The perils of an all-volunteer military force have never been as apparent as in Peter Berg's Battleship, which celebrates the heroism of those who served in the past even while it denigrates the intelligence of sailors present. It makes one long for the day when Jerry Lewis was At War with the Army, or Abbott and Costello were Buck Privates.
Lewis gets name-checked during the movie, the only point of agreement between Lieutenant Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) and Captain Nagata (Tadanobu Asano, a long way from Funky Forest: The First Contact), who have come to blows during war games conducted by Japan and the United States in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. For this single action -- and, apparently, for always arriving late for appointments -- Hopper is about to be drummed out of the Navy, to the disappointment of his older brother, Commander Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgard), who is the skipper of the ship on which they both serve.
It is but one example of the slapdash nature of the film, based on a screenplay blamed on Jon Hueber and Erich Hoeber (Whiteout, Red), that we have little idea why Alex Hopper continues to be such a screw-up after his brother forced him to join the service and then, presumably, push through to become an officer, improbably the third in command on his brother's ship.
Hopper the Younger is also dating Sam (Brooklyn Decker), a Navy physical therapist who is also -- coincidentally! -- the daughter of Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson, honorably earning his paycheck). Admiral Shane is mighty disapproving of poor Alex Hopper and is the one who delivers the news that Alex's days at sea are numbered. Naturally, Admiral Shane is also in charge of the war games.
We've come this far without mentioning the aliens, which is about how long the movie takes to introduce them properly -- er, strike that, the movie never does much about explaining or detailing the alien threat, except to identify them as coming from an Earth-like planet that has been recently discovered. They want to destroy the Earth, for the only reasons that really matter in a movie like Battleship: as an excuse for blowing stuff up.
And, to paraphrase Princess Leia: "If explosions are all that you love, then that's what you'll receive." Battleship blows up many, many people, places, and things, from Hong Kong to Navy destroyers to Hawaiian roadways. The banter between characters consists mostly of jokes on par with the explosions: scattershot and only occasionally hitting their target. (Rihanna and the always-likable Jesse Plemons provide much of the comic relief.) But, also like the explosions, there are a lot of them, and they stand in for character development.
The film clearly wants to extol the courage of those who serve in the military. In order to so, however, it makes nearly all the characters long on foolish bravado and short on brains. Multiple times, characters stop and stare open-mouthed at an imminent threat, as though they had no military training at all. The actors in the movie never make for convincing sailors; there's no discipline, no belief in the possibility of an enemy attack. It's as though the sailors really are imitating Jerry Lewis, making light of everything and acting as foolishly as possible.
As evidence of this civilian attitude, when an immense structure never seen before rises out of the sea during the war games, Commander Hopper barely takes notice, propping his feet up and idly drinking a cup of coffee as he orders his brother and two other junior officers to investigate. He might as well yawn from boredom.
Mind, this is during an exercise which is meant to be taken seriously, yet the commander of the ship acts disinterested. If the sailors on display in Battleship are meant to be America's "best and brightest," then the country is in a lot of trouble. Or is that truly the film's subversive message, an attack on America's imperialist inclinations?
The plot, such as it is, appears to have been as carefully designed as the strategy employed by most young players of the board game that ostensibly serves as the inspiration for the movie, which is to say: It's entirely random. As far as the scenes go, you could probably hit "Shuffle" and the net effect would be the same any way things played out.
Peter Berg is a talented director, but Battleship lacks a narrative spine, which means his best efforts at crafting explosive action sequences mean absolutely nothing. When he has a solid script and story (The Rundown, Friday Night Lights), or even a serviceable one (The Kingdom, Hancock), he can definitely deliver the goods.
Here, it feels as though the script simply wasn't ready, and the ticking time bomb of a release schedule and a huge budget commitment pushed everyone to get started anyway. Battleship may satisfy those who want nothing more than a few jokes and a series of loud and noisy battle scenes to get their juices flowing and mind distracted, but everyone else would do better to buy the board game and hit themselves over the head with it for 131 minutes.
Battleship opens on Friday, May 18, in the U.S. and Canada.