The first thing you notice about Battleship is that it, unlike the three Transformers movies and one G.I. Joe film that came from the same Hasbro toy universe, features real characters. Archetypes who travel well-worn, shamelessly-predictable arcs, maybe, but characters nevertheless. This happens to be the film’s chief achievement. A movie based on a board game where the only “characters” are the people playing it has somehow spawned more recognizably emotional beings than films centering on a clans of Earth-protecting robots and soldiers, both of which had an inherent advantage over this toy-turned movie: Their characters already had names and built-in fanbases.
But maybe that’s part of the reason why I enjoyed Battleship more than its action figure counterparts. Biblically speaking, to know a thing’s name is to own and hold dominion over it, and while I was never a great fan of the Transformers or their flesh-and-blood cousins-in-arms, the Joes, one expects more from an “Optimus Prime” or a “Cobra Commander” than can be reasonably expected from “Alex Hopper.” All you can say about Alex Hopper is that he’s got a clean-cut, all-American action hero’s name if ever there was one, rivaled perhaps only by his brother’s: Stone.
I mention that Battleship features two brothers, and you can likely guess from the movie’s rather unambiguous title that the Navy is involved. Based solely on their names, you can likely surmise that Stone (Alexander Skarsgård) is the family’s resident hero, a stalwart defender of America’s seas, and that Alex (Taylor Kitsch), while a nice guy, is a bit of a screw-up. One night, the two brothers are hanging out in a bar when the incredibly attractive Samantha (Brooklyn Decker) walks in, hungry for a chicken burrito. When the bar refuses her service, Alex, already in full-blown puppy love with her, dutifully breaks into the convenience store across the street. His brother gives him an ultimatum: Clean up and join the Navy, or drift. He chooses the Navy, little knowing that—surprise!—the admiral (Liam Neeson) is Samantha’s father.
But life—and extraterrestrial, extinction-level events—has a way of interfering with American love stories, and when a signal is beamed into deep space, an alien armada responds. Lacking the means to communicate back to base, they set-up shop around the Hawaiian island upon which the deep space satellites are installed. A force field goes up, cutting a number of ships off from the main fleet, who’d conveniently been participating in a series of war games. Also trapped in the field: Samantha, who is a physical therapist assigned to the rehabilitation of a double-amputee Iraq War veteran (played by real-life veteran Gregory Gadson). The aliens, firing their seemingly unstoppable arsenal at anything that moves, manage to kill Stone. Samantha and the vet, hiking up the mountain, discover the aliens in the midst of their taking over the satellite. The goal here is pretty obvious: Stop the aliens from destroying the planet.
And really, there’s not much keeping the heroes from doing just that. Sure, the aliens have superior technology and aren’t above sending their spinning engines of death onto the highways and little league baseball fields of this great land, but Battleship is a big believer in American resiliency. Outgunned, outmanned, and with several clear disadvantages, the heroes merely need to survive until the inevitable point where the invading force realizes its role as Hollywood’s number one metaphor for American superiority and summarily allow themselves to get blown up real good.
Taylor Kitsch, as he proved in the better, similarly unseen John Carter, is a perfectly good action movie hero. Battleship gives him less to chew on than John Carter did, settling to throw narrative softballs his way, but it is hardly his fault that the film cozies up to the Art of War, leaving him to misinterpret its meaning while abdicating his responsibilities to other sailors. Those around him consider his actions great leadership, but it’s pretty clear that Alex Hopper has been giving up responsibiltiy his whole life.
Kitsch fares better than the rest of Battleship’s cast, with the exception of the disabled veteran and the surprise that enters the film in the third act, ready and willing to save the day. Liam Neeson, as is becoming commonplace in this sort of bloated faux-epic, stands there, grim and imperious. Rihanna is the movie’s token badass. When a skeleton crew take a rubber boat out to a wrecked alien warship, she’s there. When a missile is fired or a trigger is pulled, she’s the one with something cool to say, her expletives drowned out by explosions, of course.
It’s merely a guess, but I suppose the characters in Battleship are vacuous on purpose. If you’re the kind of person who shows up early enough to movies to catch the near half-hour of commercials that get played before the trailers, you’ve no doubt noticed the ad that thanks the Navy on behalf of the cast and crew of Battleship for their assistance in the production of the film. Despite the fact that we’re dealing with a board game adaptation involving extraterrestrials with impossible weaponry, every effort was made to present the naval combat within the movie as the real deal because Battleship, like many recent films and first-person shooters involving warfare, serves more as a long-form advertisement for the armed forces than as a mindless, harmless summer entertainment.
Battleship supposes that you, the virile young man, may be a good candidate for the United States Navy. You may have screwed up somewhere in life. Dropped out of high school. Stolen a chicken burrito. But you are strong. You can change. You are more than capable of fighting The Enemy. It’s good work. It will teach you responsibilities. Respect for your superiors. It can be fun, Battleship says, even when the work is deadly serious. You can be Alex Hopper, ex-screw-up. Respect and love from the Liam Neesons and Brooklyn Deckers can be yours, supposing you want it.
But this is where Battleship falters, as its gung-ho patriotism is the sort of thing that’ll sink even the best action movies, regardless of the cast, direction, or staging involved. Americans have had it pounded into their heads for over 200 years now that we’re the world’s last and best defense, and if this hasn’t been something overtly stated by a President, it’s been the message of our action movies. The genre was once dominated by lone wolves with personal vendettas, impossible musclemen with a strange charisma and an unlimited arsenal. Now action films have an increasingly blander template. They want to deal with terrorism but can’t do so implicitly, as the middle east increasingly becomes a place to market films. They involve characters from the countries most likely to see the film, but they come from the same stock and act the same way that the film’s white protagonist does. If the movie has any room for civilians or academics, they are almost always weak and in need of rescue.
That’s not to say that Battleship revels in these stereotypes, because it isn’t. The movie is too preoccupied with blowing things up to notice that it is marching in lockstep with the other Hasbro movies and other alien invasion films of its ilk. It is a louder, brasher take on Skyline and Battle: Los Angeles and, as such, manages to be more entertaining than its predecessors on the assembly line. I consider myself, perhaps egotistically, a pretty smart person, and figure that most audiences are, in fact, smarter than Hollywood figures. The past 100 years have proven that we’re more than willing to put up with a little propaganda in exchange for a few hours of entertainment. I just wish movies like Battleship weren’t so blatant about it. Were the whole movie as loose and fun as its third act reveal, we’d be getting somewhere. Instead, here is the same army movie you see every year, this time on boats. The formula doesn’t work like it used to.
Battleship. Directed by Peter Berg. With Taylor Kitsch (Alex Hopper), Alexander Skarsgård (Stone Hopper), Brooklyn Decker (Samantha), Rihanna (Petty Officer Raikes), and Liam Neeson (Admiral Shane). Released May 18, 2012, by Universal Pictures.