Yes, You Can Put Your Mind at Ease
The most interesting aspect of Peter Berg's last couple of features was always the involvement of Michael Mann; and Mr. Berg's inclination to take his producer's blue-collar urban-myth-making and process it into something less buttoned-down. But "Battleship" swings in other directions, borrowing instead from the Tony Scott book of naval ballistics and immediately summoning up instead the spirit of Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer circa 1986. It also has the gall, the nerve, the stainless-steel balls required to include a version of the Hasbro pastime's actual gameplay into its plot as a military strategy — for which, frankly, hats off.
The other presiding spirit — given a plot of military might vs. big transforming alien hardware and the way the camera caresses the erotically dripping members of both teams — is Michael Bay. "Battleship" is more coherent and more fun than almost anything by Mr. Bay, mostly since Mr. Berg is altogether less caffeinated, preferring to edit within the frame and not swing the camera constantly on God's roving dolly tracks. This results in something much closer to what might loosely be called story-telling. Eventually though, the magnetic pull of Planet Bay is unavoidable; the film's music veers between fist-pumpers from those well-known military motivators AC/DC and a score by Steve Jablonsky, who adheres so strictly to the Bay template that the United States might as well adopt that Hans Zimmer string pulse as its national anthem.
But weird, subversive stuff keeps bubbling up in "Battleship." Restaging "Top Gun's" preening volleyball match as a soccer game to set up the film's matched American and Japanese beefcake is one thing. Subsequently arranging for Taylor Kitsch and Tadanobu Asano to stand together on the vertical stern of a sinking ship like Kate and Leo and stop just a whisker short of holding hands; that takes a sense of humor way beyond the strict needs of the form.
The aliens attack during an international naval exercise off Hawaii, requiring several characters to use the word "Rimpac" with a straight face, and also slyly putting some much-needed international cooperation within reach of the U.S. military. With the damage conveniently corralled within the 50th state, the only real devastation is visited on China, where alien ships crash into the skyscrapers they presumably couldn’t get to in Manhattan, and no doubt put the brakes on the economy. Casting Mr. Kitsch and Alexander Skarsgård as brothers — the start of a master race if ever there was one — works best if you remember that neither one is actually American. Neither technically is Rihanna, who bravely wades into tough-cookie territory long since claimed by Michelle Rodriguez, even though it's clear that Ms. Rodriguez could tie the usurper into a pretzel.
The whole thing winds itself up into a delirious, deranged last act, in which a bunch of pensionable veterans from wars long finished come steaming over the horizon in a behemoth warship and pull off a maneuver last seen when the Batmobile lassoed itself around a lamppost, while a double-amputee Iraq-war returnee goes mano a mano with an alien drone for the rights to the Earth. Far and away the most genuinely subversive thing in "Battleship" is the performance and treatment of this soldier, U.S. Army Col. Gregory Gadson, whose acting skills are not noticeably weaker than anyone else's and whose role in the plot goes where comic-book films rarely venture. Bizarre to suggest that "Battleship's" most legitimate claim to posterity would be in the mainstream depiction of disability, but there it is.
The penultimate shot of the whole film is Brooklyn Decker in full pulchritudinous splendor giving a thumbs-up directly to the audience, which is so blatant a sign-off from the godly denizens of the winning side that it's actually hard to hate. If you're going to do this; if you're going to rely on nothing below surface-depth; if you're going tell rather than show; if you're going to tie down the mind of the viewer with this much ballast and be as scared of silence and nuance as this — well then, "Battleship" is a decent way to do it. But please stop doing it.
Opens on April 11 in Britain and on May 18 in the United States.
Directed by Peter Berg; written by Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber, based on Hasbro’s Battleship; director of photography, Tobias Schliessler; edited by Colby Parker Jr., Billy Rich and Paul Rubell; music by Steve Jablonsky; production design by Neil Spisak; costumes by Louise Mingenbach; produced by Brian Goldner, Scott Stuber, Mr. Berg, Sarah Aubrey, Duncan Henderson and Bennett Schneir; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 11 minutes. This film is rated 12A by B.B.F.C. and PG-13 by M.P.A.A.
WITH: Taylor Kitsch (Hopper), Alexander Skarsgard (Stone), Rihanna (Raikes), Brooklyn Decker (Sam), Tadanobu Asano (Nagata), Gregory D. Gadson (Mick), Hamish Linklater (Cal Zapata), Jesse Plemons (Jimmy “Ordy” Ord) and Liam Neeson (Admiral Shane).