Review: “Battleship”

One of the unexpectedly great comedies of the 80’s was a film based on a board game – “Clue”. Combining a cast of stellar comic talent, distinct characters, slapstick, sex jokes, a multiple murder mystery, a manor house and a 1950’s New England setting allowed for an inventive and memorably hilarious film that still works well today. Nearly three decades on a much bigger budgeted attempt has been made at adapting a board game onto film, this time however it’s nowhere near as enjoyable.

The shock of “Battleship” isn’t that they’ve managed to make a movie out of the Hasbro game, it’s that seemingly so much effort has gone into creating something with so little imagination. Here was the chance to do something political, topical and epic – a naval war movie the likes of which hasn’t been done in a long time. All sorts of options were available to the filmmakers, and they went for the blandest option of all – an over-produced alien invasion tentpole with one plucky crew holding back an invading horde with superior firepower.

Director Peter Berg is obviously phoning in this one, so he’s quite literally photocopied the template of Michael Bay’s “Transformers” films which allows him to avoid any heavy lifting. The design work, the filming style, the jingoistic patriotism, the ham-fisted dialogue, the sound design, the score, and so on appear designed to fool the audience into thinking this is a Bay-directed spin-off. In fact the only thing it lacks is Bay’s now signature sense of cringe-inducing humour, something I wouldn’t in a million years believe I would come to miss. If any film could really use some robot testicles and gay scare humour to lighten up the tedium, this would be it.

It’s actually quite astonishing how much of the already dated mid-90’s blockbuster mentality is visible in the screenplay. Some of the cast here is fine such as Taylor Kitsch and Alexander Skarsgard as the two hunkiest onscreen brothers since the Winchesters on “Supernatural”, or the generally reliable Liam Neeson. Yet all struggle with the material which delivers exposition with the bland bluntness of a beige sledgehammer. Neeson in particular is given short shrift, relegated to the sidelines and only a few minutes of screen time with most of that being two big crowd speeches that bookend the main action.

Kitsch’s character is an unfocused delinquent who is seemingly a genius, the only way we know that last part though is because every other character tells us so at every opportunity they can get. He’s a guy that rose up the armed forces hierarchy faster than anyone in history, though we’re never told how exactly (though with his tight body and square jaw one can make an educated guess). It’s something of a thankless role for Kitsch, his second for the year following the much more engaging “John Carter”, but full credit to the guy for taking to it with gusto.

Same goes for Skarsgard and even singer Rihanna who manages to come out of this intact despite not having much of anything to do except look tough and occasionally yell out ridiculous dialogue that would make anyone look bad. All come off far better than either eye candy Brooklyn Decker or actual Army Colonel and amputee Gregory D. Gadson, both of whom spend almost the entire film bickering as they climb a seemingly endless hill.

Berg has obviously scored a ton of co-operation from the Navy with this which has allowed for extensive shooting on various vessels and installations around Pearl Harbor. The aliens themselves are an odd design – with their helmets on they’re a fusion of the hero from “Dead Space” with the Quarians from “Mass Effect”, with them off they’re geriatric fish men. All of it looks very CG, far more so than the ships they use which occasionally have a decent weight and inertia to them even if their sense of scale varies considerably.

There’s no real narrative here – no driving force beyond the alien ships establishing a foothold for an invasion and the few ships with access to their forcefield zone trying to stop them. A simple story like that could work, but not when the film clocks in at a whopping 132 minutes for no real reason. Not helping is that much of the action actually has little to do with duelling ships, such as entirely useless scenes with random destruction caused by giant killer buzz saw yo-yos.

The actual ‘game’ of Battleship comes into play in the final act in a fun and comparatively low-key way, but it can’t compensate for some of the idiocy on display and just goes to point out how empty all the expensive effects-heavy sequences that preceded it are. Ok I’ll buy the aliens, but I can’t as hell buy the U.S.S. Missouri being turned from a museum into a working warship in the space of two hours by a group of mostly eighty-something retirees.

While they occupy the same genre of action-heavy tentpole, “Battleship” proves the opposite of “The Avengers” in terms of both its approach and ultimate success. This takes no risks, establishes no real characters or an even passable story, and ultimately has no reason to exist. Big, shiny and empty – this so-called tribute to the Navy is about as welcome as a post-shore leave shipwide outbreak of the clap.