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Thursday, May 24, 2012 12:51 pm

Battleship

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One of the advantages of having low expectations is that you increase the possibility of being pleasantly surprised. Case in point, Peter Berg’s Battleship, a movie that upon seeing the trailer, I dismissed as merely a Transformers knockoff. There are more than a few similarities between the two projects – both are based on Hasbro Games’ products and each revolves around an alien invasion – but the commonalities end there. While the films in the Michael Bay franchise are a muddled mass of contrived plotting and headache-inducing actions sequences, this film is far more clever, visually coherent and actually emotionally engaging at times.

The script by Erich and Jon Hoeber is no great shakes as it employs one waterlogged cliché after another. Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgard) is a commander in the U.S. Navy who not only has to take care of a destroyer and its crew but his layabout brother Alex (Taylor Kitsch) as well. A screwup with a long list of infractions, his latest escapade – breaking and entering a convenience store to score a chicken burrito for knockout Samantha Shane (Brooklyn Decker) – leads to an ultimatum from Stone: it’s time to join the Navy or get out. Before you know it, the loser has become a lieutenant (?!?) and is gearing up to ask the head of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson) for his daughter’s hand in marriage. However, his timing couldn’t be worse as five alien spacecraft crash off the Hawaiian Islands, in answer to a transmission sent to deep space from an observatory on Oahu.

As I say, the plot is a by-the-numbers affair as popcorn movies go, but Berg does a very good job injecting some life into the proceedings, taking the time to focus on character interactions as well as devoting scenes to the human cost of the movie’s mass urban destruction, something the Transformers films never do in their pursuit of inducing aneurisms in the greatest number of viewers. Equally impressive is the way the basic premise of the original Hasbro game is integrated into the film. While no one screams, “You sunk my battleship!” a convincing plot point turns the section of the Pacific where the action takes place into a grid through which the aliens are tracked and destroyed. (Eagle-eyed viewers will note that the invader’s bombs resemble the pegs used in the game). Surprisingly, the sequence devoted to hunting these flawed spacemen are some of the film’s best, as the cat-and-mouse game that develops is great fun.

However, the film has its flaws. Skarsgard and Kitsch is the most unconvincing pair of brothers I’ve ever seen on the screen (yes, that includes the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Danny DeVito pairing as well) while the latter and the miscast Rhianna flounder about giving performances so wooden, they could be used as pickets for a fence. The script suffers from a great deal of repetition as well, which is never a good thing when the story you’re telling isn’t all that great in the first place.

Still, the movie nearly rights itself in the end when the retired battleship, the U.S. Missouri, is called into action and a group of World War II and Korean veterans take the fight to the off-world enemy. The climactic action sequence, as well as all others in the film, is clearly rendered by eschewing the unnecessary camera moves and seizure-inducing editing that makes Transformers so arduous to sit through. The director creates some genuinely engaging action scenes. Being able to follow the movements of the characters and recognize the environment it occurs in makes all the difference as Battleship winds up being a fun and most surprising piece of disposable entertainment. 

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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