It is my belief that in every bad movie, there’s a good movie buried somewhere within; whether it’s the general outline of the story and something went wrong in the execution or there’s a performance that shines despite a terrible script, I think there’s always something to salvage from even the worst of the cinematic offerings that come our way (except for That’s My Boy – that movie just screams abomination). And when it comes to Battleship, the most recent Michael Bay-impostor blockbuster to hit the big screen, there are some recommendable aspects (especially early on) but the misstep is very easily seen. And funny enough, it’s the same thing that caused one of the greatest trilogies out there to crash and burn when it came back for a fourth film. That’s right… it’s aliens.
I think the first 45 minutes or so of Battleship really prove my point here. There’s a good Top Gun-esque film somewhere within the two-plus hours that Peter Berg directs here. Taylor Kitsch (two bombs in a row for good ol’ Riggins after John Carter also failed to rake in the cash) is funny, charming, and, for lack of a better word, Rigginsy as we are introduced to his Alex Hopper. He’s a slacker and a bonehead and yet he is able to become successful in the Navy when his older brother forces him to enlist beside him. He falls for a blonde knockout (played by Brooklyn Decker, continuing to diminish any types of advancement made by strong female actresses) whose father also happens to be the Admiral in his specific unit (and is also played by Liam Neeson… good luck with that buddy). However, things are tough for Hopper. He continues to take false steps and makes mistakes and appears to be on the ropes, so to speak, as higher ranking officers are debating his termination from the Navy.
It is around this time that a formation of giant space… things… enter the Earth’s atmosphere and land in the ocean off the coast of Hawaii (coincidentally where our protagonists are stationed). And this is where things begin to go awry. For all it’s advanced special effects (at times I felt like the filmmakers were basically saying “Hey! See what our computers can do?”) and intense action, the focus on the aliens’ existence is so strong that the movie completely loses focus and really begins to descend faster than a sunken battleship (sorry, I had to go there).
When the aliens begin to attack, we see their cross-hairs hover over the approaching Naval ships. A green box surrounds the ship, signifying a lack of a threat. But then the ship sounds a horn, a warning sign as it were, and suddenly the green box becomes red and all hell breaks loose as peg-like missiles (the first of a few set pieces that the good folks at Hasbro hope help you remember that this movie is based on their board game) begin to be sent towards our American ships, exploding and generally wreaking havoc. As individual aliens begin to board these ships and the homeland of Oahu, we see more of this green/red box business. It seems that the aliens are not attempting to kill Earth’s inhabitants… it just seems like they want to make our lives miserable. Giant, spinning, spiky balls with razor-sharp attachments careen through the streets of Hawaii, destroying freeways and overpasses, but avoiding cars and people as much as possible. What do these aliens have against freeways? Are they from Southern California and have to take the 405 everyday? And I’ll save you the trouble… no, we are not told why or how these things happen.
I mentioned Top Gun earlier and that is certainly one way that they could have gone, creating a foreign enemy (exclusively Earth-bound, however) that could have imposed it’s will like the aliens did, forcing our hero to get his shit together and save the day, get the girl, etc. etc… Another way they could have gone (and they do attempt to do at some points) is go full-on campy. Jesse Plemons (Landry, from “Friday Night Lights” for those who were curious) has dozens of lines, all comedic, and all ill-timed if they were made seriously during an alien invasion. Kitsch also has a few during the invasion and subsequent battles where you see the filmmakers trying to bring some humor into this universe but it seems so forced that it’s glaring. This is even more obvious in the presence of a scientist character, whose name I don’t even remember, but he is in serious contention for a Worst Character award. His awkwardness, combined with his attempted humor, made my friend and me root for his demise and cringe at his heroic efforts in the waning moments. I normally don’t root for the aliens, but in this case, I kind of did.
They could have really done something special if they had gone full-on campy, especially at the end when a group of retired Naval officers help Hopper and his few remaining crew members set up and ultimately fight with the U.S.S. Missouri, which we are told is now a museum and no longer a working ship. The brief montage of them readying the ship for battle could have been epically hilarious and yet, to the immortal sounds of AC/DC, it’s meant to be impressive and inspiring. Instead, it becomes unintentionally funny, which is bad for a film like this, and ultimately good for those who enjoy to make jokes in the theater (especially an afternoon matinee theater where only six other patrons have joined you). Ultimately, you know that we win, it’s just a matter of how. It’s ridiculous, as expected (who knew that battleships were so agile?) and when it happens, you feel relieved because you can finally see the resolution to the character stories that they tried to fuse importance to throughout the battle scenes.
Kitsch holds his own here and I cannot fault him for wanting to do this type of movie. It gets his name out there and it’s not like anyone is going to blame it’s poor performance on him. I have great hope for him in Oliver Stone’s Savages (out later this year) and I think he has a successful career in front of him, if anything because of his authentic nature and comedic timing. Neeson is hardly in the film but does get to yell a few times which is always nice to see. Also of note is singer Rihanna, who is not the worst part of the film, as was probably predicted by many out there. She’s actually quite convincing as the Michelle Rodriguez character (and furthering the idea of campiness, I’m imagining a music video-type scene played over the end credits where she sings and dances on a ship!)
But in the end, this film is not about the characters in the least. The trailers screamed “look at how much this looks like Transformers” while also trying to promise something more than what Bay and Shia LaBeouf would have to offer. Unfortunately, if given the choice, I’d take a second viewing of the first Transformers over a second viewing of this, unless of course I was accompanied by some friends, some beers, and the freedom to make every joke that I want to make at the expense of this unfortunate adaptation. Overall, you can’t help but wonder “what could have been” and instead of being left with an enjoyable “Hit,” all that Battleship ends up being is a big fat “Miss.”