As the great Anton Ego notes at the conclusion of Pixar's Ratatouille, the critic—in any field—thrives on, well, criticism. Negative reviews are relatively easy to write, and often great fun to read. I confess that it was with this in mind that I decided to attend a screening of Battleship.
This summer, after all, holds out the promise of astonishingly few sure-fire stinkers. The Dark Knight Rises, Brave, Prometheus, Snow White and the Huntsman, Rock of Ages, Total Recall, The Bourne Legacy—some will no doubt disappoint, but all share at least the possibility of being solid entertainments, if not more. Anyone looking for a film truly worthy of a critical broadside would be a fool to forsake so large a target as Battleship.
'Battleship' has a few likable gags, and a hokey, genial air, particularly in comparison to the sour tone of its Hasbro cousin.The omens could hardly have been bleaker. Start with the initial plan to turn a 45-year-old board game—which had been a pencil-and-paper game for a generation before that—into a $200 million summer tent-pole, despite its complete lack of plot or characters. (What's next? Hangman? Wait, forget I said that.) Then there was the notion to depart from the entire premise of the game—two evenly matched maritime fleets stalking one another—in order to substitute an invasion by an alien armada. (Was George Lucas employed as an uncredited creative consultant?) And finally, there was the decision to open the film abroad five weeks before it opened stateside, which is a bit like premiering a big Broadway play in rural Manitoba.
The movie's title sequence is hardly any more promising, twice advertising loudly that what we are about to watch is a Hasbro property. (What could possibly go wrong?) After a bit of halfhearted exposition—astronomers find an Earthlike planet orbiting a distant sun; they try to contact it, ignoring the lone naysayer who cautions that any life there might prove unfriendly—we find ourselves in a bar. There, Stone Hopper (upright Naval commander, played by Alexander Skarsgård) is lecturing his brother Alex (hotheaded layabout, played by Taylor Kitsch) on the importance of doing something with his life, when in walks Sam Shane (Sports Illustrated swimsuit model-like blonde, played by Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker). Sam wants a chicken burrito, and when the bartender tells her that the kitchen's closed (thwack slams the microwave door), Alex decides that what he wants to do with his life is to get her one. To that end, he engages in criminal trespass, larceny, and the extreme (if inadvertent) vandalism of a nearby convenience store. But he gets Sam her burrito, even if he has to hand it to her while being brutally tasered by police. It's actually a moderately amusing sequence, especially for anyone who recalls the viral video of a genuine theft on which Alex's antics are loosely based.
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The maneuvers have scarcely begun, though, when several alien objects fall from the sky, one of them tearing a large hole in the middle of Hong Kong(!). The remaining extraterrestrial dreadnoughts, meanwhile, land in the Pacific and project an impenetrable force-field over Hawaii, trapping with them three destroyers commanded by the two Hopper brothers and one Captain Nagata, played by Japanese star (okay, I'm done) Tadanobu Asano. Also notably on board is a tough petty officer played by Rihanna in her big-screen debut.
Hostilities soon ensue between the multinational cast and the extraterrestrials—who let's face it, were never going to buy tickets to this movie anyway. In a nod to the board game that will elicit grins or groans according to temperament, the aliens' primary weapon launches missiles shaped like pegs, which embed themselves in a ship's hull before exploding. Also, their force-field has crippled the radar of both sides alike, forcing them to "guess" at their opponents' exact locations.
If this all sounds pretty bad—well, it is, though not quite as bad as one might expect. The movie has a few likable gags (a couple of them about The Art of War), and a hokey, genial air, particularly in comparison to the sour tone of its Hasbro cousin, the Transformers franchise. Yes, Brooklyn Decker is cast as eye candy and accoutered accordingly—tank tops and bikini tops, short jean shorts and short lycra shorts—but director Peter Berg's camera never leers over her like the lubricious lens of Michael Bay. (And at least Battleship had the decency to make Sam, her character, a physical therapist rather than a biochemist or art historian.)
You may find over time, as I did, that you are worn down by the Learning of Valuable Lessons; by the aliens' peculiar, repeated habit of declining to finish off helpless foes (is it still Battleship if only one side is playing to win?); by the bringing back of grizzled old vets for one last tour; by the appalling misappropriation of "Fortunate Son"; and by the pummeling, punishing score (by Steve Jablonsky, with producer Rick Rubin and guitarist Tom Morello), which bears all too close a resemblance to the deadly sonic weapon deployed by the aliens early in the film.
In short, if you are in the market for a big-budget action movie this weekend, see The Avengers. If you've already seen it, see it again. But if you've seen it as many times as you can bear, and you absolutely need to go out to an aliens-versus-humanity blockbuster—no, I can't go that far.
But I will say this: Battleship is substantially less awful than it could have been. And for me, writing from the selfish perspective of someone who anticipated a movie meriting true critical evisceration, that may have been the biggest disappointment of all.
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