“Battleship” is, in a word, ridiculous.
Even sitting down to write about the film, I feel ridiculous. It’s a movie in name only, a simulation of a movie, and it is by far the strangest thing that Peter Berg has ever put his name on. I do not see the director of “The Rundown” or “Friday Night Lights” in this film at all. That’s not to say it is without any personal touches, but they feel more like him distracting himself from the absurdity of the material than a real connection to what he’s making, and the result is a wannabe-blockbuster that should be studied in film schools as a perfect example of what happens when commerce becomes more important than concept.
Written by a computer program that Universal cleverly named “Erich and Jon Hoeber,” I’m still not even sure what the actual premise of the movie is. I can tell you what happens in it, but plot is not premise. I cannot imagine the meetings in which grown, rational people sat around planning this film, because nothing about it makes sense. You would think someone involved in signing $250 million worth of checks would have at some point spoken up and said, “Is it okay that none of this is even remotely coherent?” Evidently, it’s fine, because the film almost seems to delight in the specific form of nonsense that it offers up, and there’s not a hint of shame to the enterprise. It is blissfully, cheerfully stupid, and it doesn’t remotely care about reality.
It seems that the writing process consisted of tossing random phrases and character types into a file and then letting the program run a sort of William S. Burroughs cut-up poetry mishmash of things we vaguely recognize from other successful films, but that don’t really work in this configuration. The film starts with scenes that explain the idea of a Goldilocks planet, any planet that exists in the sweet spot of a solar system that could sustain life. It also sets up the idea that we sent radio messages out into space, trying to find life. These are very, very familiar tropes at this point, and I can’t help thinking that the only reason they used aliens at all is to avoid angering any market that might contribute to the worldwide box-office gross of the film. After all, once the aliens do finally arrive on Earth, nothing about their plan or their technology makes consistent sense. Why would ships that are capable of interstellar travel be restricted to water combat once they’ve arrived? They aren’t damaged. They aren’t malfunctioning. But for some reason, they become water-bound, except for the ones that invade a Hawaiian radio telescope facility, which for some reason are still able to fly.
I’m overthinking this. “Battleship” doesn’t want you to think about much of anything while it’s playing, and it accomplishes its goals through sheer brute force. The first forty minutes of the film is largely made up of terrible, terrible, terrible “character” sequences that revolve around Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), his big brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgard), and Alex’s meet-cute with Sam (Brooklyn Decker), a physical therapist for the Navy whose father just happens to be Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), the head of the Hawaiian fleet. Alex, as the film tells us about 300 times, is a rebel with no focus, a man of huge potential who is wasting his life. We’ve seen this character before, but even calling it a character suggests a depth that the film does not possess. His first encounter with Decker at a bar leads to a break-in at a convenience store that is scored to the sounds of Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther” theme, a wildly expensive joke that is baffling both in intent and execution. It leads Alex to have no choice but to join the Navy and immediately find himself promoted even though we are reminded over and over that he still does’t live up to his potential.
It’s not until the aliens arrive in spectacular fashion and Alex’s impetuous behavior leads to a wholesale slaughter of Naval personnel including his brother that he finally decides to put that potential to use in a series of action scenes that are staged with remarkable technical acumen and absolutely no effort at making sense. I feel bad because Peter Berg comes from a military family, and aside from Michael Bay, there are few filmmakers working today whose work suggests such a deep abiding love of the texture of military life. I believe that Berg really loves these men and women, and he loves what they do and the sacrifices they make, and in a perfect world, he would have been able to find a script that paid worthy tribute to what it’s like to work and live on a craft that is designed for war. Instead, he’s saddled absurdity on top of absurdity, and it feels like he had to find small ways to keep himself engaged while ignoring the overall ridiculous nature of the enterprise.
There is a protracted sequence in the middle of the film where it feels like someone remembered that this whole thing is loosely based on the long-lived board game and they had to find a way to try to approximate the guessing game in real-world combat, but it’s so preposterous, and so perfunctory, that they really needn’t have bothered. The game never even hinted at a narrative or a larger reality, so trying to work it into the film just feels silly. No sillier than the rest of the movie, I suppose, but silly nonetheless.
By the time the film presses the USS Missouri back into service, with live ammunition stored for some reason on a decommissioned museum, the film is just so deeply off the rails that listing individual complaints about scenes or character beats or ideas just feels pointless. It all feels like a notes session with no script attached, impeccable film craft in service of absolutely nothing. Berg can stage an action sequence with undeniable skill, and I admire the way he tries to turn non-actor Gregory D. Gadson into a hero in the movie. Gadson is a real military officer who lost his legs below the knee, and he ends up with Decker’s character, their physical therapy session somehow turning into a front-line conflict with the aliens. Gadson’s a real-life hero, which somehow makes it more depressing watching him fistfight a stupid CGI alien, and what must have sounded like a nice way to pay tribute to warriors who have to bounce back from physical hardships feels almost like exploitation because of the deeply-rooted idiocy of what he’s asked to do.
In the interest of full disclosure, Hasbro sent over a huge box of “Battleship” legos and toys to the house, and the boys have been having a blast with them. But when my six year old and four year old chase each other around the house making explosion noises and improvising dialogue that is quite literally exactly as accomplished as what’s in the film itself, there is a problem. “Battleship” looks great, sounds great, and every dollar they spent appears to be onscreen. But even in an age of big dumb blockbusters, this might represent the outer limits of how dumb one of these films can be, and I have to wonder where the tipping point is for audiences. What’s really frustrating is that Universal has gambled on smart, difficult movies so often over the last few years that this feels like a major course correction in the wrong direction, them giving in to the types of films that other studios have turned into hits. I’m sure Universal would love to rake in “Transformers” money with this one, but it feels like a miss all around. I would be hard pressed to name a more embarrassing misfire in recent memory, especially considering the talent involved.
“Battleship” opens in the US this weekend.