'Battleship' dead in the water, doesn't stay afloat

An alien ship emerges. Courtesy Universal

It is fitting that the new alien invasion movie Battleship is based on a popular Hasbro game since it follows so many rules.

The “not living up to his potential” likable protagonist, outgunned soldiers, demolished cities, enormous explosions, fast-moving action sequences, montages and even AC/DC songs. The tropes in the Peter Berg-directed sci-fi effort are so familiar to Michael Bay's work that Battleship could just as easily be titled Transformers on the Water - starring robots with less personality.

Starring Taylor Kitsch, Alexander Skarsgard, Rihanna and Liam Neeson, the movie adapts the naval guessing-game on a grid (which existed long before toy company Milton Bradley introduced its version in the 1940s) into an alien vs. humans flick. The premise is that NASA has been trying to make a phone call to outer space from a Hawaiian satellite post, and Earth gets a rather nasty return call from humanoid E.T.s at the same time an international “war games” is taking place off Hawaii’s coast. After the aliens put a force field around the islands and start trashing the joint, it’s up to a small band of sailors – led by Kitsch’s character Hopper - sealed off from the rest of the Navy to fight back and save the day. There’s also a subplot about Hopper’s hot girlfriend Sam (Brooklyn Decker) - conveniently the daughter of the gruff, Hopper-hating Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson) – who must disable a communications array, along with a scientist and a soldier with prosthetic legs.

Before the aliens ever show up, there’s a too-long sequence highlighting the character failings of Hopper. Once they do, however, a lot of stuff blows up, people die, characters mature and audiences are treated to a few Easter Eggs from the board game.

But over the course of 131 minutes, the movie is never exciting enough to make you care.

Sure, the plot is pretty weak, as is the dialogue, but that is sometimes excusable if a filmmaker can convince the viewer the villains are really “eee-vil” evil and the stakes are high. The best viewers can hope for here is a key death and a wide-eyed little kid watching the destruction (but this kid does it so well he must have a future in other disaster flicks - watching an asteroid hurtle to the Earth, watching a monster emerge from the oceans, etc.)

There are other attempts to make us feel like puny humans about to lose our planet, but since most of the action takes place on the seas against alien ships - and against exo-suited humanoids - we never get a sense of them as bad guys. Through the wizardy of CGI effects (cool but no more impressive than even the last Transformers movie), we learn they are obviously technologically superior, but who are they? For all the characters know, they may just be pissed off that Earth has been crank calling their planet. Even though their ships are very cool and I'd like to purchase one of their suits with Trap Jaw accessories, there is never a showdown where one alien strokes his mustache (or, in this case, porcupine goatee), reveals his plan and makes us really, really fear them.

The movie also leans so heavily on the proud tradition of armed service and troop support that it sometimes feels like a very long, big budget Navy recruitment video. While there is certainly nothing wrong with honoring service in movies, it smacks of a cheap, heavy-handed shortcut for character development and emotional reaction here. The greatest generation is reduced to a great Hollywood cop out. There is even a sequence (and montage) towards the end of the movie so schmaltzy with its attempt to get viewers rooting for sailors and alien ass-kicking that it elicited an audible laughter in the theater.

Battleship also significantly suffers by being released just a couple weeks after The Avengers. Audiences have already seen aliens destroy a city this summer movie season, and those guys were led by a convincingly evil demi-god and repelled by a better set of developed heroes - and the spectacle was more fun. Even though Kitsch played Gambit once, he's no Hulk.

The appropriate movie critical kicker for this movie would be to suggest Battleship should be sunk, or that it likely won’t stay afloat at the box office. But instead, it is enough to say the movie is so weighed down with formulas that it’s dead in the water and rudderless; it takes a long time to get out to sea and then goes nowhere.