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‘Battleship’ carbon-copies Michael Bay in a monotonous action nightmare

Written by Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber
Directed by Peter Berg
USA, 2012

Mix together bits and pieces of the last 20 years of American action filmmaking, throw in a heaping helping of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, and sprinkle in some overplayed rock songs. What you get from this brew is the muddled, middling film Battleship, Universal’s blatant attempt to cash in on the Transformers franchise. Though the studio couldn’t get Michael Bay to direct, Peter Berg does a disturbingly accurate impression of his style behind the camera. Filled with wall-to-wall mindless, monotonous action sequences, Battleship has some oddball moments but is, overall, as bland and formulaic as the films it’s ripping off.

Taylor Kitsch, fresh off the far better (yet financially unsuccessful) John Carter, plays Alex Hopper, a brash young man who rebels against authority mostly because the script, by Jon and Erich Hoeber, demands it. After an incident with the cops, he’s recruited into the Navy by his older brother, Stone (Alexander Skarsgård). Time passes, and though Alex becomes a lieutenant, he still acts out despite dating the daughter of the admiral who runs the Navy base in Hawaii. His domestic problems get pushed aside, however, when alien ships descend upon a handful of destroyers during a naval exercise and begin a barricaded assault on everything in their path. Alex and a motley crew of surviving officers have to fend off the aliens and save the world, or else no one gets to say, “You sunk my battleship.”

Battleship may have had a tough road to acceptance—the basic idea of expanding a fairly passive board game into a big-budget action movie is inherently ridiculous—but Berg and the Hoebers don’t make it easy on themselves. The most unique aspect of this film is its sometimes-odd sense of humor, as when Alex risks life and limb during the prologue to get the admiral’s daughter…a chicken burrito. Such moments where the film tries to create some semblance of reality are, unfortunately, few and far between. More often than not, the script or direction all but encourages you to acknowledge its influences, from Jurassic Park to Independence Day to the recent Star Trek reboot. However, never is the don’t-call-it-copying-for-legal-reasons homage clearer than when Berg quotes, as much as possible without actually using shots from his films, the work of Michael Bay.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Peter Berg is perhaps the biggest admirer of

Bay’s singular, auteurist vision. (Bay’s style may be horrendous and detrimental to the mainstream action genre, but it is as definable as anything by modern masters like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.) Most of the first hour of Battleship is a somewhat calmly constructed buildup to the extraterrestrial chaos soon to come. But as soon as we get any form of real movement, Berg is off to the races with jittery camerawork that tries to shove us into the action, but only achieves in obscuring the clarity of said action. The one trick he’s employed in past films—randomly zooming in with the camera to this or that object or interaction—is frequently overused here, as it is in other mainstream films, and never once feels immediate.

Even worse, outside of Kitsch, whose laconic and self-deprecating charm remains intact here, as it was in John Carter and on the Friday Night Lights TV series, the cast is unremarkable and lackluster. Brooklyn Decker, a magazine model, plays Alex’s girlfriend and would perhaps have made a better impression if her character were given something remotely intriguing to do. She has a subplot related to the alien threat, but her bland screen presence coupled with unengaging supporting characters makes it a real slog to sit through. Skarsgård, so dangerously charming on the HBO series True Blood, is neutered here, a drab counterpart to Kitsch. Liam Neeson, who’s used heavily in the trailers, is mostly nonexistent, and singer Rihanna, as one of the remaining officers, is just…there. Her being in the movie is more interesting than what she does in the movie. Battleship is a film whose material could’ve been elevated thanks to a sterling cast, but the performers (even Jesse Plemons, another Friday Night Lights alum) do only what’s expected of them, nothing more.

That’s the worst part about Battleship: it is exactly what you expect it to be. If you’ve seen the trailers for the film, with its faux-stylish slow-motion, seen-it-a-million-times explosions, and predictable alien bad guys, you’ve seen a fair estimation of the full product. There’s not any effort to make the world of this film like the one we inhabit. Instead, we’re bombarded with glaringly obvious product placement, a deafening soundtrack, characters barking orders to fire everything, everything being fired, and insanely overwrought and misguided stabs at patriotism. (Specific to this film: just because it features active-duty naval officers and equipment, doesn’t mean it gets a pass.) If you didn’t know it about Battleship in advance, you’d think Michael Bay was simply directing all of the films based on Hasbro products, not just Transformers. Peter Berg and Universal would likely not want it any other way.

Josh Spiegel