Saturday, May 19, 2012

Sunk: BATTLESHIP

I don’t know if the nonstop digital chaos and noise wore me down or what, but parts of Battleship aren’t that bad. The main plot point of this movie-based-on-a-board-game is that during joint military exercises between the United States and Japan off the coast of Hawaii, an alien ship of some kind comes in for a splash landing and opens fire. So the movie’s basically American and Japanese sailors protecting Pearl Harbor from alien invasion. Why, that’s almost enough to bring a tear to the eye. Well, in a better movie it would be, one interested in exploring context and building characters or metaphors or providing any sort of narrative momentum or rooting interest other than “Blow up them aliens real good!” It’s a thin blockbuster that takes forever getting started and then has little but unoriginal drivel to get to once it does.

The payoff of all this is actually somewhat competent as far as these kind of big, impersonal blow-‘em-up blockbusters go. It’s the setup that’s totally bonkers and tonally messy, which dilutes the climactic excitement, reducing it to merely better than what’s come before. Screenwriters Erich and Jon Hoeber start us off with some pretty weird scenes that collide into each other in awkward ways. First, we meet twenty-something screw-up Alex (Taylor Kitsch) sitting in a bar, getting a lecture from his Naval-officer brother (Alexander Skarsgård). It’s a grow-up and get-responsible kind of lecture that awkwardly segues into a happy-birthday cupcake. Then a blonde bombshell (Brooklyn Decker) walks in and Alex goes over to hit on her. She wants a burrito but the bartender won’t give her one this late at night. Alex tries to get one for her and ends up breaking into a closed convenience store to do so, getting tased for his troubles.

Cut to some unspecified time later. Alex is now in the Navy, too. He’s talking about marrying blondie, but she wants him to ask her dad, Admiral Liam Neeson, for her hand first. Also there’s a pre-war games soccer game between America and Japan’s sailors that he loses and a subsequent fight that he gets into. He’s in real danger of getting bounced out of the military after these military exercises are over with, but is also third in command or something. I don’t get it either. This whole jumble of exposition and character building is so confused and tone-deaf, as if the writers had a vague sense of how movies worked and figured they better set up the whos, whats, wheres, whens, and whys before getting into the action, but had little idea of how to actually go about doing that.

But then, the aliens arrive. These unseen baddies set up a force field around the islands, cutting off a few battleships from all outside help. Poor Liam Neeson can only appear in one or two scenes where he looks determined, worried, and utterly powerless to intervene. Meanwhile, blondie is stuck on the side of a Hawaiian mountain where she is occasionally called upon to interact with a veteran (real veteran Gregory D. Gadson) who has two prosthetic legs and together the two of them look over at some aliens off in the distance and look worried. It’s up to good old Alex to rise to the occasion and figure out how to stop the alien invasion. And I haven’t even mentioned the quivering scientist (Hamish Linklater), also stranded on that mountain, whose satellite array brought the aliens to Hawaii in the first place. There’s also the scowling Petty Officer played by pop star Rihanna and the comic relief (I guess?) provided by Jesse Plemons. They get to scowl and crack wise and shoot big guns.

But anyways, all these characters are trapped in this impenetrable energy bubble. I was all ready to hate the movie based on how terminally uninvolving and unbelievably sloppy I found the schlocky first hour (or more) of this 131-minute movie. Even the opening alien salvo is just nonsense, shredding city streets and toppling buildings in a familiar and dull way. A main character dies almost immediately when a battleship goes down and I hardly cared. But then a funny thing happened. The movie picks up some steam and charges forward into occasionally diverting silliness. It doesn’t get good, exactly, but it moves up from awful to just plain watchable mediocrity. By the end I wasn’t enjoying myself, exactly, but the highly improbable use of a floating museum in the climax made me smile a little.

And it’s kind of clever how the gameplay of Battleship is integrated into the movie. The battleships can’t detect the alien vessels on their radar, but luckily the alien ships can’t seem to spot them either. Luckily a Japanese officer (Tadanobu Asano) comes aboard to help the Americans detect the vessels. He does something related to water displacement and buoy sensors, but the end result is a grid that looks suspiciously like the board game. “E-11!” “Fire!” “Anything?” “It’s a miss!” The following sequence is rather suspenseful, if more than a little goofy. But it’s not any sillier than the way the alien’s missiles are cylinders with little pegs in the bottom so that they stick in the battleships before blowing up. Again, like the game. This is what’s modestly involving about the movie. I never cared about the characters. The humans are mostly indistinguishable except for the main characters that we’re told to like and root for just because they are the main characters. The aliens are just a squishy, flavorless, derivative horde. What do they even want? Who knows? Open fire!

The problem that plagues the movie all the way through is the lack of personality. That’s why the flashes of board-game-referencing winks are the most enjoyable moments; they’re the only relatable, recognizable moments. The acting’s simply functional for such dysfunctional roles. Neeson’s wasted. Kitsch is a blank. (John Carter had a much better role for him.) Rihanna could actually be a good (or even great) action star in a better movie; she has plenty of tough charm here. Linklater’s scientist gets one sort of good line when he comes crashing out of the jungle: “They killed my grad students!” Decker was hired for her cleavage. Not helping the actors much at all are the action and effects which, from the aliens’ designs right down to the nonstop weightless carnage, are just so much shiny digital confusion.

Director Peter Berg, not the most consistent of filmmakers (on the one hand, Friday Night Lights, on the other, Hancock), has shot it all in a style that can only be called watered-down Michael Bay. It’s all of the militarism and convoluted plotting with none of the idiosyncratic personality and ability to create striking imagery. Love him or hate him, it’s hard to deny that Bay has a distinctive style and when he’s given a big, loud set-piece to execute he knows, for better or worse, how to play it up big.  Here Berg’s only cobbling together a pale imitation, serving up so little payoff that there’s little sense waiting through the setup. 

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