It all started with the 1953 film ‘War of the Worlds’, this trend of all-powerful alien invaders who are weirdly impervious to even our most powerful weapons, but ultimately are defeated by the most banal or mundane of ordinance, bacteria or poor anti-virus software. It’s a fundamental plot challenge for the genre: the invader has to be tough enough to make us unsure of the outcome, but not so tough that they really do win because where’s the fun in a film that ends with a “global extinction event”?
Take that challenge, wrap it loosely around a popular children’s grid guessing game and mix in a very, very generous amount of ‘Transformers’ and a sprinkle of ‘Pearl Harbor’ and you’ve got the loud action mess ‘Battleship’. Which isn’t to say that this film isn’t without its visceral pleasures. If you like big in-your-face action sequences and some of the best effects that the industry can produce, there’s definitely something to be said for the film.
The story follows ne’er-do-well slacker Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) who we meet as a drunk screw-up but then is dragooned into the US Navy by his older brother, Commander Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgard). Somehow, Alex ends up a Lieutenant, which works well for the story but is quite inexplicable given how military chains of command actually work. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Hopper is in love with the gorgeous Sam Shane (Brooklyn Decker), who just happens to be the daughter of tough-as-nails Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), commander of the entire Pacific Fleet. How many times has that “cute daughter of the C.O.” cliché been used in cinema now?
In a rousing argument against our space exploration programs, the aliens are drawn to Earth by a NASA project sending wide-spectrum welcome messages to a far distant Earth-like planet that’s just the right distance from its own sun to sustain life. Ooops. The aliens show up, splash into the ocean just off Hawaii (where there’s a convenient military joint-forces exercise going on) and promptly put up a huge force field that covers the entire Hawaiian islands, so that all the destroyers, cruisers, etc are stuck outside and unable to help the natives. Except the aliens don’t want to invade, they have other plans…
Sharp military historians have already pointed out that there are actually no active battleships in the US Navy fleet and, as with a number of elements, the solution of the filmmakers that brings one into the storyline is ingenious and amusing, albeit more than a bit hard to believe. They deserve the most credit for how a grid-based shooting situation results from the side-effects of the force field. That was terrific!
Still, it’s frustrating to watch cliches played out on screen, time and again, to see plot holes so massive that an alien craft could have flown through it, and to watch characters like Alex and Captain Yugi Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) go through their prescribed antagonist, fist-fight, grudging respect, best of friends sequence in such a predictable manner.
‘Battleship’ could have been a lot worse. Instead, from the special effects to the vapid storyline, the big/loud aliens to the occasionally cloying pro-military stance, it’s just what I figured it’d be: ‘Transformers 4’. If you liked the other ‘Transformers’ films, you’ll probably like ‘Battleship‘. Just have low expectations and enjoy the effects. You’ll do just fine.