We haven’t even hit Memorial Day yet and we’re already two alien invasions into Summer Movie Season.
Two weekends ago, ‘The Avengers‘ fended off an all-out assault on Manhattan by the evil Chitauri and this Friday the U.S. Navy contends with a bunch of nasty E.T.s in ‘Battleship.’ The aliens don’t have a name this time, but they come from a place dubbed “Planet G,” a heavenly body almost exactly like Earth that’s theoretically capable of sustaining life.
Planet G is located in the Hasbro Galaxy, that far off star system where toys and board games (like ‘Battleship,’ of course) are turned into noisy, violent movies about technologically enhanced critters laying waste to human civilization and the few souls brave enough to try and stop them. At least in the case of ‘Battleship’ those souls have a bit more personality than the ones in ‘Transformers,’ even if the film itself ultimately devolves into a Transformer-ish robo-orgy about one group of machines blowing up another group of machines.
After scientists beam an ill-advised welcome message to the residents of Planet G — way to go science, you’ve ruined everything yet again — we meet our hero: Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), a directionless, irresponsible hunk so ruled by passion and reckless emotion that he breaks into a convenience store and risks a serious jail term just to impress Sam (Brooklyn Decker), a woman he meets in a bar on his birthday. Fed up with Alex’s antics, his brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgard) says enough is enough: Alex is joining the Navy.
Fast forward a few years, and Stone is the captain of a Naval Destroyer and Alex is the weapons officer on another, and both are off the coast of Hawaii participating in international war games. Alex has other matter on his mind, though: namely, trying to work up the courage to ask for permission to marry Sam from her father, Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson, perfectly cast, if underused, as the world’s scariest father-in-law). And that’s the moment the aliens from the Hasbro Galaxy invade, immediately laying waste to Hong Kong in a shameless and somewhat odd attempt to market this jingoistic film about the American military’s awesomeness to an international audience (“Hey China! You’ll love this movie because we totally destroy your country in it!”).
After touching down off the coast of the Aloha State, the aliens throw up an impenetrable energy dome while they do…something. Just what that something is I’m not at liberty to reveal, not because I’m worried about spoilers but because the movie itself doesn’t seem entirely sure. Although ‘Battleship”s broad strokes are always clear — hi-tech aliens bad, good ol’ fashioned American muscle good — the finer points are not. The Planet G-Unit arrives with four ships, some of which can fly and some of which cannot, or at least don’t when the Americans conveniently discover a way to track their movements through water. The aliens possess sophisticated technology and hugely advanced weaponry, so naturally they’re also comically stupid and hampered by an exploitable weakness that makes absolutely no sense for creatures that come from a planet that is supposedly so similar to ours.
This chaotic stew of epic naval battles, small-scale comic relief, intensely sincere appeals to American patriotism, and gaping holes of plot and logic comes courtesy of director Peter Berg, the man who gave us the wildly underrated B-action film ‘The Rundown’ and the wonderful film and television adaptations of the Texas high school football story ‘Friday Night Lights.’ Berg’s last feature was 2008′s ‘Hancock’ with Will Smith, a film which, if not entirely successful, showed him capable of integrating unusually thorny character dynamics into the framework of flavorless, big budget filmmaking. But here, despite a cast that includes two ‘Friday Night Lights’ TV alums (Kitsch and Jesse Plemmons, who plays the obligatory but effective wide-eyed audience surrogate) he has less success balancing personal touches and large scale blockbustering.
With almost no blood and even less overt sexuality, it seems like Berg was hired to make a movie aimed at viewers even younger than the fans of ‘Transformers,’ a fact seemingly confirmed by the scene where an alien vessel lands on a Little League field, contemplates obliterating an eight-year-old boy, then dashes off to destroy a nearby highway overpass instead. Though it’s not really clear what the aliens are after here — they like children unless they insist on using interstate travel? — it’s obvious what Hasbro wants: to give their core audience a few onscreen surrogates and to keep them alive, lest they bum them out and dash their dreams of owning more ‘Battleship’ toys.
Berg sprinkles in some clever moments, makes far better use of Kitsch than Andrew Stanton did in ‘John Carter,’ and creates at least one memorably inspired scene near the end of the film where an unlikely group of heroes answers the call of duty, but he ultimately feels like less the author of ‘Battleship’ than its navigator, taking his orders from the captains at Universal and Hasbro, the company that makes the ‘Battleship’ board game — which does make an appearance of sorts in a scene where Hopper’s crew attempts to locate the aliens using a gridded computer screen.
In fact, ‘Battleship’ is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of its board game source material: occasionally entertaining but soul-crushingly repetitive; a diverting but completely forgettable way to kill a few hours. The ‘Battleship’ board game is about firing blind and, at times, it feels like Berg and company made their creative decisions in a similar fashion: throw a lot of ordinance in the air and hope at least some of it hits the mark. Occasionally, it does. Frequently, it doesn’t. At least they kept the world safe from aliens for one more week.
After that it’s up to Will Smith and Josh Brolin in ‘Men in Black 3.’
‘Battleship’ hits theaters on May 18th
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’