Movie Review: BATTLESHIP Is All Heart, No Brains

Is Peter Berg's board game adaptation a shockingly trenchant critique of American foreign policy or a stupid blow 'em up? Or both?

The use of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son on the end credits of Battleship reveals the movie to be either a delightfully subversive critique of American imperialism post-WWII or a work of singularly wet-brained idiocy. Sadly, whichever is true, Battleship is still not a very good movie.

Director Peter Berg engages in Michael Bay fetishism the way one might say Ed Gein engaged in female festishism - he all but wears the flesh of the director as he painstakingly recreates the feel and look of a Bay movie. The good news is that Berg is all about the earlier, better Bay movies - Armageddon is all over Battleship like the Beatles are all over Oasis. That’s about all the good news I have; while the movie often looks wonderful and the too-brief ship-to-ship combat scenes are a blast, everything else is a drag.

The movie opens with an endless series of prologues, establishing that humanity created some kind of laser blast device to communicate with alien planets as well as that Taylor Kitsch’s character is a rule-breaking loner who will break all the rules because he’s lone and rule-averse. At one point it seems as if every single character in the movie will give Kitsch a speech telling him he has to stop breaking so many rules, you loner.

All that rule breaking somehow forces him to end up in the Navy, where it turns out he’s a genius and great seaman... just one who keeps breaking rules. And so he’s about to get kicked out of the Navy, even though he’s engaged to the Admiral’s (Liam Neeson, giving roughly the amount of effort you get from a surly McDonald’s employee) daughter (bikini model Brooklyn Decker, one of the legion of non-actors who non-act throughout the whole movie). In fact he’s going to get court martialed as soon as a big international war game, RimPac, is over. Good thing aliens invade right in the middle of it!

The aliens are actually an expeditionary force, and there are just five ships - one of which slams into a satellite on approach and breaks up in our atmosphere. For about 20 minutes Battleship promises to be full of spectacle and silly excitement; there are some stirring scenes of ship-to-ship combat that are fun if you simply close off the part of your mind that insistently asks why the alien ships don’t just launch off the surface of the water. But Berg and writers Erich and Jon Hoeber can’t figure out how to sustain that, and so the movie wanders off into endlessly boring other things, like Brooklyn Decker hiking up a mountain with an Army vet who lost his legs.

Taylor Kitsch is much better here than he was in John Carter - a movie in which he was hopelessly miscast. There’s still not enough of him to hold the movie, though; Kitsch simply doesn’t feel like a leading man. He feels like a strong support player out of his depth. The script doesn’t help, as it has him going from a rule-breaking loner to a responsible man of reasonable action in between scenes.

Everybody else pretty much sucks. I’m not kidding when I say the film is loaded with non-actors, and watching the difference between these people and the regular bad actors in the rest of the film (Turtle from Entourage has like one line, and he manages to stink that up) will help you appreciate acting. Even terrible actors are worlds better than civilians.

The best non-actor of the bunch is Rihanna, playing a character who has literally no defining qualities beyond her name. There’s something blank in her that reads strangely on camera; I began to get the feeling that Rihanna was actually a great actress and she was playing her role as a sociopath, a completely empty vessel engaged in a daily sham on a Navy destroyer - a she-devil sea-devil. I doubt that’s the reality of it, but it made the movie a little bit more fun.

There are other fun bits in the movie. Again, I loved the ship-to-ship combat sequences. I needed to aggressively put aside logic for much of them, but Berg shoots them with a coherence and respect for the actual tactics of naval warfare. The inevitable scene where our heroes are shooting missiles blindly at grid coordinates (“Echo 11.” “Firing at Echo 11.” “It’s a miss!”) is actually kind of great, filled with tension and playing the board game aspect with an endearingly straight face.

One place where Berg truly outshines Bay is his appreciation for the military. For Bay it always feels like an aesthetic thing - he likes the look of it all. But Berg is obviously deeply in love with the military, from the hardware all the way down to the discipline and camaraderie. Kitsch’s story arc is supposedly about learning to operate in a team environment, and to put aside his own personal glory. That’s very much the antithesis of Bay, who has the anonymous military guys in his movies but who celebrates the individual in a bigger way.

It’s that appreciation that gives this misshapen movie its big squishy heart. Berg fills the movie with a love for military men and women that transcends jingoism and is actually kind of sweet. Gregory D Gadsen, who lost both his legs in Baghdad in 2007, plays one of the film’s heroes - but there’s a non-exploitative feeling to his role. If the movie was any good it would have actually been moving, all about proving that being a good soldier isn’t about having legs but about having courage under fire. Unfortunately Gadsen is a dreadful actor and his plotline is a tedious bit of bullshit, but I really appreciate the sentiment.

If I were to like anything about Battleship, that would be it - the sentiment deep in its heart. Berg is wowed by the artillery and the scale of these ships, but he’s more wowed by the bravery of the men and women who inhabit them. Michael Bay could never feel this way about human beings, which makes Berg the better director.

If there were anything I else I might like about Battleship it’s the absolutely insane, ridiculous and stupid finale, which manages to merge Berg’s worshipful respect for our veterans with absolutely daft physics and drowns it all out with deafening explosions, screeching metal and guitar riffs by Tom Morello. I’m going to spoil this bit in the next few paragraphs, so if you want to be go into the Battleship experience pure, now’s the time to bow out.

I want to circle back around to the first paragraph here, and examine the movie’s strange thematic elements. The film’s a mess - the opening 30 minutes are painful and thudding (Berg plays the Pink Panther theme while Kitsch breaks into a convenience store to impress a girl (because he’s a rules-breaking loner, you’ll recall. Don’t worry, the film will remind you forty more times)), the second act will make you squirm in your seat with sheer boredom - so I can’t decide if any of what I read in the film is on purpose or just the kind of thing that happens when people spend $200 million on a movie and don’t think about it.

Spoilers follow.

The aliens in Battleship are not bad guys. The movie actually goes out of its way to prove this, showing the aliens attempting to avoid civilian casualties. They’re a small expeditionary force on Earth for their own reasons - scouting? Resource discovery? - but wholesale invasion isn’t one of them. They engage in commando attempts to rescue their own, just as our Navy SEALs would. They cut off highways while attempting to minimize loss of life.  At one point they even help humans in a crucial moment, possibly out of sheer kindness.

They feel like us, basically. They’re imperialists who are coming to another world for their own needs, but they’re not inherently cruel or bad. They’re not trying to hurt anybody. They don’t even begin the hostilities, really. But their very presence is hurting a lot of people.

If they’re us, that makes us Iraq. Or Vietnam. Or any other nation where the American war machine blundered in - possibly with the best of intentions, possibly out of simple greed - and killed lots and lots of people. As the movie goes on it’s impossible not to see this connection as Berg and his writers steadfastly refuse to demonize the aliens - which is the most obvious course of action in a movie like this (I suspect some audiences will be confused by the fact that the aliens are NOT marauders).

I wasn’t sure if this metaphor meant anything until the third act. All of the Navy ships that have been fighting the aliens are destroyed, and the aliens still have their big, main ship in play. Taylor Kitsch realizes that there’s still one boat in the water, and it’s the decommissioned USS Missouri, a WWII-era ship that’s been sidelined for a decade. The survivors of the previous battles take to the Missouri, which they don’t know how to operate. But it’s okay, because a whole bunch of old, toothless, worn down vets show up out of nowhere to lend a hand.

Yes, Berg has a ton of actual naval vets show up in the last act to man the ship in the final battle. It’s Rihanna side by side with a 90 year old man who has been gumming his food longer than she’s been alive (forget being scandalized by serving next to a woman, this guy is probably horrified there are black people aboard). Defying all logic and probably inspired by the pilot of Battlestar Galactica, the floating museum is quickly returned to fighting shape and the old guys - with all of their vet gravitas - help win the day. If there is any reason to see Battleship it's to watch the slomo hero shots of truly ancient men strutting on the deck of the battleship, firing machine guns and getting blown up.

What does that have to do with any of the imperialism stuff? It feels like Berg is harkening back to an American military machine pre-imperialism, a machine whose presence in WWII was beyond justified. Taylor Kitsch doesn’t just have to learn how to no longer be a hot shot, he has to team up with the last surviving reminders of America’s long-gone moral superiority. We have to go all the way back to Doublya Doublya Two to find the America required to truly defeat this enemy - who is a reflection of our own modern military adventurism.

And then the movie ends and Creedence comes on. I was honestly dumbstruck; either the use of Fortunate Son is yet another occasion where someone chose a song without understanding its lyrics, or it’s the Rosetta Stone to the whole thing. WWII was a war where everyone fought, but Vietnam - the war John Fogerty is decrying in the song - was quite the opposite. The children of the rich and powerful were never in harm’s way, and it was the poor and ordinary who died for the political games of the power elite. In many ways Fortunate Son remains the theme of our men and women in uniform, many of whom are there because of lack of opportunity, and who die or are maimed in wars that have no function and no purpose.

If that’s what Berg and company are doing here - pantsing 60 years of American foreign policy while celebrating the people who are forced to carry out that policy - Battleship is one of the most breathtakingly strange blockbusters of all time. Too bad it's still not a particularly good one.