“Sometimes you want a steak, sometimes you want a burger”. I don't know at what point we started comparing summer blockbusters to fast food, but it's a justification that reaches its nadir with Battleship, a movie so cynically manufactured and full of empty calories that it literally feels like it should come in a paper bag with a plastic toy.
Just as fast food chains have spent millions on developing the exact combination of fats and artificial flavors to make you think you're eating actual food, so Universal and Hasbro have joined forces to offer up something that looks and sounds like a real action movie, but passes through the system without leaving anything nourishing in its wake.
Battleship doesn't so much have a story as a scenario: aliens land in the Pacific during a naval exercise. It then threads a handful of CGI setpieces into that scenario and links them together with the most perfunctory character arc imaginable.
That arc belongs to Alex Hopper, played with amiable anonymity by Taylor Kitsch, who is really not having a good summer. In a hurried and half-assed opening we discover that Hopper is an immature jerk who can't hold down a job, has no money, no car and no impulse control. His straight arrow Naval commander brother (an underused Alexander Skarsgård) keeps nagging him and, after Alex gets in trouble with the law while trying to impress a girl, big brother signs him up for the Navy in a last ditch attempt to straighten him out.
We then hurtle forwards to discover that Alex has almost built a decent Navy career, but is about to throw that away as well. The girl he impressed is the daughter of Liam Neeson's cartoonishly stern admiral, and his hot-headed ways have him marked out as a troublemaker. He's literally hours from being kicked out of the Navy when the aliens attack and, by a convenient string of events, Hopper Jr is left as the senior ranking officer of the last remaining destroyer, trapped inside a forcefield with the aliens. Will Hopper rise to the occasion, discover the meaning of duty and responsibility, and earn Admiral Qui-Gon's approval by the end credits? Place your bets.
If Hopper's arc tickles your memory glands, it should. It's the exact same situation that leads Kirk to take command of the Enterprise in JJ Abrams' Star Trek reboot, and that's far from the only instance of enthusiastic “inspiration” on display in Battleship.
There's the glossy Naval pornography of Top Gun, of course, along with Tony Scott's recent fondness for explaining things by smothering the screen with captions and graphic overlays. Michael Bay is another obvious touchstone, from the obligatory shot of something hurtling to Earth in a trail of smoke, crashing through a skyscraper which then crumbles slowly and awesomely to the ground, to the slow motion revolve around characters staring defiantly into the middle distance.
Berg returns to the Abrams playbook for lots of distracting lens flare, occasionally tips his hat to Zack Snyder's speed-ramping and also looks to Roland Emmerich for the obligatory disaster movie shots. One of James Cameron's shots from Titanic is even copied wholesale. There's The Right Stuff shot of people walking in slow motion towards the camera. And, of course, any close-up action is shot in the juddering post-processed shaky hand held style that directors keep using even though everyone seems to hate it. Basically, name your least favorite blockbuster cliché and chances are you'll find a watered-down echo of it in here.
Even the look and sound of the movie is flavorless and generic. Sound effects go BRAAAAAAWWWRR, as all sound effects must now do apparently, while the score by Transformers composer Steve Jablonsky fills the speakers with constant bombast without ever delivering a memorable theme. Whatever aural gaps remain are plugged with ear-splitting AC/DC songs, because heaven forbid there should be a single moment of silence in Sailors vs Aliens.
The spaceships look like Megatron from Transformers writ large, all jagged edges, thousands of whirring and rotating parts and no discernible shape. The aliens themselves wear armored suits that could be slipped into video games like Halo and Crysis without anyone noticing, while the reveal of their actual features just makes it seem like someone copy-pasted Kilowog from Green Lantern all over the place. They even have a weakness that harks back to Predator, while also raising Signs- style questions about the wisdom of their invasion plans. Not that those plans are ever explored or explained: they're aliens, ergo they're invading. The fact that there's still a planet full of these things out in space, with Earth's coordinates and a score to settle, gets brushed aside in the rush to the triumphant end credits.
Even the Battleship connection is tenuous at best. The aliens shoot missiles that look like pegs, and Berg's weightless CG camera frequently zooms up to the stratosphere to give us a board game viewpoint, but it never adds anything of value to the movie, such as a sense of tangible threat or geography. There's one scene where our heroes literally play Battleship against the aliens, using geographical buoys designed to track water displacement as a tsunami warning system. Grid references are called out, missiles are launched and we're told if it's a hit or a miss. It's almost audacious enough to be clever, as a way of referencing the source material within the “reality” of the movie, but it goes on too long, has negligible stakes and ultimately feels most like the first-person sequence from the Doom movie: a ridiculous contrivance that shatters the fourth wall and distracts from the movie itself.
You may be tempted into the theater by the cast, but don't get your hopes up. Liam Neeson, despite taking top billing, is on-screen for all of five minutes and plays absolutely no part in the action. Rihanna is capable enough but, again, is really just there to shoot at stuff and make sassy quips. Friday Night Lights star Jesse Plemons, looking more like an albino Matt Damon than ever, plays a character who is alternately full of bravado or pissing his pants in fear depending on the needs of the scene. There's also a vaguely defined science guy, Alex's pneumatic girlfriend and a wounded soldier with artificial legs. They're involved in a MacGuffin subplot on dry land that really only exists to hurriedly explain away the obstacles in our hero's path with some shaky movie science. For example, they can't get a message through the forcefield until Science Guy remembers he has a gadget that can do just that, and the problem disappears. The plotting really is that bad.
The net result is a cinematic homunculus, a cynical, artificial movie with absolutely no style, no hook, no life of its own,. This isn't art, it's a product, and that product has been built, rather than crafted, to sit in the spreadsheet box marked “movie” without requiring any emotional or intellectual engagement from the audience. Your entertainment is secondary. The main purpose is to leverage the corporate synergy between Universal and Hasbro, to grow the market awareness of the Battleship IP, and other investment-minded motives.
John Cusack said in an interview with The Guardian newspaper that there are no film studios any more, only banks moving money around, and few films prove him true better than Battleship. This is a movie that lots of people will see, and promptly forget, but it looks good on the balance sheet so that's OK.