Taylor Kitsch isn’t exactly having a banner year. He’s the star of one of Disney’s all-time worst box office bombs, John Carter, and now he’s leading the troops in Universal’s Battleship, which is not only one of the worst blockbusters in recent memory, but also one of the most idiotic movies I’ve ever seen. It makes John Carter look like The Godfather. It’s not that the plot is stupid – we’ve seen alien invasion movies before, and some of them are actually good – but the filmmakers seem to be the only ones who don’t realize they’re making a movie out of a damned board game. This one was dead in the water before it even left port.
(Spoilers throughout this review.)
For the purposes of brevity, I won’t fully explore how ludicrous it is that a major movie studio spent upwards of $200 million dollars making an adaptation of a board game. And not only that, but inexplicably, while adapting a freaking board game into a screenplay, the writers failed to include the one line that is actually associated with this property: “you sunk my battleship!” It’s never uttered by anyone, and with Liam Neeson playing an admiral, I shouldn’t even have to point out how much that line writes itself. In fact, the absence of that line in Battleship is actually a good indicator of the film as a whole. There are two ways to go with a movie like this: embrace the craziness and make something that’s fun and over the top with a hint of self-awareness, or make everything as dramatic and serious as possible and sap all of the fun out of it. Guess which option these filmmakers chose?
Director Peter Berg is equivalent to broken pieces of a mirror pulled from a Michael Bay afterparty, scattering Transformers reflections across the screen with half the style and none of the character. (When I’m glorifying Sam Witwicky as an interesting character in comparison to the ones in this film, you know you’re in trouble.) Battleship is an ugly movie, and Berg is ultimately the one responsible. Excessively tight close-up shots of humans collide with spinning garish metal, and the result should be evidence to the Michael Bay haters out there that despite Bay’s public persona, he’s actually a craftsman when it comes to shooting action sequences. There’s no life to be found in Berg’s cheap imitations.
There was absolutely no point in this movie which I cared what happened to any of the main characters, especially Kitsch’s rebellious “hero” Alex Hopper. The entire film is supposed to be about how he learns to become a team player so he can impress his girlfriend’s dad, but he never earns anything he gets. When the aliens attack, Hopper’s brother and a ton of other soldiers are killed and he essentially inherits control of the ship. But the hotheaded young officer has to be literally grabbed by the collar and shaken by his subordinates in order to avoid leading everyone to their deaths. He’s unlikable, entitled, and entirely void of charisma. A good actor may have been able to skate by on charisma alone, but Kitsch was handicapped even further because of a terrible script. Maybe the movie has a hidden meaning that condemns the notion of failing upward, but that would require far too much thought for this project. It’s a good thing the film doesn’t show us how Kitsch works his way up to a lieutenant in the Navy*, because even the best writers couldn’t have convinced us of this character doing anything worth rewarding.
But the best writers were busy or too expensive, so Universal hired Jon and Erich Hoeber, the brothers who wrote the geriatric spy movie RED. These two must have been raised by effing Schwarzenegger or something, because they’ve got a hard-on for the concept of old people kicking ass; this is evidenced by Battleship’s stroke of batshit crazy, laugh-out-loud insanity: a climax involving 80-year-old veterans running a battleship while AC/DC blares in the background.
I honestly don’t know where to start when addressing parts of this film that don’t make any sense, so I might as well begin with the aliens. Their motivation is never made clear, and we get a tiny glimpse of their backstory during a mindmeld with Hopper that is never referenced in the story after it occurs. They have advanced technology, which includes a Terminator-esque visual display that identifies items as safe or hostile. These readouts also make no sense, because one minute the aliens are destroying random cars full of civilians on a highway, and the next they’re taking out military bases. I understand the whole “destroying the weapons” thing, because that could be some sort of The Day The Earth Stood Still anti-weapon message…but Battleship has no message, because it has no brain with which to present it.
As with a lot of mindless blockbusters, the physics here are questionable at best. Trust me, I’m fine with that when a movie has a sense of self-awareness or even a sense of amusement at what it’s doing, but Battleship’s overly serious tone only succeeds in making everything look ridiculous. At one point, the aliens unleash a high-pitched blast that sends literal shockwaves through the bridge of a ship hundreds of yards away, causing glass to break and the soldiers on that ship to fall to the ground screaming in pain. But a lifeboat carrying the film’s main soldiers is a mere twenty feet from the source of the noise, and while they grab their ears for a second, they soon appear never the worse for wear. Even a scene in which the communications are down and our heroes have to essentially play a game of Battleship on command screens from the bowels of a destroyer is boring and forgettable. I’d have loved all of these elements if they were executed well, but that would have required a completely different set of filmmakers altogether.
The supporting cast was useless and annoying (Rihanna chief among them), and even Neeson’s presence wasn’t enough to salvage anything decent from this waterlogged disaster. For the record, Battleship also has maybe the most unnecessary post-credits sequence in cinema history, but I wouldn’t recommend waiting through to see it for yourself. Though the movie was fighting an uphill battle from the start, it really didn’t have to be this bad. Toss in the “you sunk my battleship!” line, and the entire tone of the film could have changed. It’s amazing how much power a tiny phrase has, but unfortunately Berg and his crew weren’t interested in acknowledging the absurdity of a movie based on a board game. Thank God Universal cut ties with Hasbro and jumped ship on future board game adaptations. Until next time…
*For an excellent example of a time jump from hotshot young punk to soldier, see J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek.