Proportional strategy and luck are required to win Battleship, the family board game Peter Berg’s loudly, proudly ridiculous soldiers-vs.-aliens blockbuster rather fancifully claims as its source. As played by Taylor Kitsch’s beefy Navy lieutenant, however, victory requires no such niceties — just the biggest explosives the military can provide. Overlong and underwritten even by the standards of summer f/x extravaganzas, this “Battleship” will nonetheless float with many on the strength of its boyish, eager-to-please razzle-dazzle. Bowing in Europe a month before its U.S. opening, pic should perform robustly enough to greenlight the sequel patently set up by its post-credits sting.
Having already parlayed its beloved G.I. Joe and Transformers action figures into hit Hollywood franchises, toy manufacturing giant Hasbro has now turned its attention to its classic board-game collection. On the surface, the idea isn’t as silly as it seems: A board game, after all, has more of a built-in narrative structure than a doll, though Battleship’s miss-hit-sink trajectory perhaps tells a simpler story than most. Certainly, a lot of ships get sunk in fraternal writing duo Jon and Erich Hoeber’s screenplay, though there the similarity ends; there’s nary an in-joke about the game to be found here. Indeed, rather surprisingly coming from the writers of “Red,” attempts at hip humor are few and far between; the film mostly lets the missiles do the talking.
Extended pre-credits sequence gets past its science with impressive haste: We’re here to play, after all, not to learn. The need-to-knows are that a “Goldilocks planet” (close enough to, and far enough from, the sun in order to sustain life, and therefore just right) has been discovered by NASA in a separate galaxy; the inhabitants of Planet G have responded to scientists’ interstellar communications, and decided to pay a visit to Earth.
Cut to Oahu, Hawaii, where jobless layabout Alex (Kitsch) is celebrating his 26th birthday in a dive bar with disapproving older brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgard), a straitlaced Navy recruit. After Alex commits a drunken infraction designed to impress leggy physiotherapist Samantha (Brooklyn Decker), Stone issues a final-straw demand: Alex is to join him in the Navy. In seemingly no time at all, Alex has graduated to lieutenant level despite equally feckless behavior in uniform, and is in a serious relationship with Samantha, whose stern dad (Liam Neeson) just happens to be commander of the Pacific fleet.
All principals are conveniently involved, then, when Planet G’s alien spacecraft crashes into the Pacific and rises ominously from the depths near the naval base in Oahu. A reconnaissance mission led by Alex and scrappy female officer Raikes (Rihanna) aggravates the visitors into opening fire, setting the stage for a protracted series of back-and-forth pyrotechnic attacks of increasing sound and fury until an abruptly curtailed finale. The comparatively limp mainland action, meanwhile, finds Samantha weathering the storm with paraplegic Army veteran Mick (real-life Iraq hero Gregory D. Gadson) and technical geek Cal (Hamish Linklater), who devises a way to break the aliens’ communication wall.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” mutters Alex, a veritable Cassandra of the high seas — and that’s after two destroyer ships have already been blown to smithereens. Bright enough to quote Homer back at his commanding officer, but dim enough to think the Japanese wrote “The Art of War,” he’s too blandly inscrutable a hero to root for with much enthusiasm, which goes for most of the characters. The exception is Decker’s Samantha, who’s so unctuously inexpressive, we might actively root for her demise under one of the enemy’s flaming razor-balls. The aliens, encased in markedly Power Ranger-like suits, are no more defined in personality or motivation, making it rather easy to sit back and enjoy the fireworks without taking sides any more than one would while observing, say, a game of Battleship between two strangers. (Maybe there’s something to the screenwriters’ claims after all.)
The attractive cast does no more than Berg and the script require, which is very little indeed. After “John Carter,” Kitsch is still waiting for a film vehicle to make good on the easy, authentic charm he exhibits in TV’s “Friday Night Lights,” though he’s physically up to the task here. Fans of pop megastar Rihanna, making her film debut, will be disappointed to find that the role of Raikes may as well be renamed Young Female Demographic for all the pertinence it has to the narrative, but she’s a sparky enough presence.
Tech credits are all polished, if not as metallically sleek as they would be with a Michael Bay-style craftsman at the helm. Tobias Schliesser’s lensing covers the teal-and-orange palette seemingly mandatory for such adventures these days, while Steve Jablonsky’s score thumps and drones away with nary a pause, little betraying the presence of rock super-producer Rick Rubin and Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello on the music team.
The bulk of the attention in this evidently expensive production has been lavished on Industrial Light & Magic’s typically immaculate effects, which are firmly in the “Transformers” mold stylistically, with the added challenge of water simulation. That such state-of-the-art creations have been used to realize a story whose climax hinges on a true-life WWII battleship, USS Missouri, outlasting its newer, shinier rivals is an irony probably lost on all involved.