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Battleship is unapologetically slight of plot, ear drum-crushingly loud, spewed wall to wall with CGI and wields an in-your-face pro-American agenda. But, I’m sorry, I can’t tell you not to see it. It’s so terrible, so mind-numbingly incomprehensible, so targeted to the ADD generation that it somehow manages to be absurdly fun.
Most of the credit for that goes to director Peter Berg, who laughs in the face of anyone expecting more than a string of one-liners and explosions. It’s as if he’s reveling in its awesome badness by imploring, “What the hell did you expect? It’s based on a board game!” And his film is the cinematic equivalent of playing the classic Hasbro fare — set ‘em up, knock ‘em down. Only in the case of the Universal Pictures adaptation, he does so with a $209 million budget.
Summarizing the plot is something of a formality (or an exercise in futility, if I’m being honest). Alex Hopper (played by Taylor Kitsch) is a bad-boy lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, much to the chagrin of his older brother Commander Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgard). The two have more-than-serviceable chemistry, as evidenced in an opening bar scene in which Alex instantly in love with sexy blonde chicken burrito-seeking patron Samantha Shane (Brooklyn Decker), who turns out to be the daughter of Stone’s boss Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson). Alex wants to ask Samantha’s father for permission to marry, but — always the ornery youngin’ — he keeps messing up, most notably during the international naval war games played in Hawaii, when he picks a fight with Japanese Captain Yugi Nagata (Tadanobu Asano).
Conversely, we meet Cal (Hamish Linklater), a scientist who’s been supervising a project to send satellite outreach to planets with similar climates to Earth. When after six years the call is finally answered, the result is an invasion akin to Columbus discovering America, only, as Cal says, “We’re the Indians.” Five massive pieces of artillery land in the Pacific Ocean (and countless others attack Hong Kong, although that plot line is quickly abandoned), launching a battle between alien life and human civilization, and forcing Battleship‘s cast to confront the carefully laid-out bullet points for the development of their characters, with help from plenty of cheesy lines, slow-motion sequences, expositional dialogue and artistically flying shrapnel to string the yarn together.
What I’m trying to say is this: Battleship is a cinematic Mad Lib, employing recognizable actors — That guy from Friday Night Lights! That model from the cover of Sports Illustrated! The sexy vampire on True Blood! Liam Neeson! — and substituting zooms, lens flares, point-of-view shots, sweeping overhead vistas and action for the juicy, faceted qualifiers found in most cerebral action films. And, as with most purposefully marred versions of the fill-in-the-blank game, the results garner embarrassingly red-faced glee.
For their part, Asano and Kitsch are delightful together in something of an opposites-attract bromance. Kitsch isn’t having the best year; in the wake of John Carter, most are hesitant to consider him a leading man. He secures in the label in this film, however, striking the perfect balance of brawn and tongue-in-cheek delivery. To Berg’s credit, this movie is dumb as bricks, but everyone’s in on the joke.
We don’t particularly need to know why the aliens are here (they’re essentially human forms with lizard-like facial features, catfish-esque whiskers, and four-fingered hands reminiscent of claw-crane vending machines); they’re clearly a threat, and they must be blasted to smithereens, stat! There’s absolutely no questioning their motives, or understanding their plights (although we’re treated to myriad POV shots from their ships, and even within their helmets, in the name of visual awe). They’re suspiciously picky about who they destroy and who they spare, though: One moment, a screen within their headgear identifies the eyeball and beating heart of a human, and they ignore it to instead demolish the support beams of a highway. The next, they’re pursuing and killing lone mountain rangers outside a satellite office. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, aside from emphasizing the “plot” points, and sparing the characters required to “advance” them.
This is where the uber-patriotic messaging seems to come into play: There’s a threat to our national security, and we run at it, guns blazing. Compounded with Stone and Alex’s storyline and its underlying inferences regarding duty, honor and self-control, there’s also a subsequent (and wholly delightful, I might add) plot thread emphasizing the reverence for, and continued relevance of, our country’s veterans. The undertones of the film read like a big-budget depiction of those adrenaline-fueled, hard rock-soundtracked U.S. military commercials.
I don’t envy physicists watching this movie, as their brains will implode faster than an aircraft carrier behind enemy lines. The suspension of disbelief required to swallow some of the events is wrenching — this is a world in which the sudden drop of a battleship anchor stops it in its tracks amid a full-speed charge, or immediately changing the direction of a destroyer or cruiser lends it to outrunning guided missiles. And that’s just the beginning. The inner workings of the alien ships, which leap in and out of the water at will, are baffling.
But maybe I’ve been intellectualizing too much. At the end of the day, despite a bit of a lag toward the middle of the third act (being bombarded with explosions, zooms, and zing-y dialogue for more than two hours gets a little redundant), Battleship is blissfully self-aware of its paper-thin premise. It delivers precisely what’s expected, and then some, making absolutely no excuses for its own stupidity, and simply reveling in its massive scale.
But before I’m run away with my feelings, I must burst your lens-flared bubble: If you’re expecting a character in Battleship to utter the famous line, “You sunk my battleship,” you’ll be left wanting. Cold comfort, perhaps, but there’s a lengthy scene that pays homage to the grid-like numerical setup of the original game, not to mention that Battleship lends its catchphrase revamped wording via an elderly character (if you don’t laugh during this moment, I take pity on your cold, cold heart).
If you’re one of the 0.0001 percent of people on Earth who hasn’t seen The Avengers yet, do that. For the rest of you: If you’re looking for a ridiculous time at the movies, Battleship may just be your bag. Think: dumbed-down Michael Bay, boasting one-tenth of the ego and even less of the attention span. This is a summer blockbuster in the most diluted sense of the word — anticipate anything more, and you’ll find your expectations sunk.
Battleship opens today nationwide.