude of his performance, definitely seems like he’d much rather be off somewhere punching wolves.) It doesn’t help that Neeson is also B. Deck’s protective papa bear, and damned if Kitsch can’t quite work up to nerve to ask him for his daughter’s hand in marriage. So frustrating! If only some sort of Extinction-Level Event could intrude on this mortal drama and give the young Mr. Hopper a chance to prove himself.
Luckily, aliens suddenly invade and murder thousands of innocent people! Hooray!
Aliens that look like James Hetfield circa Metallica’s Load album! Aliens who invade the annual RIMPAC war games off Pearl Harbor and, some would say, sink the Navy’s battleships using familiar-looking cylindrical peg-bombs! Oh no! Arggghhh, duck! Ka-boom! Bang! Smash! Cruuuunch! Arrrggghhh! And so on and so on for the next 90 minutes, as Berg and his tech team start angling hardfor next year’s best Sound Mixing Oscar.
The big disappointment of Battleship is that, for a moment there, it seems like Berg really is going to ground the action spectacle in something substantial. But following a fairly involved first act that sets up at least half-a-dozen semi-decent characters and subplots, Berg forgets about pretty much everything in favor of a bunch of ones and zeros being shitty to one another. Kitsch, Decker, and Neeson’s characters may be clichéd archetypes, but the actors all do a pretty good job with what they’re given. It’s not amazing, but you’ve definitely seen worse versions of these same basic characters and plots.
In fact, there’s little here that isn’t recycled from the last half-decade of Hollywood blockbusters: the shrill metallic crunch of Transformers; the plodding pugilist robo-suits of Iron Man and Real Steal; the extraterrestrial menace of Cowboys vs. Aliens; the macho militarism of Avatar; the hardscrabble pioneer spirit of Meek’s Cutoff. I may have made one of those up. Try to guess which!
Battleship may be cynical, but Berg isn’t a hack. He was hired to deliver a contemporary mainstream Hollywood blockbuster, and he fulfilled the letter of his contract. But in an era where filmmakers like Joss Whedon and Christopher Nolan have managed to deliver popcorn goods and artistic heft, we’re reaching the point where simple spectacle is no longer adequate. The film geek crowd is already hip to this reality, and it’s only matter of time before general audiences start demanding more, too. And when they do, the entire of wave of gaudy CGI carnage that Battleship is a prime example of is sunk.