I can still recall with great clarity the mixture of dumbfounded incredulity and creeping foreboding I felt when I learned, a couple of years ago, that Peter Berg – hitherto reliable director of knockabout fluff like The Rundown and Hancock – was hard at work on a big screen version of the venerable board game Battleship. This did not strike me as immediately obvious source material for a blockbuster movie, but what I was not taking into account was the monumental cash cow that the Transformers franchise was proving to be for the toy company Hasbro. Why shouldn't they try to make even more money by releasing a string of blockbusters based on famous toys and games? And, for that matter, why shouldn't they cast pint-sized popstrel Rihanna in it?
For, yea, such is the nature of this film: Battleship, the movie, directed by Peter Berg and prominently featuring RiRi. Probably because this is just her first movie, Rihanna is not allowed to be the captain of the battleship. Supreme commander of the naval forces in this film is the increasingly hopeless Liam Neeson (I'm sympathetic to the guy's personal situation, but come on – if doing films like this and The A-Team don't count as letting yourself go, I'm not sure what does – someone organise an intervention), who's not in it much, leaving most of the square-jawed heroing as the responsibility of Taylor Kitsch.
The film opens indicatively enough with some reasonable astronomy followed by some dreadful physics, as scientists in Hawaii apparently shoot giant lasers into space as part of an attempt to contact an alien planet. (What has this got to do with battleships? Good question. Keep reading.) From here we proceed to a bar, where we meet feckless waster Hopper (Kitsch, still in his John Carter haircut). Grindingly unfunny and implausible plot- and character-establishing stuff ensues, as, in an attempt to pick up a girl (Brooklyn Decker), he attempts to burgle a local store to get her a burrito and ends up getting tasered by the cops. His straight-arrow brother is not impressed, announcing that there's only one option for a lazy, reckless, impulsive goon like Hopper – he's going to join the US Navy!
Yup, that's right – to judge by this film, they want a few good men, but an absolute crowd of really mediocre ones. Nevertheless, a while later Hopper has become a senior officer on the USS John Paul Jones (the USS Jimmy Page, the USS Robert Plant, and the USS John Bonham will presumably be in the sequels), and – even more inexplicably – is on the point of getting engaged to the same girl. The problem is that her dad (Neeson) is the admiral of the fleet, who thoroughly disapproves of our hero. Cue lots of toothgrindingly grim romantic scenes and 'comic relief' demonstrating what a goof Hopper remains.
My jaw was hanging open by this point and I was having flashbacks, for fairly obvious reasons, to Pearl Harbor (the movie, not the... oh, you figured that out). Ten minutes into that movie I was praying for the Japanese to arrive and start bombing, and ten minutes into this one I was impatiently awaiting the alien invasion.
Oh, yeah – forgot to mention that. There's an alien invasion in this one, as some extraterrestrial rude boys turn up, possibly to complain about scientists shooting giant lasers at their planet. Disrupting some rather convenient naval manoeuvres most of the characters are engaged in, they stick up a giant invisible space umbrella (...ella, ella, ella) over Hawaii to keep most of the fleet out and set about calling home for reinforcements (sadly for the purposes of this rather weak running gag, not an SOS). The task of stopping them is, needless to say, up to Hopper and his crew (which includes a Barbadian singer, none of whose song titles I could crowbar into this sentence).
Hang on, Awix, you may be saying, I don't remember there being aliens in the game of Battleship. This is true, but neither is there anything else you can really hang a story on – there's a sequence at one point in this film which goes to slightly absurd lengths to recreate the experience of playing the game, but the rest of it is new, if by new you mean 'blatantly ripped off from the Transformers movies'.
This is most obviously clear in the whole aesthetic of the aliens and their technology, which is based around extremely complicated devices that spend ages clicking, sliding, hinging, rotating, unfolding, folding, clunking and hissing before actually doing anything notable. But it's also there in the continual, unfunny comic relief in the opening section of the film, the general lack of narrative coherence, and the fetishising of military hardware of all kinds.
The film practically canonises anyone who's served in the US armed forces, too, especially veterans. Now I'm not saying that these people haven't done significant deeds and made great sacrifices, and they're not unworthy of our remembrance and praise, but crowbarring all of that into a fundamentally stupid film like this one makes the sentiment seem as crass and overblown as the rest of the story: it all seems so earnest and glib and schmaltzy at the same time. Most prominently, Gregory D Gadson plays a soldier who's lost both his legs in combat, and is having psychological issues as a result. Needless to say, by the final reel he has got his mojo back and is (literally) using his prosthetic legs to kick alien butt. It would seem incredibly tasteless were it not so absurd.
It would be remiss of me to suggest that Battleship is all bad. Hamish Linklater, an amiable actor who on recent evidence (this, The Future) should change his agent, is quite good as a boffin – he even gets a line complaining about how ludicrous everyone else's dialogue is. The visual effects are, not surprisingly for a film with a $200m budget, good. And Peter Berg, though clearly under instructions to copy Michael Bay's style, can't quite force himself down to the arch-fiend's level – as a result, you can tell what's going on most of the time, and there's relatively little sign of inappropriate intimacy between the director and the frame. And some of the early action with the navy fighting the aliens is actually quite involving and thrilling – but then Rihanna goes past in a dinghy firing a machine-gun, and you're smacked round the head by how silly it all really is.
It made me long for Roland Emmerich, apparently the only director who can make this sort of big, daft epic without the whole thing becoming stodgy or ostentatiously stupid. Still, massive box office success and world domination no doubt await (not to mention the 2014 release of Scrabble: the Movie, with Nicki Minaj saving the world from vowel-hating alien mnstrs). Nevertheless, while this movie certainly resembles an inelegant object often to be found floating in water, the object in question is not a battleship.