Battleship never once commits the cardinal sin of taking itself too seriously.
It’s fair to say that we met the announcement of Peter Berg’s Battleship with some derision. A blockbuster movie of the board game, featuring a pop star in her first acting role and a seemingly slumming Liam Neeson, added to the effects-laden trailers that brought to mind more than a little Bayhem, had us anticipating at best a silly action flick with a couple of impressive effects shots to keep us entertained. What we didn’t expect is for Battleship to be one of the surprises of the year so far- a good old-fashioned blockbuster romp which kept us laughing and cheering throughout the running time.
Taylor Kitsch stars as Alex Hopper, a deadbeat with no direction, living on his brother Stone’s (Alexander Skarsgard) couch. Eventually talked into joining his brother in the US Navy, Hopper then falls in love with a physical therapist who also happens to be an Admiral’s daughter (Brooklyn Decker, with Neeson as the commanding officer). Heading to naval convention RIMPAC, things soon go sour when aliens invade, prompting a sea battle between the cream of the world’s Navy and the sinister alien forces.
It’s a preposterous set-up for sure, and as the first ten minutes fly by with a laugh-out-loud introduction to Hopper and co, the worry is that the film will revert to the po-faced “dark” approach that has so marred many blockbusters over the last few years. Thankfully, this never happens – Battleship never once commits the cardinal sin of taking itself too seriously. Indeed, any film which has the balls to quote Sun Tzu in one scene, before demonstrating some outrageously OT T naval acrobatics to the chords of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” is OK by us. Berg’s direction maintains this confidence throughout, with the focus split between having fun and presenting a sufficiently original action film.
The Navy often get overlooked compared to the seemingly more glamorous Army or Air Forces, and it is a refreshing change to see this section of the armed forces represented. Berg’s interest in naval warfare is palpable in the sheer amount of detail which goes into the film, the consultants brought in by the director having paved the way for an accurately recreated (as far as the film’s entertainment mandate allows) love letter to all things nautical.
The cast are notable, mainly for several of them having come out of absolutely nowhere to put in fine performances. Kitsch’s star is rising in Hollywood, and we would expect it to continue on the strength of another charismatic, square-jawed turn here. Skarsgard is believable enough as a military man, and Neeson is clearly having fun in his small role, barking orders at the rest of the cast. Decker puts in a fine shift in only her second film appearance, committing admirably to a largely physical role as she shares the screen with perhaps the most eyebrow-raising performance here, that of retired U.S Army Lt. Col. Greg Gadson. A paraplegic former Marine who suffered the loss of both legs in Afghanistan, Gadson appears here as one of Decker’s patients, stuck in the middle of an alien attack and rediscovering his spark as a soldier. The only thing that needs to be said about Gaydon is that, going into the film, we had no idea who he was, and were shocked to hear afterwards that the former Army man was a non-professional actor. Although the part is not exactly Hamlet, he handles a lot of screen time easily enough, and is given some meaty moments of tough-guy dialogue to enjoy. Another surprise on the cast front is Rihanna, popping up as a sailor on Kitsch’s ship, she is given far more screen time than many anticipated, and although her role is essentially a two hour impression of Vasquez from Aliens, puts in a steady shift, albeit with an undemanding character.
The effects work is impressive, with the admittedly inconsistent alien design realised by decent CGI, but unlike Transformers 3’s shaky-cam overload, Berg’s editing is a little more restrained, allowing the large-scale visuals to take centre stage. The drawback here is that the extended battle scenes do become rather headache-inducing, with one or two of them too long, and too loud, to remain fun.
There are even a couple of nods to the original board game in here, and when the alien ships attack by firing giant pegs into the sides of the earth ships (which sink when a certain amount are stuck into their side – seriously), you know that you’ve not just bought into a cynical cash in but a legitimately fun two hours of entertainment. There’s no doubt that the film’s goofy side won’t appeal to all viewers, but after sitting through the relatively stern Transformers franchise in recent years, it’s a far more appealing way to spend your time. Comparisons with Michael Bay’s series are inevitable – and fair- but this is certainly a stronger film than perhaps even the first Transformers.
The biggest weakness of Battleship is that it suffers from something of a flabby midsection – the second act feels very drawn out, to the point where you get the feeling that about 30 minutes could have been trimmed from the running time. As it is, Battleship is simply too long, and for its middle section at least, loses pace to a damaging degree. By the time the audience begins to lose faith in the film though, the ridiculous, fist-pumping third act kicks in and it is easy to get caught up in the sheer absurdity of it all.
A total surprise, Battleship is one of the most out-and-out fun blockbusters to be seen in years, and really is the film that the latter two Transformers movies should have been. Sure, the dialogue is cheesy, the effects feel overdone and the middle is dead in the water, but a genuinely funny, light-hearted approach marks this out from the usual CGI explosion-fest, and the film strikes the balance just right between humour and action.