Remember when they first announced the creation of a movie based on a board game and the filmgoing public tried with all its might to convince the powers that be that it was a really really bad idea? We should have tried harder. We should have hopped off those trams at Universal Studios, stormed the Hasbro bungalow (with its convenient Mr. Potato Head statue for easy identification), shaken the decision makers by their $2,000 coat lapels, and screamed “If you make this movie we will hunt you for sport!” Maybe if we had done that we could have prevented this… thing from seeing the inside of movie theaters.
Battleship plays like a parody of itself. It exercises no storytelling acumen of any sort and displays only those images thoroughly vetted for maximum blandness. It has no point of view, it delivers no interesting ideas, and its key message seems to be that loud explosions work better than slightly less loud ones. It executes elaborate effects shots to no apparent end and treats its cast with a mixture of confusion and contempt. Most tellingly, it bores us to tears – we’re forty-five minutes in before the vaunted Navy vs. Space Invaders throwdown finally begins – and even its ballyhooed money shots feel like B-reels from other, better films. Say what you will about Michael Bay, at least he means it. Battleship resembles nothing so much as a Third-World Bay knock-off: assembled from junkyard scraps after the serial numbers have been filed off.
Disasters this epic make it hard to know where to start. How does one quantify a nuclear meltdown? The board game origins are an obvious culprit, a bad idea from the get-go that just gets worse with each new layer of “development” piled on top. In their efforts to turn the random selection of map grids into a gripping story, the filmmakers range so far afield that the actual elements associated with the game feel like a hastily-added afterthought. They’re propped up by every concept in the Hollywood blockbuster playbook, each one clinging desperately to ancient, desiccated formula.
And frankly, as alien invasions go, this ranks as one of the most inept in movie history. After Earth sends a signal to a distant star, a quintet of Deadly Space Killships arrives to do us whatfor. One of the ships breaks up on contact – not an auspicious beginning to global conquest – and the other four set up an impenetrable shield around Hawaii so they can lob a series of giant razor-bladed globes into our major metropolitan centers. The only hope is a single Navy destroyer, trapped inside the shield during a war game and commanded by professional fuck-up Hunky McSquarejaw (Taylor Kitsch).
Logic holes are to be expected in a film like this and Battleship sports some big ones. Grand Canyon big. But if the filmmakers executed their game plan with any kind of competence, those holes wouldn’t matter. We wouldn’t ask why the aliens don’t just make their shield a smaller radius, or why they need our radio towers to send for more ships, or why they only think we’re a threat when our guns are pointed directly at them. As long as we get cool alien ships duking it out with the Pacific Fleet, all of that can slide. But director Peter Berg bungles every single opportunity to deliver the goods with poor set-ups, fumbled follow-throughs and laughable “character development” taking up far too much time. Spectacle movies like this can always use a little humanity, but the endless blathering from our heroes about their relationships and dreams and disappointments merely reinforces the fact that we’re not watching what we presumably came to see.
Things don’t improve much once the rumble finally begins. Berg fails to delineate any kind of ground rules for the conflict – the aliens’ strengths, weaknesses, strategic options and the like – which robs the heroes’ victories of any meaning. The aliens start out virtually unstoppable, only to topple like a house of cards as the big finale approaches. The death razors lack any clear strategic purpose, and McSquarejaw’s big ideas about avoiding damage to the ship involve maneuvers that should, in any rational universe, rip the keel straight out of the hull. Battleship applies absolutely no thought to how or why its mayhem exists. It becomes a form of abstract art, with images we vaguely recognize parading across the screen desperately masquerading as a movie. Even the militarism is disingenuous: a calculated commercial designed to secure U.S. Navy approval rather than any heartfelt gesture of respect or appreciation.
Regular readers know that I don’t use the F grade very often. It’s reserved for films I find either actively enraging or incompetent on a fundamental level. Battleship isn’t enraging – no more than any other naked Hollywood cash grab anyhow – but its seizure-inducing stupidity sets a surprising new low in a genre not exactly renowned for thoughtfulness. Even the Liam Neeson cameo left me cold. The film fails on every conceivable level, leading one to wonder idly how many sessions of the board game one could fit into its running time. (Initial estimation: five.) Only a film this dull, this pointless, this utterly devoid of any remotely engaging element can prompt such equations. In that sense, Battleship may be a perfect bad blockbuster – the hollowest of the hollow – which ironically grants the rest of the summer a mild reprieve. We’ve touched bottom early; there’s nowhere to go now but up.