Believe it or not, one of the best scenes in Battleship actually sticks closest to its source material, which is indeed the Hasbro board game of the same name. Tossed aboard the same Navy destroyer by fate and alien intervention, a team of Japanese and American military officers track an approaching alien ship they cannot see by following its movements on a grid marking tsunami buoys. Yes, it involves people yelling phrases like "Fire on G-11!" Yes, it results in explosions, Yes, it's exactly as dippy and oddly thrilling as you'd ever want a board game movie to be.
It takes an hour to get there, though, and another hour of flag-waving, bomb-dropping, bad-acting blockbuster boilerplate to get out, which doesn't make Battleship the longest or dumbest blockbuster to ever exist, but so soon after bar-raising spectacle of The Avengers, maybe the most pointless. Peter Berg ably steps into his duties as Michael Bay-lite, without any of the gratingly awful humor or callow disregard for life, but also without the kinetic, gonzo action directing that makes Bay so frustrating but unique. Whether you roll with Battleship's silly sci-fi premise or not, it's hard to see it as anything other than a mash-up of every other alien invasion plot from movie history, with some board game tactics thrown in for good measure and marketing synergy.
There's at least one sci-fi film Battleship doesn't share DNA with, and it's this year's dull John Carter, which also boasted Taylor Kitsch in the lead role. He seems far more comfortable here as the roguish, hot-tempered Alex Hopper, whom we meet when he breaks into a convenience store to impress a hottie named Samantha (Brooklyn Decker) despite every warning from his more level-headed brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgard, who I repeat, is playing a character named Stone Hopper). A few years later both Hopper brothers are in the Navy, working under the command of Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), who just so happens to be Samantha's disapproving dad. Alex's plans to propose to Samantha and ask her dad for permission get derailed first by that hot temper, and then by a conveniently timed alien invasion, which interrupts some war game exercises between the American and Japanese fleets and strands just a few of them-- Alex and Stone included-- to do battle to save the world.
What do the aliens want? Unclear. They bang up Hong Kong largely by accident, after one of the five arriving ships crashes into a satellite, and blow up two Navy ships before wreaking havoc on land in Hawaii, choosing not to obliterate a little boy but instead tearing apart a highway… which is crammed full of cars and kids. Berg frequently shoots from the alien point of view, where some kind of system distinguishes weapons from innocents, but we have no idea where the distinction lies, or even what the aliens want from earth. If they want to colonize the planet and eliminate the human threat, why strategically blow up highways? If they are greedy monsters bent on destruction at all costs, why go to great risks to rescue one another? The script by Erich and Jon Hoeber get away with setting a naval battle at Pearl Harbor by teaming up the Japanese and the Americans against a shared enemy, but they still err just a little too much on humanizing the inhuman villains-- we can deal with either anonymously evil aliens (Independence Day style) or oddly sympathetic ones (District 9 style), but not some middling combination of the two.
The humans-- who also include Jesse Plemmons as the wisecracking new kid, Rihanna as the stone-faced private with her finger on the trigger, and Tadanobu Asano as Alex's Japanese rival-turned-collaborator-- don't fare a whole lot better, though neither Rihanna nor Brooklyn Decker-- who spends the film outwitting the aliens on land in the company of a disabled Iraq War veteran (Gregory D. Gadson)-- are as terrible actors as you might expect. And once the movie actually moves the action to the titular battleship, with a group of grizzled World War II veterans on hand to help out for no clear reason, the movie picks up a galvanizing momentum of its own-- if you chant "USA! USA!" at the end of this film, you probably won't be alone. All we've really been looking for is an easy story about outcasts and renegades saving the world, but Battleship somehow takes forever to get there, taking the world's simplest source material and gumming it up with spare parts from other summer movies we liked much better the first time around.
The good parts of Battleship come very close to outweighing the bad, and remembering that grid-skipping board game section, or a splendidly shot hand-to-alien-hand combat scene, or that whole bananas sequence on the battleship, I find myself oddly affectionate toward a big dumb movie called Battleship. But in being utterly disposable, being a brand extension effort with almost nothing else to it, Battleship is also everything wrong with our modern blockbuster culture, an empty vessel for empty entertainment that never finds a mission beyond that. All credit to Berg and Kitsch and everyone else who made it a little bit worth watching, but it's a ship that wasn't worth boarding to begin with.