If you feel the need to blame someone for the birth, production, and release of Battleship— as I do– look no further than Michael Bay. The proprietor of shining contemporary examples of big spectacle gone very, very stupid, Bay brought the “movies based on toy lines” movement to life in 2007 with Transformers; two sequels and a G.I. Joe film later (which itself is getting sequelized this summer), and that childish aesthetic shows no signs of abating in the near future. Battleship proves to be the loudest and dumbest toy-to-cinema adaptation yet (barring last year’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon), a soulless, pointless, hollow cacophony of trite cliches and boring pixelated action.
How do you turn a tabletop turn-based game revolving around little plastic armadas into a feature-length film? The answer doesn’t really involve much by way of story, unless you consider “Naval exercises interrupted by alien invasion” the peak of brilliant narrative. There’s a story of two brothers here, as well; the brothers Hopper, Alex (Taylor Kitsch, continuing his terrible year) and Stone (Alexander Skarsgård, slumming for dollars) are two Naval siblings who exist on the opposite end of the responsibility spectrum. Stone is upright, dutiful, and ludicrously monikered, while Alex resorts to late-night burrito larceny to woo a beautiful girl (Brooklyn Decker, the first and possibly worst of the film’s massive cast of non-actors). They’re caught in the middle of conflict, though, when the Navy’s biennial RIMPAC event receives unexpected visitors from another planet who are neither friendly nor ill-armed. Maritime warfare commences quickly as the Navy men find themselves outgunned.
And there’s more– including numerous references to the film’s namesake game, each quite as ridiculous as the last. Start with the area-encompassing force field the alien mothership generates, which turns the open waters into a closed arena akin to an actual Battleship board, continue forward with extraterrestrial explosives which resemble pegs from the game, and end with a scene that very literally transcribes the mechanics of playing a round into gloriously idiotic cinema. That’s a term that should be used loosely here, because it’s hard to argue with a straight face that Battleship represents anything other than a lame attempt at turning a profit by putting in the least amount of effort.
I mean that with the utmost honesty. Battleship could have been a towering monument of thick-headed popcorn entertainment; there’s even a chance that the sheer idiocy of watching grown men reenact the game on a huge CGI stage could have been unabashedly fun. But none of the elements that would lend themselves to any sense of amusement or diversion works. I shouldn’t be surprised at how utterly dull the movie gets in light of how utterly dull the game itself can be, and yet I still find myself taken aback that every action scene feels so inert. Mostly, they’re just uninspired and repetitive, as though Peter Berg can think of no better way to capture the delivery of ordnance than through stiff, arcing shots tracing their trajectory through the air. In the end, not one sequence feels any different from the last.
So Battleship rests. It does what’s easy. Berg isn’t a bad director– workmanlike, maybe, but there’s nothing wrong with that when the results are as arresting as The Kingdom or as genuinely boisterous as The Rundown. Maybe that’s the biggest disappointment of the film; Berg knows how to make action interesting at worst and exciting at best, and while he hasn’t produced a true classic yet, he’s certainly capable of better than what he’s yielded here. The biggest question swirling around Battleship revolves around what Berg was thinking when he attached himself to the project.
Dollars and cents seem like a reasonable first guess– though early tracking doesn’t paint a pretty picture for the movie’s fate– but there’s one other aspect to Battleship that might explain Berg’s involvement: admiration for America’s serving men and women. It’s another similarity between Berg’s film and the recent works of Bay, for whom military fetishism is as much a part of his recent cinema as transplanting toys onto celluloid; whereas Bay is inclined to focus on the actions of individuals, though, Berg is more invested in how these people unite and come together as a complete unit. That’s not a remark on quality, but on approach, and there’s something about the way Berg views these characters that at first suggests a very real sense of respect for their service.
Underneath that, though, there’s condescension. Maybe people who are not themselves former servicemen shouldn’t be making gigantic military recruitment videos– like last year’s Battle: Los Angeles, Battleship plays like a two-hour ad intent on convincing viewers to enlist in the Navy as soon as possible. But that’s disingenuous; after all, Berg himself has never spent a day of his life operating under any wing of the US military. More than that, he very blatantly washes over the potential realities and consequences of service. Maybe it’s not Battleship‘s job to warn viewers of the dangers of combat, but if that’s the case Berg shouldn’t be using a very real U.S. Army veteran and double amputee as a supporting character, patronizing his sacrifice through his arc– you can still serve your country, even if you’ve lost both of your legs!
But insincere exaltation of America’s military comprises the least of Battleship‘s problems. If Berg tied those characteristics to a functioning, compelling blockbuster– and yes, well-orchestrated explosions and noise can be compelling– overlaying solid character work, then Battleship might be a more worthy film. But Berg hardly seems interested in telling a story we can really latch onto or characters we can empathize with. Kitsch is fighting more of an uphill battle here than he did in John Carter; Berg goes out of his way to make Alex Hopper an irritating, useless layabout, and Kitsch can’t overcome. Alternately, no one else has anything resembling a character arc, and the result is a cast that’s either not fully realized or just flat. Nothing tethers us to the film or successfully distracts us from its worst merits, and so Battleship comes to represent disposable popcorn cinema at its worst.