Battleship: naval gazing

Battleship is a cynical exercise in branding and as horribly fascinating as a shipwreck. By Lance Harris.

Battleship is big, dumb, witless, and cynically slapped together. It is also entertaining in the fashion of a film that you laugh at rather than with. Effectively a US$200m B-movie branded for a classic board game, it is such a grand monument to the worst excesses of the summer blockbuster film that you can’t help but be impressed that it exists.

Somewhere, a Hollywood executive was so desperate for a hit film with brand recognition and merchandising opportunities that he signed off a cheque of a couple of hundred million dollars to make this film. Because kids love Battleship, right? (Sadly, it seems that they do — the film has already grossed more than $170m worldwide and hasn’t even opened in the US yet.)

Name aside, Battleship has little to do with the classic Hasbro guessing game and everything to do with the massive success of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. (Incidentally, those are also based on a bunch of Hasbro toys.) It’s effectively a seaborne version of the Transformers films that pits some plucky, outgunned humans against alien invaders in a massive naval battle.

Taylor Kitsch — he also starred in John Carter, the first major flop of the current blockbuster summer season — takes the part of mid-20s slacker Alex Hopper, the all-American boy who must save the world from the three-fingered aliens with the weird ginger hair.

In the opening sequences, Alex’s brother Stone (a suitably stony Alexander Skarsgård), forces the young freeloader to join the navy after he gets into some trouble with the law impressing a girl (Brooklyn Decker).

The lass in question also happens to be the daughter of the grumpy admiral in charge of the armada stationed at Hawaii, played by Liam Neeson, who really is too good for this sort of film. And then the aliens attack, bringing with them a gleaming army of military movie and alien invasion clichés.

Do not hold the breathtakingly stupid concept against Battleship. After all, an amusement park ride birthed the enjoyable Pirates of the Caribbean. And there are plenty of other reasons to fault the film, from its daft script through to the wooden acting of its leads and plot holes you could steer a battleship through.

A film like this needs memorable characters and snappy dialogue to really work, neither of which you’ll find in Battleship. Kitsch and Decker have the screen presence of a beautifully made salt-and-pepper set, all sparkling teeth and shiny eyes with nothing under the surface. They’re completely overpowered by the special effects, anyway.

The intentional humour — such as the lame sequence where Alex breaks into a takeaway store to the classic Pink Panther theme — is forced and stupid. And the jingoistic, macho dialogue could have been written by an eight-year-old boy. One character bellows out that he will hold the aliens off and give the earth another day; in a rare moment of self-awareness for the film, another asks, “Who talks like that?”

Despite its flaws, Battleship is nowhere near as dull as the risible Battle: Los Angeles (a similar Bay knock off) or the second and third Transformers. Though Peter Berg — director of Hancock — is happy to let the CGI run rampant in his film, he also has better control over his action sequences than does Bay.

Though they are little unimaginative, the set pieces are muscular and kinetic, yet with a coherence that is missing in most of Bay’s films or Battle: Los Angeles. The best of them even have a little tension to them. The sound design is outstanding — this is the sort of film that will make a good demo for a new home theatre system when it comes out on Blu-ray.

Bay watch: Battleship is Transformers at sea

Hilariously, the film fetishises military hardware in ways that would make Michael Bay blush. One almost expects the men and women in uniform to burst into an impromptu rendition of the Village People’s “In the Navy” in the closing credits. Alas, nothing as interesting as that happens, but a short post-credits sequence leaves you with the horrible certainty that a sequel is on the way.

Some film fans would argue that the CGI eye candy is enough to justify Battleship’s existence, and if it’s just good effects you’re after, you’ll find them here. But films like The Avengers show that we can expect it all in a summer blockbuster: great effects and charming characters, decent acting and a screenplay with wit. There’s no reason to settle for less.  — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media

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