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Dustin Putman

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Battleship  (2012)
2 Stars
Directed by Peter Berg.
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Alexander Skarsgard, Rihanna, Brooklyn Decker, Gregory D. Gadson, Jesse Plemons, Tadanobu Asano, Liam Neeson, Hamish Linklater, Peter MacNicol, John Tui, Gregory D. Gadson, Jerry Ferrara.
2012 – 131 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 16, 2012.
"Battleship" is one ethnic stereotype, two objectifying shots of the supermodel-ready female form, and three set-pieces of choppy, ADD-massaging quick edits away from being titled "Transformers 4." That both of these enterprises are adapted from Hasbro toys and/or games is probably coincidental, but make no mistake that studio Universal knew what they were doing when they conceptualized the project as an action pic pitting naval officers against space invaders bent on Earth's destruction. The script by Erich Hoeber and Jon Hoeber (2010's "Red") clearly and concisely lays out and sets up all of its plot pieces early on, but by the time things are going boom it's rendered dumb as a box of hair. Where there is a shred of hope for a good while is in the direction by Peter Berg (2008's "Hancock"). Unlike Michael Bay's clanging, numbing, overblown approach, Berg lets his scenes play out with fewer cuts and stronger action choreography. There is coherence to what is going on that aids the film's momentum immensely, and also the ability to build a legitimate sense of threat. The edgy, unconventional music score by Steve Jablonsky (2010's "A Nightmare on Elm Street") is tops, too, full of industrial and electronic sounds that keep the viewer off-balance. If the first half of "Battleship" is solid in a summer popcorn extravaganza sort of way, the latter hour bombards with repetition, no clear vision, and an ever more wearisome cavalcade of explosions. What does the audience get in return? Yet another alien-invasion film where the intriguing mysteries of the unknown are pushed aside to make way for one-note villains with no personalities or motives outside of obliterating humans.

Deep in the galaxy, another planet has been located that appears to be nearly identical to Earth, its atmosphere and distance away from the sun perfect for sustaining life. In an attempt to make contact, a signal is sent to what has been labeled Planet-G. What we receive in return is not exactly what we had in mind, giant spaceships plummeting from the sky and taking root in the waters off of Honolulu, Hawaii, where naval ships are in the middle of an annual war games exercise known as RIMPAC. When a force field rising 200,000 feet traps them in a contained area and the commander perishes in a disastrous ship explosion, Lieutenant Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) finds himself the unexpected leader of his crew on USS John Paul Jones. A 25-year-old screw-up who had been trying to impress girlfriend Sam's (Brooklyn Decker) stern father, Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), before learning that he was about to be thrown out of the military, Hopper is suddenly placed in a position to prove his naysayers wrong and save the world. Meanwhile, physical therapist Sam has her own problems when she and her war vet patient Lieutenant Colonel Mick Canales (Gregory D. Gadson) are suddenly caught in the middle of a land invasion while hiking the coastal cliffs. "We gotta get off this mountain!" Canales gravely says long after it's apparent to everyone that they should have already been off that mountain.

As a big-budget piece of spectacle, "Battleship" does the job, the speckless effects work and picturesque Hawaiian lensing courtesy of cinematographer Tobias Schliessler (2009's "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3") ensuring that it looks like a million bucks—multiplied by two hundred. Save for an out-of-place early scene spoofing the surveillance footage of failed convenience store break-ins often shown on the news, the film opens with an attention-clincher involving an intergalactic communication attempt and spends fleeting but likable time establishing Alex and Sam as a disgustingly attractive couple. The initial run-in with one of the alien spacecrafts standing straight out of the ocean like an obelisk is initially confused for being a part of the exercise, then clarified as something else altogether. Tensions assuredly rise during this segment and the initial attacks are captured with a startling destructive gravity. The reveal of what the aliens look like under their protective suits also smartly depicts them as not being all that much different from the human race. If they resemble us, however, then why do they not seem to share our spectrum of emotions and our ability for empathy? In lieu of properly exploring these creatures from beyond, they are treated strictly as deadly figures who want to hurt us and our planet. It's a missed opportunity that cements the film's narrow goals and lack of imagination.

In an effects-heavy, brain-light motion picture such as this, actors play second-banana to the razzle-dazzle of what the budget can buy. Those limited boundaries still afford Taylor Kitsch a much better showcase as a leading man than the recent sci-fi dud "John Carter" did. In that film, the former "Friday Night Lights" bad boy was forced into a straight-faced, charmless part. Here, he does get the chance to show a little personality and angst, so it's a small step in the right direction. As love interest Sam, Brooklyn Decker (2012's "What to Expect When You're Expecting") puts on a pretty face and has definite charisma, but hers is an otherwise thankless part. In her film debut, musical artist Rihanna ably portrays the tough Petty Officer Cora "Weps" Raikes without overdoing it. She's natural enough on screen that it might be interesting to see how she could do in a project that asks more of her. Liam Neeson (2012's "The Grey") pops up for a week's worth of work (if that) as Admiral Shane, disappearing for long stretches, while Kitsch's fellow "Friday Night Lights" co-star Jesse Plemons (2011's "Paul") manages to avoid obnoxious maneuvering as resident comic relief Boatswain Mate Seaman Jimmy "Ordy" Ord.

The running time of "Battleship" is 131 minutes—not disagreeable for a potential blockbuster of this size (all three "Transformers" flicks were longer)—but the good will earned by director Peter Berg only lasts for about an hour. After this, the near-ceaseless bombardment of chaos without thought—and one very unctuous climax scored to AC/DC—is enough to send some into catatonia. The second half doesn't have individual action set-pieces, carefully assembled and remembered in hindsight, but one big orgiastic display of pyrotechnics and noise that gives the viewer nothing to care about. Becoming all but certain that there shall be no story deviations or surprises, all that one can do is wait for the "good guys" (who, it needs to be said, are just as bomb-happy as the aliens) to put the kablooey on all of the "bad guys." Without any feelings of wonder and certainly not enough outward horror to be scary, "Battleship" readily loses its way, the cornball dialogue calling all the more negative attention to itself. "If you can't lead us, who can?" one soldier asks of Alex when he hesitates about taking the reigns. Clearly, said man is blind because there are thirty other capable men and women surrounding him who'd be more than willing to head up the troop. More of those kinds of clichés and we could have had an unintended farce on our hands. As is, all we have is standard Big Hollywood fare, as creatively lazy as it is technically competent.
© 2012 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman