Hollywood has pretty much dedicated the summer’s silly season to movies that cross-promote comic books, toys, cartoons and games.
So following Marvel’s “The Avengers” and hitting the theaters before the latest “Show White” re-imagining comes “Battleship,” which derives from the Hasbro game and toy catalog.
Real battleships have, in fact, gone into mothballs in our navy so the movie rightfully should be entitled Destroyer. (The film’s stars are Aegis naval destroyers.) But what’s in a name when you’re promoting a product line?
The film this most reminds me of goes back to the 1980 “The Final Countdown” starring Kirk Douglas, a sci-fi’er in which a modern aircraft carrier gets mysteriously transported back to December 1941 in the hours leading up to the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. As ludicrous as the concept was, it did offer the opportunity for an almost documentary-like portrayal of a nuclear aircraft carrier in action. (The U.S. Navy really cooperated with that film, of course.)
Similarly, Battleship lovingly displays the tenacious fighting abilities of a modern destroyer and the heroism of the American sailor. (Oh yes, you better believe the Navy cooperated with this film too.)
Like “The Final Countdown,” “Battleship” is set in and around the Hawaiian Islands and Pearl Harbor, only this time U.S. and Japanese join forces to engage aliens from outer space.
There is a bit of a push-me-pull-you effect in having to promote both a time-honored board game and the Navy while delivering the necessary schlock-and-awe of a sci-fi flick. Plenty of evidence exits in its screenplay, written by brothers Erich and Jon Hoeber, that these writers intended tongue-in-cheek camp. Lines such as “I’m getting a bad feeling about this” or “We gotta get off this mountain!” can only be read as a deep bow to the movie clichés of yesteryear. But director Peter Berg — a middling actor who has morphed into a middling director — didn’t get the memo.
Berg plays the naval battles and conflicts as if he were John Ford directing one of his patriotic World War II movies. The black-sheep lieutenant (Taylor Kitsch coming off super-flop “John Carter”), his elder commanding-officer brother (Alexander Skarsgard), Japanese arch rival turned ally (Tadanobu Asano) and the disapproving admiral (Liam Neeson) and father to the slacker’s fiancée (Brooklyn Decker) — these stereotypes are all played with mind-numbing earnestness.
That a number of active-duty destroyers temporarily mooring in Pearl Harbor got so much screen time is all well and good. The only thing missing is a shot of a recruiting poster. But, pleeeease, having the Battleship Missouri Memorial at Pearl swing into action, locked, loaded and ready for combat, requires a more pronounced comic tone than Berg delivers. The Missouri is a museum for pity’s sake!
It’s hard to say how smart it was to turn this Hasbro game into an alien-invasion movie. Certainly the extraterrestrials, as has been the case in such recent movies as “Cowboys and Aliens” and “Super 8,” are a dull bunch. They are simply humanoids outfitted in clumsy space gear with naval warships that look like rejects from the last “Transformers” movie.
The movie begins with NASA beaming an anybody-out-there? satellite transmission to a distant planet, thus announcing our presence to what turns out to be a hostile life form. A nerdy scientist (Hamish Linklater) mutters something to the effect that if those alien dudes do respond it will be Christopher Columbus and the Indians all over again — only we’re the Indians.
The movie then spends the better part of half an hour building up the case for Alex Hopper’s (Kitsch) unlikely naval career. He’s a hard-drinking screw-up who hits rock bottom so solidly in the opening scenes that his brother Stone (Scarsgard) insists that he join him in the Navy. In a fortnight, or so it seems, he is a naval lieutenant but still a screw-up on the verge of being discharged dishonorably. Wanna take a guess who will wind up defending humanity against what the Defense Secretary calls an “extinction-level event?”
On board for the fight against the aliens is music superstar Rihanna, making her film debut as a petty officer. A movie like this makes mild demands on a neophyte but Rihanna shows some chops and might be a force to reckon with in a better movie. Neeson, the only well known actor in the cast, is barely in the film, perhaps a week’s work, and even then he’s on auto-pilot.
A couple of actors, Linklater — who did get the memo about comic possibilities — and Gregory D. Gadson, an actual battalion leader who lost his legs in Iraq, suggest characters more interesting than the movie itself if they were allowed to develop further than the sketchy script allows.
The action sequences are okay as far as that goes. Somewhere, say, between “Avengers” overkill and the soggy battles of “Waterworld.” Berg deploys his actors and visual effects in workmanlike fashion but there’s nothing to get too excited about here. Moviemakers still rely far too heavily on CGI to sell these sci-fi effects sequences so audiences are increasingly hard to please in this area.
The extraterrestrial movie that developed so nicely from its B-movie origins such as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” through the Spielberg cycle of “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” has now hit the doldrums. Alien monsters are showing up in movies without rhythm or reason — they’re just big hairy things to extinguish rather than evoking any metaphorical or scientific inquiry. The aliens here may be the worst of the lot.
They rummage around on earth causing all sorts of destruction, seemingly refrain from killing certain people who exhibit little threat to them yet act in a purposeless manner.
But I do have a theory about why the creatures in “Battleship” came to Earth. I think that the NASA satellite transmission may have included, perhaps inadvertently, all sorts of broadcast material. If, say, this contained the recent fall TV season, then these alien beings had every reason to venture into deep space to destroy the civilization that produced and subjected them such cultural detritus. It’s just a theory, mind you.
Opened: May 18 (Universal)
Production companies: BluegrassFilms/Film 44
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Alexander Skarsgard, Rihanna, Brooklyn Decker, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Hamish Linklater
Director: Peter Berg
Screenwriters: Erich Hoeber, Jon Hoeber
Based on the game by: Hasbro
Producers: Brian Goldner, Scott Stuber, Peter Berg, Sarah Aubrey, Duncan Henderson, Bennett Schneir
Executive producers: Jonathan Mone, Braden Aftergood
Director of photography: Tobias Schliessler
Production designer: Neil Spisak
Costume designer: Louise Mingenbach
Music: Steve Jablonsky
Editors: Colby Parker Jr., Billy Rich, Paul Rubell
Rated PG-13, 131 minutes