Silver Screen: Battleship *

Silver Screen: Battleship  *
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The improbable big-screen version of Battleship has been a punchline since the project was announced
Bryan Miller

The improbable big-screen version of Battleship has been a punchline since the project was announced, for obvious reasons: Not only is it an adaptation of a board game, it's an adaptation of a board game so simplistic it can be accurately recreated with nothing more than two pencils and a pad of graph paper. Even before its release the movie came to symbolize Hollywood's panicky rush to latch onto pre-existing properties in an era of fewer and fewer original story ideas. The one compelling element of the film was the nagging question, “Just how do you make an entire movie out of Battleship?”

The short answer: quite poorly.

The approach favored by director Peter Berg (Very Bad Things, Friday Night Lights), working off a script from Erich and Jon Hoeber, is not so much to make a Battleship movie as it is to make a generic blockbuster and then reverse-engineer it to work in elements of the game. Thus the movie becomes less an ode to the kinda-beloved Hasbro board game than an ungainly mashup of summer-movie tropes. Throw a bunch of old Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer-produced movies into a garbage disposal, and then watch the grimy clump of videotape you pay the plumber to snake out. There's icky bits of Top Gun-style military porn in there along with leftover gunk from the romantic subplots of Armageddon. Even worse (yes, worse!), the entire aesthetic seems filched from Bruckheimer's star pupil Michael Bay, whose jittery editing and extra-loud-with-lots-of-moving-parts special effects are unmistakable, if mostly for the wrong reasons. This is a movie that only understands itself in relationship to other blockbusters; at one point a character attempts to summarize part of the loopy sci-fi plot by explaining, "E.T. wants to phone home." We're standing in front of a green screen pantomiming a fall down a rabbit hole (rabbit hole to be digitally inserted in post-production).

The story is both convoluted and grindingly simplistic. Scientists transmit signals to a distant Earth-like planet only to discover that it actually is inhabited, and those aliens show up with a bunch of watercraft and attempt to exterminate humanity. The only thing standing in their way is a group of Navy ships commanded by Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson) and piloted by mismatched brothers Alex (Friday Night Lights' Taylor Kitsch) and Stone (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgård) Hopper.

That's all that really matters, but Berg and the Hoebers layer in half a dozen or so distractions. Loose cannon Alex is hot for Admiral Shane's daughter Samantha (Brooklyn Decker), who is a physical therapist working at a rehab center for wounded veterans. Shane not only wants to stand between them, he wants to discharge Alex from the service altogether. Meanwhile, once the invasion starts, Samantha teams up with one of her patients to find a scientist (Hamish Linklater) who may have critical information about how to disrupt the alien technology. Alex also finds himself in an uneasy friendship with a Japanese captain (Tadanobu Asano) commanding a boat for the Land of the Rising Sun; the Japanese and the Americans must team up at Pearl Harbor to fight the invading menace because... well, that seems like a thing. Also, Rhianna is in the movie.

Battleship is actively terrible from title screen to the closing credits, which roll while Creedence Clearwater Revival's “Fortunate Son” plays, a strange choice for a movie about an all-volunteer army. But the movie is never worse than when the filmmakers attempt to incorporate elements of the game directly into the story, no matter how awkward or silly. It's strange, considering how there were no aliens in the board game, that Berg feels an urge to maintain some fidelity to the non-narrative source material, yet here we have alien watercraft actually firing flaming red pegs that stick into the decks of the American ships, then blow up and sink them. Later in the film, when alien technology confounds Earth’s radar systems, Kitsch and his reluctant Japanese cohort use a series of “tsunami-detecting buoys” to turn the ocean into a grid system and locate the aliens, at which point they literally begin playing a game of Battleship. “Fire on E-11!” “Miss!”

The film dedicates major subplot time to wounded combat veterans in physical-therapy rehab, even casting real-life combat vet and double-amputee Gregory D. Gadson in a significant role, and to retired Navy veterans returning to duty for one last mission. (The scene in which all the old maritimers just materialize on the deck of the decommissioned U.S.S. Missouri is patently bizarre; do a few dozen old guys just live in the hull of the ship?) These sentiments would be perfectly admirable if it didn't feel like crass manipulation on the part of the filmmakers, repeatedly tipping the sailor's cap to real-life soldiers to cash in on their hard-earned goodwill. Everything else about Battleship feels callously marketed, so it's difficult not to view the movie's hyper-patriotism as cheap and exploitative.

The rest of the movie, meanwhile, is expensive and exploitative. Let's keep our fingers collectively crossed that the movie continues to tank at the box office, sparing us from the inevitable sequel: Electronic Battleship.

Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.