Last year we had Cowboys & Aliens. Battleship’s essentially sailors versus aliens. All we need are highway traffic cops versus aliens, and we’ll be one step closer to the full set: a sci-fi Village People. But while it’s easy to be cynical about Battleship, with its big boats bristling with guns and battle suited aliens seemingly designed with toys and other merchandising in mind, it’s by no means a bad example of a modern special effects movie, and actually a bit better than the Michael Bay Transformers films which have apparently inspired it.
Battleship opens with plenty of blockbuster bombast. Humans have foolishly sent a greetings message into the depths of space, hastening the approach of five gigantic alien ships. On Earth, meanwhile, we’re introduced to Taylor Kitsch’s leading man Alex Hopper, initially a long-haired young layabout who lives in the shadow (and on the couch) of his older brother Stone. Stone (Alexander Skarsgård) is a respected captain in the US navy who despairs of his younger sibling’s aimless pursuits and habit of drunkenly stealing chicken burritos.
Fast-forward a few years, and Alex joins the navy himself, though his temper and poor work ethic often get him on the wrong side of Admiral Crane (Liam Neeson) – which is a bit of a problem, since Crane’s also the father of Alex’s love interest, Samantha (Brooklyn Decker).
While on an exercise with Japanese ships in the Pacific Ocean, Alex and his comrades encounter a fleet of unearthly visitors whose firepower is, naturally, far superior to their own. What follows is a familiar mash-up of sci-fi and disaster movie that’s heavy on eye-popping spectacle – a film that, in spite of its visual similarities to the Transformers franchise, actually has more in common with stuff like Independence Day or Armageddon.
Admittedly, the first half-an-hour or so really doesn’t hold much promise. It seems rather too content to ape Michael Bay’s filmmaking style, with lots of crane shots, fast edits, and intrusive rock music. The splashy arrival of the aliens, as they smash into the ocean and proceed to form a translucent shield that locks Alex and his brother’s respective ships in an inescapable kill zone, is predictable rather than thrilling, and when the missiles first begin to fly, it seems that Battleship might be about to sink without trace.
Somewhere around its mid-point, however, Battleship begins to gain momentum. The initial apathy generated by the tepid first half is soon replaced by a growing sense of engagement. It’s here that Battleship begins to deliver some of the things you’d expect from a movie with big alien space craft on the poster: a David versus Goliath battle, grand destruction, fights, urgent commands from heroes, and cries of panic and uncertainty from supporting characters.
Kitsch makes for a charismatic lead, and while Liam Neeson is given little to do other than look stern in a Navy hat, it really does feel as though everyone involved’s enjoying the experience of making a grand, daft special effects movie – there’s little of the scowling pomposity of the Transformers movies at their worst, and neither are there the dismal attempts at comedy that often blighted that franchise.
Instead, Battleship revels in its absurdity. Its heroes fight aliens with sniper rifles and a 75-year-old ship with a crew of wizened veterans at the helm. And by the time its characters settle down to play what is effectively a scaled up version of the Battleship board game – a scene that, as ridiculous as it sounds, is quite exciting – it’s hard not to be swept up in the film’s batty pace.
Battleship is, as you may have gathered, a flawed film. It’s a bit too long, the motivations of its aliens are somewhat muddled – leaving the impression that a vital bit of information about who or what they are didn’t make the final edit – and its script is more workmanlike than memorable. A movie based on a board game and starring pop singer Rihanna (whose role, as a smart-talking petty officer, is surprisingly low-key) might sound like filmmaking by committee, but if you’re willing to put such cynical thoughts aside, Battleship eventually delivers the requisite salty charm and occasional ripples of excitement you’d expect from an expensive summer blockbuster.