Yes, they finally did it: they finally made a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster movie based on a boardgame. Which is a thing we have been threatened with for a few years now, and if this one succeeds at the U.S. box-office, that long-dormant Ridley Scott-directed Monopoly movie might finally get off the ground. Apparently there are enough seemingly-sane people who see nothing silly about this anymore, so we might as well grin and bear it (and in my case, watch it and review it). Hasbro, the toy company that makes the boardgame, actually has a logo animation that played after Universal Pictures' in this movie, like they're an actual studio and everything now. This is a thing that has happened, and all that is left to us is to see what kind of movies they actually make.
What they've made here is a Michael Bay-wannabe that's actually somewhat better than most actual Michael Bay movies.
Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) is a ne'er-do-well who somehow lucked into dating the extremely hot Sam (Brooklyn Decker) - who happens to be the daughter of U.S. Navy Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), commander of the Pacific Fleet. After joining the Navy for a few years at the behest of his brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgård), Hopper has made Lieutenant, but his continually poor impulse control lead to him brawling with visiting Japanese Captain Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) on the eve of RIMPAC, the world's biggest multi-national naval exercise. When the fleet sets out, he is serving on board the destroyer John Paul Jones while his brother commands the Sampson - both of which, along with Nagata's ship Myoko, is sent to investigate a UFO falling into the Pacific Ocean near the coast of Hawaii. The UFO is in fact an invading alien force that sets up a massive force field over the Hawaiian islands and proceeds to attack the city. Meanwhile, Sam and a disabled Army vet named Mick (Gregory D. Gadson) are hiking in the mountains when they discover the aliens have taken over a communications array in order to send a signal to their home planet. Along with Zapata (Hamish Linklater), a scientist at the array, they have to stop them, while Hopper battles the main alien fleet.
Remember when I asked how dumb this movie might be? Well guys, it is pretty dumb. It starts with an animated sequence demonstrating the term "Goldilocks planet", i.e. a planet that can support life due to its position within the habitable zone, by quick-panning to first a planet that's too hot, then too cold - because we wouldn't have understood the concept if we were just told about it. Then it trots out that old saw about how an encounter with aliens would be like the Spaniards meeting the Indians, only we are the Indians. (In those exact words, too.) It's weirdly xenophobic; there's really no reason why a species advanced enough to develop interstellar travel wouldn't also understand the value of peaceful, mutually beneficial relations with another sentient race, Hollywood. But what takes the cake is when it depicts ordinary radio transmissions as - I shit you not - a friggin' laser beam shooting into the sky.
Which is the kind of thing you expect to see in a Michael Bay movie. Which is exactly what Battleship wants to be - only it's directed by Peter Berg. Now, Berg is not a dumb filmmaker; he is actually capable of making an intelligent film, case in point, 2007's The Kingdom. Aping another director seems beneath him, yet this movie is definitely, definitely, Michael Bay lite. When it's not blowing things up in an orgy of pyrotechnics, it's being a shamelessly cheesy celebration of American military heroism. Never more so than when a group of WW2 naval veterans just happen to be picturesquely perched all over the deck of the titular battleship, just before they are asked - and agree, of course - to fight for their country one last time. But first another group of them walk towards the camera in slow motion, because of course. Even the soundtrack has Michael Bay all over it - or specifically, Steve Jablonsky, he who also did the Transformers movies and peppered this one with a bunch of classic rock songs (of course).
But it's fun. Seriously, it is. It doesn't reach the heights of dumb fun that Fast Five does, and there's a lot that'll make you roll your eyes, but there's also a lot of stuff asploding to enjoy. I don't recall seeing an action movie involving naval warships before, and their huge-ass (and very loud) guns provide something fresh in terms of good ol' fashioned action thrills. Turns out Michael Bay lite is actually more palatable than, um, concentrated Michael Bay - there are no annoying racist stereotypes, no tonal whiplash between serious drama and silly comedy, no self-indulgently long and tedious action sequences, and no palpable disdain for the audience. The expositional scenes tend to drag, but the action bits are coherently and effectively put together (and did I mention loud?). It holds together as a movie far better than anything in Bay's filmography since The Rock (his last good one).
Still, it's dumb. If you're wondering if it features any allusions to its boardgame; first of all, no, no one utters the line "You sunk my battleship!" There is however a sequence in which Hopper and crew track the enemy ships on a grid and fire on them by calling out grid coordinates. The movie plays this scene completely seriously, which'll only work on someone who's never played the boardgame. And of all the recent alien invasion movies, this one takes the cake for Dumbest Aliens. They don't seem to have a plan at all, other than that their communications ship crashed and burned and that's why they need to take over one of our radio arrays. And also, they'll wreak some cinematically spectacular destruction on an army base and an elevated freeway just for the hell of it.
You don't expect compelling characters from this, and you won't get it; Hopper's excuse for a character arc is pure cliché. Taylor Kitsch and Tadanobu Asano also don't seem to get the kind of broadly melodramatic performance that this movie needs (Asano in particular comes off as wooden, which he is most assuredly not if you've seen any of his Japanese films). Oh, and Rihanna is in this too, making her film debut as one of three sidekick sailors under Hopper's command - a role that tests her thespian talents not at all. To be honest, Bay is better at getting his actors to go as apeshit as his movies always are - but overall, Battleship is a case where the imitation beats the original. It's frankly quite blatant how closely this movie rides Bay's coattails, so much so that I wonder if Berg had his hands tied by some overzealous Hasbro execs. But there ain't a thing wrong with the Michael Bay brand of cheese 'n 'splosions, as long as it's not the Michael Bay brand of stupid.
NEXT REVIEW: The Cabin in the Woods
Expectations: horror yikes, but Joss Whedon yay