Round Peg, Square Hole

Battleship (May 18, 2012)     2.5/5

Directed by Peter Berg (Universal Pictures)

About halfway through Peter Berg’s Battleship, my attention wandered to William Sadler’s performance in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, as the character of Death frustratingly admitted to our beloved protagonists – “you’ve sunk my battlesheeep!” The joy I felt at that moment was not only absent throughout most of Berg’s film, but also more worthy of my attention than whatever was onscreen a majority of the time. At the very least, Battleship‘s terrific visuals make the naval/alien shenanigans passively entertaining, while still attempting nostalgic themes and an explosive payoff; those which conjointly provide any significance the film hopes to convey.

To be fair, I am not going to be that snobby critic who attempts to find substance in a summer movie that couldn’t care less. But to some extent, I have the right to judge Battleship on how well it executes the elements that it seeks to deliver successfully. I suppose the first, no matter how ridiculous it may sound, is to pay homage to the board game that the film is based on. The structure of the sea battles does indeed parallel that of the game (a subplot requires our heroes to search for the alien ships on a grid-like structure, the enemy’s missiles look like pegs, etc.), and while you may laugh at how desperate this may seem, the effect is quite fun. And with all the Bay-esque clichés Battleship gleeful accepts, it is nice to know that the movie plays upon its own ridiculous existence.

Considering all the toys and byproducts Hasbro hopes to sell from its newfound journey into movie distribution (another franchise being the popular Transformers series), it should also be obvious that Battleship is geared toward younger audiences. This shows in the simplistic narrative, awful characters, and hilariously half-witted dialogue, although the package is better shot and edited than Michael Bay’s messy, cars-turned-robots trilogy. The problem lies in the script, written by Jon & Erich Hoeber (Red, Whiteout), although it redeems itself with an exciting finish.

The character ensemble always seems to be the first-drawn structure for big budget, alien/disaster films, Battleship being no exception. It certainly doesn’t help that the characters here are half-stereotype, half-replica of other characters in better movies, the dialogue doing little to redeem it. The story functions in quite the same way, which could be forgiven, if not for the little human involvement that could possibly lead us to care. What does keep us looking at the screen are all the lovely explosions, and imaginative design of both the aliens and spacecrafts, propelling a narrative that humorously lingers in retro mode.

But I guess Battleship attempts something, and for that, it packs a little more in its cannons than can be reasonably expected. The characters interact in a decent enough manner to drive the events of a typical man vs. alien story, pay homage to a goddamn board game, and salute American veterans, in addition to those still serving today. As far as plot summary goes, we have badboy Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) who has recently entered the Navy, his more disciplined brother, Stone (Alexander Skarsgard), his chick, Samantha (Brooklyn Decker), and her admiral father, played by Liam Neeson. There’s also a role played by popular pop artist Rihanna; she’s not half bad either, yet the script keeps on insisting that she must say “funny” things, as if we wouldn’t accept her unless we couldn’t believe her in the role. In fact, the lead performances are all fairly decent, although the roles intended for comic relief (such as those by Jesse Plemons and Hamish Linklater) can be quite annoying.

The writers of Battleship have also appeared to rely on expectation quite a lot; Liam Neeson probably has only 10 minutes of screen time, yet we already view him as such a badass (his success with Taken has certainly aided this opinion amongst younger audiences), that the film feels no need to elaborate on how we should view the character. In fact, he does basically nothing. Berg, who has made predictable (yet to some extent, slightly audacious), action films, such as The Kingdom and Hancock, in addition to co-writing/directing critically acclaimed football film Friday Night Lights, makes the decision to cast real veterans in quite a few roles, mainly double-leg amputee Gregory D. Gadson.

I suppose Berg wants us to realize that this incredible guy is a veteran before coming to see his movie, because if he had wanted to get an inspiring performance (one that would fully support the message he hopes to relay), then he should’ve hired an actor who could give a “great” performance. This is a circumstance where an actual actor could play a veteran better than the veteran himself. Gadson may do a fine job in the position he was requested to fill, but the use of veterans, no matter how self-righteous it may make Berg’s audience feel, is sort of a predictable ploy on our emotions (the overbearing, classic rock soundtrack certainly doesn’t help either). Like many aspects of Battleship, I enjoyed what was attempted, but couldn’t help notice how undeveloped it came across. But at the end of the day, who really cares?

You’re coming for the CGI. And for the visual effects alone, Battleship will be a hit. Yet I guarantee few who walk out of the theater will ever want to see Peter Berg’s popcorn flick again; it simply has no lasting appeal. To make a confession, I never found Hasbro’s board game to be all that exciting. While the film has quite a few exciting sequences, the general conceit failed to prevent my mind from wandering, or my body from drifting asleep. Screw the toys. I might find myself returning to Battleship‘s appropriate medium; placing pegs where they belong. Maybe it will be more fun than I remember. As for the film, I’m not so sure.

In order to support the structure of Hasbro’s original product, a plot device allows very little to feel at stake in Battleship, a problem when the fate of the world actually hangs in the balance. In other words, Berg throws a lot of logic to the wind for the sake of gimmick. You’ll want to bash the stupid narrative, punch these characters in the face, and in many cases, cover your ears due to the ridiculous things they have to say. But throughout the whole, loud ordeal, it’s likely that you’ll find enjoyment from watching America’s finest blast evil space lizards out of the water. That’s one feature the board game could never replicate, but with the release of Battleship, an updated version is undoubtedly on the shelves right now. It probably costs more than a movie ticket.

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