Peter Berg’s “Battleship,” “based on” the board game, is the sort of film that contains the caption “Hong Kong, China,” as if to remind the viewer that the events aren’t unfolding in the rival Asian metropolis of Hong Kong, Nebraska. The caption is an indication of just how low the film’s sights are set, made on the assumption that its core audience members are the worst of the morons — the ones who scorn geography but find the idea of travelling to exotic places to bomb the natives enthralling.
This domestic box office disaster (a paltry $9 million opening day) closely models itself in the fashion of Michael Bay, both in inspiration and form. But as bad as Bay’s “Transformers” films were, they often contained an adolescent lust for violence and PG-13 sexuality that kept them from being utterly boring. “Battleship,” on the other hand, runs nearly a full hour before the action starts, and it’s a torturous, IQ-killing first act at, with just about every soulless cliché possible crammed in, the melodrama so syrupy that Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” only seems a slightly worse punishment.
Taylor Kitsch, whose ill-fated stint as a blockbuster lead is coming to a close, stars as the miscreant weapons’ officer of the USS John Paul Jones, a US Navy destroyer engaged in a battle with alien invaders. These aliens, who are advanced enough to traverse the galaxy in their warships, are simultaneously idiotic enough to lose a fight to a species that likely represents their own technological progress hundreds or thousands of years ago. It doesn’t say much for them that this defeat is largely engineered by a felonious officer, two ships, a double amputee, and a sailor played by Rihanna. A better movie would have had a human navy as the opposing force, but I suppose it’s easier to sell tickets to other countries than to blow up their ships.
The battles, once they finally get started, are rendered and directed with sufficient competence that one might temporarily be engaged enough to forget the plot. It’s at the human level that this is a wide miss. Kitsch, handsome but in a generic way, exhibits none of the verve required of an actor to make him an appealing star in movies with $200 million price tags. Rihanna, whose accent left me unable to tell if she was playing an American or a Barbados citizen in the US Navy, has been ridiculed by critics for her poor performance, but in truth her part is inconsequential enough that few actresses could hope to make an impression with it.
Liam Neeson, the film’s only recognizable real actor, apparently signed on with the condition that his screen time not exceed 10 minutes. He plays an admiral whose strategy is to try and not look embarrassed as he barks generic orders into a telephone on the bridge of an aircraft carrier. Neeson, like most components of “Battleship,” is shoehorned in as part of the committee filmmaking process that assures studio heads that most expensive films need to please everyone and their grandmother. Literally, in this case, as demonstrated by a third act that sees a gang of World War II and Korea veterans getting in one final battle. It’s a potentially moving plot development that gets brushed over before it risks becoming too compelling.
Critics who have labeled this a functional Navy ad are correct, and that reality doesn’t bode well for the future of our armed forces. The last thing our military needs is the sort of recruits who enjoyed “Battleship” enough to pursue a career because of it. The Navy might have survived the stupidity of “Top Gun” recruits, though I don’t know if it could have survived “Battleship” fans had this proven to be a hit. A suggestion for the military: for future recruits, the entrance exams should involve the unaided finding of Hong Kong on a map.