Film Review: Battleship (2012)

Battleship 1

After all Battleship’s bad-buzz and Transformers-wannabe imagery, one might wonder why I would ever want to sit through such a guaranteed mess. The answer: director Peter Berg. Sure, a filmography that includes Very Bad Things, The Rundown, Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom, and Hancock doesn’t exactly get you labeled an auteur. But I actually think those films are mainly pretty fun, and I dug Berg’s 2003 manifesto about making more visceral, bodily action films. Altogether, that’s lead me to care about his next move. Add on FNL alumni Taylor Kitsch and Jesse Plemons, True Blood star Alexander Skarsgard, pop-star (and uber-hottie) Rihanna, and everyone’s favorite badass Liam Neeson, and you’ve got enough factors to make me curious. And it turns out that – while the film doesn’t re-invent the wheel and won’t be anyone’s movie of the year – Battleship is surprisingly decent summer blockbuster fare.

 

Not a lot of plot recap is necessary here – alien spaceships land in the water, the Navy tries to investigate them, explosions ensue. There are a few more tactical twists on that idea than you might expect (the narrative evolutions are a hair more logical and coherent than in the Transformers films), but Battleship keeps a tight frame around its series of sea battles. Before the *KA-BOOM!* begins, you do get the clichéd plot: rebellious Alex Hooper (Kitsch) won’t grow up, his soldier older brother Stone (Skarsgard) forces him into the Navy, and the alien invasion will be the catalyst for Alex to finally mature and impress his girlfriend (Brooklyn Decker) and her Admiral father (Neeson.) Dozens of other reviews have pointed out the story is one of the most generic molds for Hollywood blockbusters in existence. Fortunately, it only matters in the scenes that bookend the film. For the most part, Battleship plants itself in the middle of its crazy sea-vs.-space warfare, where it works surprisingly well.

 

 The comparisons to Transformers have already been plentiful, with one recent editorial asking, “Is Peter Berg the new Michael Bay?” In short, no, for two reasons: 1.) After the opening weekend box office of Battleship, Berg will probably not get another movie of this magnitude again. But 2.) Berg remains a better action director than Bay. Bay might have a knack for imagery that looks huge, imposing, ginormous. But Berg has a better handle on what makes “action” work – tension, suspense, stakes, and a real bone-rattling impact to your battle sequences. The characters aren’t fleshed out well here, but you’ll still be more invested in the action sequences because they’re clean and edited clearly, giving you a better sense of what’s going on and who’s in danger than in Bay’s films. There are some token city-smashing scenes to up the demolition factor – and they make the aliens’ “plan” narratively inscrutable – but they look good, and most importantly, the visuals allow you to understand what’s actually happening.

 

As I said above, the dialogue here can be both rote and ridiculous. And no one’s winning Oscars. But as Berg tends to do in his movies, he at least gets loose, fluid performances out of his actors, semi-improvised performances that feel more natural than most of the rigid acting you get in blockbusters. Kitsch is better here than as John Carter, as he’s essentially reprising his breakout role as Tim Riggins in the Friday Night Lights show. He’s no great actor – probably not even a good one – but he’s got that kind of loser’s charisma to spare. Shaving the flowing locks from his Abercrombie & Fitch days doesn’t hurt. Most everyone else is solid – nothing more or less. Neeson doesn’t phone it in for his very few scenes in the film, and Rihanna doesn’t prove or embarrass herself (but props to the film for using her more for attitude than as a sex object, even if she never gets any depth.)  The only real dud in the bunch is Plemons, whose FNL hijinks really don’t translate well to the big screen.

 

There’s no arguing – there’s a lot that’s stupid about Battleship. Outside of the mounds of clichés, my biggest beef with the film was having massive doses of NAVY propaganda shoved down my throat. Not to get overly political, but when your attempts to be reverential to the military result in an experiment as weird and ill-played as the films’ final 30 minutes, it’s time to dial it back a bit. The film’s sense of humor is also pretty laugh-free, but at least its more laid-back comedy is infinitely more palatable than the MADtv-on-meth quality to the jokes in Transformers. And the B-plot, in which Hooper’s girlfriend, a nervous scientist, and a war vet who has recently lost his legs, feels especially random and shoe-horned in (though its shot with admirable energy.) But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was shocked by how engaged it kept me over its 130-minute running time. Yeah, it’s kind of silly, and yeah, it’s kind of generic, and if you don’t like the previews and you don’t like the actors, the film won’t change your mind. But for the kind of movie it is, Battleship’s bombastic action extravaganza hits the right buttons better than I ever expected.

 

Rating: 3.25/5 ★★★¼☆ 

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About Josh_C

Josh has studied film at the Universities of Missouri and Florida, and he is currently studying horror film and popular culture in the Communication and Culture program at Indiana University. He has previously worked with the True/False Documentary Film Festival and the Ragtag Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, and he served as short-term production assistant on This Film Is Not Yet Rated. He is currently working on a dissertation on independent horror, horror film festivals, and horror fandom; feel free to contact him to discuss any of the above! He is also studying Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).

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