131 min., rated PG-13.
Summer movies are equated to air-conditioning and buckets of hot-buttered popcorn. Typically, the big blockbusters are cynically conceived, desperately crowd-pleasing products hot-wired for audiences to just pay $11 to $17 and shut their brain off. And in this day and age of CG filmmaking, brands (i.e. Hasbro toys and board games) are the jumping-off point for live-action action bonanzas. Who knows, perhaps "Chutes and Ladders: The Musical" will be in the works before we know it. Now, while Michael Bay has pounded the franchise of "Transformers" into bloated, metallic, eye-stabbing noise-makers, director Peter Berg (2008's sporadically entertaining mess "Hancock") captains "Battleship," which is also big, loud, and dumb. But even though it weighs a ton and has bricks for brains, Berg's $200-million tentpole is more fun than it could have been and never makes you miss those damn clanking Autobots and Decepticons. It might end up a derivative alien-invasion flick, crossed with "Top Gun," "Armageddon," "Pearl Harbor," and "Transformers," but at least it knows it's goofy and gets the job done.
NASA has discovered Planet-G, a distant planet identical to Earth, to which they've transmitted a communication signal. Around that time, Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), an unambitious 26-year-old living on the couch of big brother/naval officer Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgård), is such a waste of potential that Stone forces him to take a new course of action in joining the Navy. Though making it as lieutenant, Alex is despised by his commanding officer, Admiral Shane (a stern Liam Neeson, disappearing for long chunks of the action). Problem is, Alex and the admiral's daughter, Samantha (Brooklyn Decker), are an item, and Alex needs to ask Dad for his permission to marry her. With all the setup out of the way, thus starts the Navy's RIMCAP naval exercises in Hawaii. Five alien vessels arrive in response to NASA's signal, one crashing through Hong Kong and the other four landing around their Navy base and setting up a force field in the Pacific Ocean. Of course, after the aliens fire peg-like missiles and take out a few of the ships, Alex (now a lieutenant) must command the John Paul Jones destroyer. At the same time, Sam, herself a physical therapist, goes hiking up a mountain on Oahu with a patient, Army lieutenant Mick (played by Iraq War vet Gregory D. Gadson) who lost his legs in combat. Of course, their hiking exercise gets cut short when it happens to be right near the satellite center where the aliens take over. Who will save the world from this extinction-level event?
A flimsy idea from the get-go, writing characters and an actual story into the strategies of the titular Hasbro game didn't take much brain power based on the script by Erich and Jon Hoeber (2010's "RED"). Combining disaster-movie chestnuts and rah-rah Navy propaganda, this is mostly cookie-cutter Hollywood stuff. Instead of witty, Aaron Sorkin-level dialogue, we get "I got a bad feeling about this!" and "Let's give the world one more day." Luckily, after a character says the latter line, another says, "Who talks like that?" to affirm the film is more knowing about its goofiness than being self-serious. In order to get us to actually like the characters, the film gets off to an amusing start. As the Hopper brothers celebrate Alex's birthday in a bar, a hungry Sam enters, hoping she could order a chicken burrito. But the kitchen's closed, so in order to pick her up, Alex goes to great lengths to get her that burrito. Given the "Pink Panther" theme during his mini-quest, the filmmakers intentionally aren't taking it seriously, so neither should we.
As non-3D spectacle, "Battleship" is never boring and presented with actual visual coherence. As opposed to bombast and point-and-shoot-style camerawork, Berg and his cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler move the camera without losing us, and the action choreography is efficient. The early Hong Kong destruction is quite threatening. Then when the aliens' ships first rise up from the water, with Alex and his team going to investigate as if it's a mock war game, Berg manages to pull off palpable tension. Steve Jablonsky's industrial music score surprisingly throws us on edge, not sounding like just another generic action theme, even after he scored all three "Transformers." The director also kicks up the action in which the aliens unleash weapons that look like tires with electric razor heads, and boy, they do some damage. And the aliens themselves interestingly reveal to not be so different from humans; even their weakness isn't far from our own if we don't wear sunglasses and sunscreen. Berg does rely on a few apocalyptic devices that feel too much like Michael Bay: a baseball game interrupted, a boy with his mother stuck in traffic staring at the sky, etc. By the third act, you can feel the action start to burn itself out from so much destruction, with still another big action set-piece to go. If you've seen five explosions, you've seen 'em all. As more stuff goes boom!, the crew does get to use a computer monitor grid, not unlike the actual board game. Nobody actually utters "You sank my battleship!", but that might've sunk the whole enterprise into parody.
Naturally, this effects-laden extravaganza isn't an actor's piece, but none of them drown. While "John Carter" did the leading man no favors, Kitsch gets to show more charisma as Alex, who never comes off like a smarmy jerk. He's actually a guy to root for, making an arc from ne'er-do-well to Planet Earth's hero. Just seen in "What to Expect When You're Expecting" this weekend, Decker gets to play Hot Blonde in Peril, and she does it just fine without even breaking a nail. In her film debut, musical artist Rihanna doesn't embarrass herself, subbing for Michelle Rodriguez and playing the crew's tough-as-nails weapons expert Petty Officer Cora "Weps" Raikes. Mostly given one-liners to shout (i.e. "Mahalo, motherfu----!"), she's a hoot. Also, Hamish Linklater and Jesse Plemons add unobnoxious comic relief, respectively, playing jittery scientist Cal Zapata and half-witted Boatswain Mate Seaman Jimmy "Ordy" Ord.
On the whole, "Battleship" is more Roland Emmerich than Michael Bay. No camera gets shoved up Brooklyn Decker's rump, for one, and there's at least a sense of tension and something at stake whereas most of Bay's movies just numb the senses. And as bulky as 131 minutes seems (which is shorter than most of Bay's filmography), Berg keeps things moving. Noisy? Dopey? Yes and yes, absolutely. But without having any delusions of grandeur, it's fun and exceeds lower-than-dirt expectations. That might not sound like a ringing endorsement, but for the first blockbuster of the summer season (not counting "The Avengers"), we could do a whole lot worse.
Grade: B -