'Battleship' Blows Up Good
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Considering its dubious provenance as an action film based on a board game from 1967, it would be easy to view "Battleship" from afar as some horrible finishing point, the end of cinema, the mark of a crazy age where a game whose biggest visual eye-catcher is white and red pegs gets $200 million thrown at it to make a summertime would-be smash.
But somewhere during its running time, "Battleship" doesn't merely surpass your low expectations, it somehow also lives up to them; it doesn't merely rip off George Lucas, James Cameron, Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich, but has the audacity, in many cases, to improve upon their work. "Battleship" sounded like a truly tedious cross-marketing platform masquerading as a movie. What a surprise, then, that it winds up being a truly great summertime film, a big, bold blast so swaggeringly expressed and self-knowingly built that it wins you over with its sheer bravado.
The plot -- to stretch the phrase -- involves a group of aliens dropping by a few years after we started beaming radio waves to their nearby, Earth-like planet. As a radio astronomer (Hamish Linklater, playing what is, really, the Jeff Goldblum part) observes, "If they come, it's gonna be like Columbus and the Indians ... and we're the Indians." With only five ships, the aliens have to establish a communications beachhead for the follow-up force -- and the only thing that can stop them is the handful of naval personnel and ships, coincidentally in the area for a Pacific-sphere cooperative military exercise between the American and Japanese navies, called RIMPAC. They get trapped with the aliens after they throw up a force-bubble around Hawaii and the original radio-beaming facility.
All objections to things like force-fields aside, the handling of the aliens looks like "Solaris" next to, say, "Independence Day" or, worse, "Transformers," where the invaders look like trucks. The aliens fire bullets and missiles, not ray beams or disintegration spheres. And while the men and women inside the field -- led by senior officer Alexander Skarsgård and including his little brother Taylor Kitsch, a onetime screw-up who's flourished in uniform but is still afraid of asking Adm. Liam Neeson for his daughter Brooklyn Decker's hand in marriage -- are outgunned, especially when the aliens fire peg-shaped missiles in a funny and smart nod to the game, they still spring into action when the call comes.
"Battleship" does have its share of howlers: We are told, repeatedly, how Kitsch needs to take a little responsibility and grow up, so we're clued into his character arc. At one point, we see the alien and human ships in a god's-eye view perfectly lined up, symmetrical and orderly as the pips on a die. But it's worth noting that for all the standard-issue cliché stuff director Peter Berg does here, as if following a summer-movie playbook written by other, dumber directors, there are also a lot of moments that do far more than you expect from a standard summer blockbuster even while the AC/DC is blaring on the soundtrack.
Berg has a sense of humor, for one thing, and it's great that for his naval men and women, alien invasion is just another crap day at work (Rihanna, Berg stalwart Jesse Plemons and John Tui are all great as enlisted types, and Tadanobu Asano, as a Japanese captain, gets to bounce off Hicks). But the other thing Berg -- the son of a naval historian -- brings is a sense of, for lack of a better word, sincerity. Despite being PG-13, the film recognizes, and shows, that war is a thing that costs lives, even in the glib and shallow waters of a summertime sci-fi action film. Army veteran Gregory D. Gadson, who lost two legs in Iraq in 2007, plays one of Decker's rehab clients, and while his work is a sober acknowledgment of war's cost (and oddly reminiscent of "The Best Years of Our Lives"), he also, yes, gets to prove you don't need original-issue feet to kick alien ass.
And that, perhaps, may be the best thing about "Battleship": While it knows it's a summertime shoot-em-'up based on a game, it also knows that men and women in our real armed forces are in harm's way right now while following a noble calling to serve their nation, and it manages to be smart and exciting about those two seemingly contradictory facts. And it also has a moment that makes Bill Pullman on the wing of an aircraft look as inspiring as your dad calling you to dinner. That comes right before the near-perfect execution of a plot point ripped off from "Battlestar Galactica." And that leads to an action stunt as awesome as it is ludicrous.
With explosions, derring-do, questions of social protocol, white-knuckle heroics and battlefield promotions, the movie isn't a rip-off of "Transformers"; it's more like the summertime-action version of "Master and Commander," with plenty of action and, at the same time, fun and well-drawn characters. "Battleship" was supposed to be a dud, but it's aimed in the right place, packed with brains and heart, and explosively fun.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.