An intrepid vessel with firepower
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, May 18, 2012
Battleship -- Hasbro’s venerable game of naval strategy in which players use a combination of guesswork and logic to deduce the location of their opponents’ ships -- isn’t exactly known for its thrill-a-minute narrative complexity. So it’s understandable if some moviegoers might approach the new action-adventure film inspired by it with the same trepidation they would feel about “Yahtzee: The Movie.”
Fear not. “Battleship” is an invigorating blast of cinematic adrenaline.
Deftly directed by Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights”), from a script by brothers Eric and Jon Hoeber (“Red”) that adds muscle, sinew and heart to the skeletal source material, the resulting film is an enormously entertaining amusement-park ride. Yes, it’s a bit preposterous, not to mention loud. But it’s also brisk and viscerally thrilling, with a genuine surprise or two -- including a plot twist that manages to brilliantly incorporate the game’s essential DNA of blindly shooting at invisible targets. It’s the most fun anyone could ever have staring at a grid of blinking dots.
Of course, the story is about more than trying to sink someone’s unseen battleship. Especially because the “someone,” in this case, is an alien armada that has splashed down in the waters off Hawaii. As with most extraterrestrials since “The War of the Worlds,” they have not come in peace.
Responding to the threat is the U.S. Navy, personified by the crew of the destroyer John Paul Jones and its captain, Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch). A young, untested lieutenant who is unexpectedly thrust into the role of leader when the aliens’ initial attack leaves him the senior officer standing, Hopper and his ship are left to face the aliens, and separated from the rest of the fleet -- from the rest of the world, really -- by a domelike force field.
This, of course, sets up the cat-and-mouse-like maneuvers that are at the heart of both the game and the movie. The alien vessels, which hop about on the surface of the ocean like aquatic insects, are impervious to our radar. And certain anatomical peculiarities of the aliens’ vision also make it difficult for them to fully “see” us. Their “Terminator”-like scanning ability seems to allow them to identify military hardware more readily than people.
Several elements add depth and texture to this straightforward set-up, including Hopper’s inferiority complex about his older, more seasoned brother (Alexander Skarsgard), a straight-arrow naval commander whose fate, early in the film, precipitates his little brother’s reluctant maturation. Hopper also has a honey, Sam (Brooklyn Decker), back in Hawaii, a physical therapist at a veteran’s hospital whose work with a double amputee (real-life Army Col. Gregory D. Gadson, making his acting debut) plays a critical role in the ensuing battle. Gadson is no Laurence Olivier, but he makes an appealing hero.
Sam also happens to be the daughter of an admiral (a gruffly appealing, if less than essential, Liam Neeson).
Rather than encumbering the story, these added ingredients mainly enrich it. So, too, do the circumstances of the film’s climax, a flat-out fun and shamelessly stirring twist that involves a group of World War II vets and a decommissioned battleship. It’s been decades since the Navy actually used one of those steam-powered behemoths -- as opposed to the more modern class of destroyer seen most often in the film -- but what “Battleship” worth its salt could be made without one? The movie’s themes of sacrifice, heroism and honor -- especially the respect for tradition -- may be corny and old-fashioned, but what can I say? They still work.
Mostly, however, it’s the action that propels this fleet film forward. Like its naval namesake, “Battleship” may be bulky, long and overblown, but when it gets in the water it’s as nimble as a speedboat.
Sure, it may be beset by a few cliches -- along with aliens -- but in the end it manages to outmaneuver them all.
Contains action violence, mayhem and some obscenity.