Based on a board game that became popular precisely for its prosaic, binary nature (hit/miss), one would expect a feature-length Battleship to be a decidedly one-note affair. But a funny thing happened on the way to mediocrity: The creative team behind this ocean-bound thriller decided to fill the narrative black hole with a few ingredients all but absent from today’s summer tent poles — namely mystery, nostalgia and a healthy dose of humility. Just as blockbusters have made the hard turn towards fantasy heroes who solemnly go about their business in high-def-but-low-impact 3D cage matches, Battleship is an unapologetically goofy, surprisingly enigmatic, refreshingly self-deprecating deviation from the norm. I hesitate to confess that I had more fun here than I did at The Avengers, because low expectations surely had a lot to do with it, but it’s the truth. Heck, I’d pay to see the thing again.
Director Peter Berg has apparently conceived of his production design as homage to (and improvement on) the works of Michael Bay — from Battleship’s militaristic grandstanding to its absurd romance, endlessly spinning action set pieces and deafening metal-on-metal sound effects. Right up top, ahead of the credits, Berg pulls a Bay in sprinting through the character introductions: You’ve got your lovable Hawaiian slacker Alex (Taylor Kitsch, Friday Night Lights) who can’t keep a job or get up the nerve to talk to the father of his girlfriend Sam (Brooklyn Decker). She’s a physical therapist on Oahu, working with wounded Navy veterans who are coping with life after amputations (her newest patient is real-life veteran and amputee Gregory D. Gadson). Complicating matters is her dad: Liam Neeson, admiral of the fleet.
Alex, you see, was brought into the Navy by his straight-laced brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgård), who thought a life of rank and discipline would benefit his younger half. And sure enough, maturity comes quickly for the bumbling bro when, on a joint Japan-U.S. naval exercise, four mysterious objects crash through Earth’s atmosphere and into the Pacific. Anyone who has encountered the film’s relentless marketing blitz knows the basic outlines of what comes next: Aliens terrorize Earth, explosions dot the horizon, and our sailors must prevent this “extinction-level event.”
…Only that’s not really how things play out at all. At every turn, the aesthetics and attitude of Battleship jolt us out of our comfort zone. Alex should be a plodding, predictable protagonist, a Shia LaBeouf replicant alternating between fear and vengeance. But so much of the plot hinges instead on Alex’s immaturity, his decided lack of experience and his gradual growth into a man who can lead his peers (including Rihanna, who plays a tough-as-nails naval gunner) through a crisis.
One would expect the arrival of the aliens to usher in a mindless volley of lasers and torpedoes. But while there are plenty of shots fired, and explosions to ogle, far more intriguing than the firepower is the mystery that shrouds the weaponry. In the first tense standoff, there’s a surprising level of studying and calculation at play, as the human first responders grapple to comprehend just what it is that they’ve found floating out in the middle of the ocean. Even after the aliens show their true colors and things turn hostile, the sailors — as well as the audience — begin to diagnose the weaknesses in the superior technology targeting them. Unlike most action heroes, who simply possess expert skills, Alex is learning as he goes, and we learn through his eyes. As his crew develops a new attack plan for the final climactic brawl, there’s something slightly more fulfilling about a strategy that’s evolved throughout the film.
If the alien introduction is more cryptic than we expect, the subplot playing out back on land is more inspiring. When the aliens track down the satellite array that initially brought them to Earth, they start to set up a base in rural Oahu, and that’s when Sam and Gadson join forces with a nerdy satellite operator (Hamish Linklater) to single-handedly take the array off line. A scientist, physical therapist and amputee taking out our E.T. invaders — one of cinema’s more unlikely motley crews.
As for the board game, it’s integrated into the film in surprisingly subtle ways (no one ever utters “you sunk my battleship!”). Once the aliens use a force field of sorts to separate three Navy vessels from the remainder of the fleet, we start to get closer to the actual scope of a Battleship board. And if you look and listen closely, you’ll recognize the cues: A destroyer, they say, can dish it out but can’t last as long as a battleship — which, as any player knows, can withstands two or three direct hits, but never four. When the radar goes down, the Japanese sailors teach their American counterparts a trick of the trade, using tsunami buoys to monitor displaced water. As the combined crews bring up a grid of buoys, and notice a disturbance near “Echo One-One” (that would be E11), the Battleship grid has been revived onscreen.
There’s something decidedly retro about the grid sequence, where winning the war at sea has less to do with technology than with instincts, trigger fingers and the equipment at hand. In fact, there’s something delightfully old-school about all the action in Battleship. As classic rock blasts in the background, the movie increasingly shifts its attention away from the spinning, glowing alien ships to the inner workings of mankind’s floating fortresses, paying tribute to veterans and the ingenuity of those in the armed forces. Sure, it’s slightly jingoistic, but when the aliens are calling for backup, we want to cheer for our side.
I have yet to even address the harrowing ways in which the history of Pearl Harbor factors into this war of the worlds. But it offers a rousing final act to a film of surprising dexterity, alternating between sibling drama, behind-enemy-lines strategizing, naval war maneuvers, big guns that go bang, alien intelligence and a goofy spirit that shows Berg and company don’t take this all that seriously after all.
Here’s an audacious, inventive and character-driven blockbuster with some wit sprinkled in for good measure. It’s fun, and filled with a surprising degree of intrigue and suspense; an unlikely mix of Independence Day, Pearl Harbor, Jurassic Park and The Hunt for Red October. If it was called anything other than Battleship, I wouldn’t feel so guilty for loving every minute.