Friday, May 25, 2012

Movie Review: Battleship

Battleship ** ½
Directed by: Peter Berg.
Written by: Erich Hoeber & Jon Hoeber.
Starring: Taylor Kitsch (Lieutenant Alex Hopper), Alexander Skarsgård (Commander Stone Hopper), Rihanna (Petty Officer Cora 'Weps' Raikes), Brooklyn Decker (Samantha Shane), Tadanobu Asano (Captain Yugi Nagata), Hamish Linklater (Cal Zapata), Liam Neeson (Admiral Shane), Peter MacNicol (Secretary of Defense), John Tui (Chief Petty Officer Walter 'The Beast' Lynch), Jesse Plemons (Boatswain Mate Seaman Jimmy 'Ordy' Ord), Gregory D. Gadson (Lieutenant Colonel Mick Canales).

It would be hard to find a bigger, dumber, louder movie than Battleship, the latest movie from the toy company who brought us the Transformers movies (and will continue to do so as long as each of them makes about $1 billion worldwide). I think it was a mistake to take the name of the old board game for this movie – really there is only one sequence that even references the game (and it does so kind of ingeniously). I have to admit as loud and stupid as Battleship is, how cheap and crass the company is to try to exploit a nearly forgotten board game, how paper thin the characters are, and predictable as the story is (which, amazingly, still apparently needs so much exposition than the movie runs nearly two and half hours), I cannot say I was ever bored by Battleship – in fact, I was rather entertained by much of Battleship. Perhaps it’s because I know the 10 year old me would have LOVED Battleship, and no matter how much my movie tastes has evolved in the 20 years it has been since I was 10, I never really want to forget that kid who would have loved this movie.

The story setup is standard issue blockbuster fare – two brothers, focused, driven Stone (Alexander Skarsgard) and younger, screw-up Alex (Taylor Kitsch) are both in the Navy, in Hawaii for War Games. Alex is smart enough to have risen in the ranks, but dumb enough to be on the verge of throwing it all away. He wants to ask his girlfriend Samantha (Brooklyn Decker) to marry him, but needs her dad’s permission – and wouldn’t you know it, her dad is an Admiral (Liam Neeson), who is not very happy with his underling at the moment. But things quickly change when during the course of the International War Games, four alien ships crash into the water around Hawaii (a fifth hit something, and blew up over Hong Kong, killing thousands). The alien ships quickly sets up a force field – keeping everyone outside, out, and trapping those on the inside in. Pretty soon, all the ships are done except, of course, Alex’s – and since his commanding officers have been killed, it’s up to him to save the world from the invading forces.

Talking about the performances in a movie like Battleship really is a fool’s errand. The characters are completely defined by their roles, and never do anything to surprise us along the way. The actors, uniformly, are pretty much as good as they can be under the circumstances – some more so (like Tadanobu Asano as a Japanese Captain who ends up teaming up with Alex), some less (like Decker, who is great to look at, and is probably the reason why she was cast). The bigger names in the cast are all fine, I guess. Neeson’s role is essentially a humorless cameo, and he seems a little bored in the role, but it hardly matters. Taylor Kitsch has the same charm he displayed in John Carter, and this time is at least not woefully miscast. And fans of singer Rihanna will be happy to know she doesn’t embarrass herself in the movie – but doesn’t really distinguish herself either – she is about as good as it is possible to be in the role of the token woman on board a Navy ship.

Battleship was directed by Peter Berg, who at one point I thought had the potential. His first film was the extremely dark comedy Very Bad Things, hated by many, but not by me, about a bachelor party gone horribly wrong. His second film was the very entertaining action comedy The Rundown. His third film, Friday Night Lights, remains his best – and one of the best high school sports movies ever made. But since then, I am starting to get the feeling that Berg is just a gifted imitator – adopting the style of whatever director the material seems to suit. In The Kingdom, he was clearly trying to channel Michael Mann. In Battleship, he quite clearly trying to imitate Michael Bay, who made those Transformers movie into such hits, but also into incomprehensible visual messes. Yet even in Battleship, Berg doesn’t go as far as Bay does in the rapid fire editing department. While Berg copies Bay’s style, he is still the better director, so he actually improves on it – capturing the kinetic energy the best moments in Bay’s films have, without making the whole thing one big, loud, head inducing slog.

Reading over what I’ve written about the movie so far, I realize that it sounds like I hated Battleship. Far from it. It was entertaining in its best moments, and never really boring at any time. The movie really is exactly what the ads made it look like – Independence Day meets Transformers with boats. If that sounds like something you would enjoy, than you’ll probably like Battleship.

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