Battleship should have been one of the dumbest movies of all time.
I mean, rag on Transformers all you want. Wait, let's do that, because the Transformers movies are stupid. They're so dumb they can't be left alone with the dogs or anything that requires batteries. And Battleship is essentially Transformers' offspring--a product of the same toy company featuring hostile aliens who appear to have been designed by dueling trash compactors.
But Battleship the game doesn't even have characters! Unless those little pegs are actually castaways from The Game of Life, which would be pretty disturbing. What kind of navy uses husbands and wives for bullets? Let's just let those guys win.
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Despite these red flags, I've predicted more than once that Battleship would be better than it deserves. I never used to believe I was infallible, but in an ironic twist, I may have been wrong about that belief. Because Battleship is kind of great.
Taylor Kitsch is a screwup. After a drunken attempt to impress a girl lands him under arrest, brother Alexander Skarsgard lays down the law. It's time for Kitsch to join the navy with him. Kitsch takes to it well, but on a training exercise in the Pacific, a brawl with a rival sailor has admiral Liam Neeson ready to kick Kitsch out of the fleet.
But a few years back, NASA set up a signal to contact any life at a newly discovered Earth-like planet. Turns out there was life there after all -- and it's just landed in the ocean, sealing itself in a forcefield as it prepares to conquer the world. Trapped inside with the enemy, Kitsch and Skarsgard may be mankind's only hope.
For most movies about the invasion of killer zombies, aliens, or daisies with a taste for human blood instead of sunlight, the rule of thumb is to spend the first 30 minutes establishing your characters, then the next hour murdering them. I'm not precisely sure how long Battleship spends pre-invasion, but it feels like more than is typical -- and in the best possible way.
Kitsch's is a great character. In some ways, he's just a stereotypical guy who does stuff before he thinks, but in another, more important way, he's a hilarious bonehead with great chemistry with his brother. Careering around like a sleepy, half-drunk Eddie Vedder, Kitsch makes for a most unlikely world-saver. By making sure to give him lots of early screen time amid all the setup and exposition, director Peter Berg makes Kitsch's predictable arc more compelling than it has any right to be.
Also, sweet writing, dudes. I have been less than whelmed by co-writers Erich and Jon Hoebers' last two efforts (Red and Whiteout), but there are real jokes here. Funny-making jokes. Jokes that may not be as funny as The Avengers, but that would be an unfair comparison, as The Avengers is a radiation-powered comedy mutant that can evoke laughter from all targets within 6d10 yards. Good supporting characters here, too, although that may have more to do with the actors than the lines they are given.
But now I am sad, because I just did some surfing around and discovered my love of Berg is far from universal. Well, you know what? Forget you guys! Peter Berg is like the Michael Bay of a universe where everything is made of ice cream. Yeah, he stuffs his soundtrack with stadium rock. Sure, there are many moments of blatant crowd-pleasing throughout Battleship's run. And yes, it's a bit "Hoo-rah, up with billion dollar machines of death!"
But it's also a lot of fun. Driven by great pacing and editing, suspenseful storytelling, and a nice cast, Battleship unfolds with more precision than your average sprawling blockbuster. Miraculously, they also found a way to shoehorn a non-ridiculous game of real-life Battleship into the age-old game of alien cruisers vs. naval destroyers. I feel like they deserve success on the basis of that alone.
Grade: B-7. I mean, B+