Movie Review: Battleship
Feel Free to Set This Lifeless Blockbuster Adrift
By Tom Houseman
May 22, 2012
I am not the type of reviewer who would reveal important plot details as a way to dissuade people from seeing a movie, as some critics did with Million Dollar Baby. But if you are at all like me, there is only one reason why you have any interest in seeing the summer blockbuster Battleship, and it is my responsibility to make sure you understand that if you enter the theater for only that reason, you are going to leave disappointed. Because the sad reality is that at no point in the film based on the classic strategy game does anybody utter the line “You sunk my battleship,” or any variation thereof. There is one line that is sort of close to that combination of words, but it is wholly unsatisfying, much like almost every other aspect of the film.
You would think that the freedom of having such a straightforward concept would be liberating to writers Erich and John Hoeber and director Peter Berg. When the only rule you have to follow is “it has to involve a battleship,” your options are fairly limitless. And yet what they have given us is another When Aliens Attack variation, only this time all of the battles involve giant boats. It is this last fact that creates an inherent problem that the film is unable to solve, which is how to make the action sequences dynamic and exciting. People fighting is always fun to watch, and planes fly through the air and move so quickly that they have potential for great fight scenes. But ships? Giant ships that move through the water slowly and launch projectiles from far away are not conducive to cinematic magic.
It does not help that the plot is designed to be as generic and uninteresting as possible. We meet rebellious loser Alex Hopper (essentially a grownup Tim Riggens transplanted to Hawaii) being told off by his sensible older brother, who is so obviously going to die before the movie is over that I almost expected him to spontaneously combust during the opening scene. Hopper needs to learn responsibility and all that, and the only way to do that is by joining the Navy. I suspect that talented director Peter Berg was only brought in to make Battleship seem less like a two-hour commercial for the armed forces, but if just once somebody had said “man, being the Navy really sucks,” or something to that effect, I would have felt more like I was watching entertainment rather than propaganda.
The story spirals out of control once the aliens invade, as their invasion is not so much convoluted as completely unexplained. The aliens want to kill us and that is all we know about them, with no explanation of their origins or intentions. All we know about these aliens is that their hands are weird, their facial hair is porcupine-esque, and their eyes are movie screens. It is very difficult to make compelling villains out of characters that never speak and seem to have no motivation besides kill all humans. Independence Day pulled it off, but Battleship, I've seen Independence Day, and you're no Independence Day. Of course, considering that the actions of the humans very rarely makes any sort of sense, perhaps it is best to give the aliens an aura of dull mystery, rather than a nonsensical or banal purpose.
And yes, there is a pretty blonde love interest, who is given her own fairly useless subplot to avoid having her completely written out of the film after the first 20 minutes. And yes, Brooklyn Decker (which incidentally sounds like the name of a kind of ship) is very pretty, and very blonde, and very little else. For all the negatives that can be said of Megan Fox's acting ability, she is certainly never bland, which seems to be Decker's primary emotional state. Were it not for the charm and comedic timing of Jesse Plemons (playing essentially a grownup Landry from Friday Night Lights, and playing it as well as ever), and the general badassery of Liam Neeson and Rihanna (who deserved more screen time but did remarkably well with what she was given) there would be no redeeming qualities of Battleship.
As it is, there is very little to make this movie tolerable, or to justify it running over two hours. While it less obnoxious than Transformers, that is hardly a compliment, and it is a stretch to call any aspect of the film good (unless you are a sound mixing nerd, in which case you will likely be impressed). When a film can't even convey the suspense and excitement of a board game, you know it is doing something wrong. At least in the game Battleship there are stakes that seem meaningful, and you get to enjoy quality time with a friend as you attempt to destroy them. In the movie Battleship, the only thing that gets sunk is a couple of hours of your time.