Highly-stylised bombast has never been Peter Berg’s strong suit, especially following two definitive flops in The Kingdom (nice try) and Hancock (not so nice). He adds an unsurprising third effort to pyre with Battleship, another daft yet dull action film almost entirely devoid of personality, yet one that astoundingly, given its visual bombast, wasn’t frog-marched to our screens in 3D.
From its opening scene, Battleship seems like a film that is going to cut to the chase; scientists are trying to make contact with so-called “Goldilocks planets” – which operate under similar living conditions to our own – with the hope that intelligent life might exist there. They send out a hugely powerful signal out to these planets to see what happens. Unfortunately, this is just a tease, because what occurs next takes up roughly one-third of Battleship’s running time.
We cut to slacker Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), long-haired and drunk in a bar, hanging out with his distinguished Navy officer brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgård). Alex’s journey to join his brother in the Navy begins when he tries to impress a gorgeous young woman at the bar, Samantha (Brooklyn Decker), by getting her the chicken burrito she craves so much, going to such lengths as to break into a convenience store – set to the Pink Panther theme, no less – to get it. Because of this, she comes to love him apparently, but he winds up in trouble, and his brother forces him to join the Navy.
We’re then treated to a football game between American and Japanese Naval officers, which serves the sole purpose of lazily setting up for some mid-action drama between the Japanese and American officers later on. This is followed by some Armageddon-inspired romance with Samantha, now his girlfriend, for he wants to propose to her, but has to seek the permission of her father, Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), first.
This all happens before the aliens splash into the drink and all Hell finally breaks loose, making it one arduous slog to get there. Even once the spectacle kicks off, one never imagined the end of the world might be so soulless and boring, though; the back-and-forth arsenal barrage between the humans and aliens fast becomes tiresome – even if somewhat in the vein of its gamesake – before it branches off into assorted mayhem, such as explosive metal alien balls destroying cities, and ground warfare between the aliens and ordinary people.
The aliens themselves are an underwhelming sort with motives we learn little about; the hazard suit they wear resembles Master Chief from the Halo video game series, using a Terminator-inspired environmental scanner to examine potential threats. In the flesh, they are resolutely generic-looking, and much less threatening.
Few will expect tight dialogue from a film like this, but it isn’t unreasonable to demand taut, visceral action. Instead, Berg has no idea of balance or sustained threat; in the film’s first half, the invaders are positively indefatigable, yet without much of a change of tactics in the second half, they are quite inexplicably weakened, oddly not blowing up Hopper’s destroyer with the same efficiency they did the two ships during the opening attack. It is a classic action film tactic, but normally one veiled at least slightly better than it is here.
There is one scene of combat which admittedly does work; when the humans realise their radar system is worthless against the aliens, they make use of a network of buoys to determine the aliens’ location by water displacement, using a grid – not unlike that in the original Hasbro game – to fire missiles at the aliens. Hell, Rihanna even shouts co-ordinates out, and it actually seems intentionally hilarious without being soul-crushingly goofy.
Still, at the end of the day, the action scenes become exhausting before long, and by the climax, they’re down-right incomprehensible. The sheer chaos and similarity of most of the characters and objects flying around makes it too much of a muchness. While not without its moments of visual inspiration, the CGI-rendered battles are soullessly cold and hollow even for the low standards of whizz-bang blockbuster fare.
Cast-wise, there’s nothing too wrong here, though plenty who are mis-utilised by Erich and Jon Hoeber’s script. Rihanna, as apparently the ship’s sole female Raikes, is oddly cast yet surprisingly efficient in that sub-Vasquez feisty femme sort of way. She certainly seems more awake than lead Kitsch, who follows up his shambolic John Carter performance with yet another charmless, forgettable turn.
Liam Neeson is meanwhile completely wasted in his role as the Captain, with screen time totaling perhaps fifteen sparsely-placed minutes. Too often he is utilised for comic relief and not nearly enough for badassery; not having him shout “You sunk my battleship!” was certainly a golden opportunity sorely missed. Brooklyn Decker, also, is given little to do other than hang around with a disabled war vet – a highly charismatic supporting character who walks around with prosthetic limbs – until a brief spell of action during the finale.
Battleship is a film that aims low and still doesn’t hit enough of its targets; even dispensing with the boneheaded premise and bloated run time, it can’t wring enough thrills out of its aquatic warfare, instead recycling the same blurry effects and busy action ad nauseum.
With the punishingly dull, endlessly monotonous Battleship, Peter Berg has given the term “a poor man’s Michael Bay” credibility, and that’s a scary thing.
Battleship is in cinemas now.