This is how Battleship works: Troublesome Boy steals burrito from convenience store to impress Girl at Bar. Boy’s straightlaced Brother decides this is last straw, forces him to join Navy. Boy is hot-headed, but rises to rank of Lieutenant in span of montage, despite fact that Boy exhibits none of qualities United States Navy takes into consideration when giving men control of multi-billion dollar machinery. Boy’s Girlfriend (formerly known as Girl at Bar), physical trainer for surly Afghanistan veterans, is also daughter of Admiral that Boy desperately wants to impress. Because of stupid scientists sending signals spaceward, aliens attack, assault, and annihilate Boy’s Brother, upsetting Boy nearly as much as inability to impress Admiral, who is too preoccupied with aliens to be impressed anyway. Boy takes revenge on aliens by plotting destruction of attacking alien warships in style reminiscent of board game on which movie is based.
In other words, this is how Battleship works: Like a sentence sans articles. It’s a high-concept action movie reduced to a series of ideas linked by little more than the spatial proximity of the frames of film they were printed on. What happens in Battleship has been dictated by the success of the past movies it apes, the other Hasbro toys (GI Joe and Transformers) that have managed to acquire their own summer movies.
The first half of the film is tedious exposition, the kind of boy-chases-girl tomfoolery you might expect from a film trying its damndest to replicate the magic of Michael Bay’s Transformers. You’ll spend this half waiting for the aliens, in hopes that they will suck up the tedium. They don’t, but it’s not their fault: they’re actually some of the better-imagined aliens in recent movies, which doesn’t change the way the film has them act, which is, in a word, dumb. When they detect weaponry or hostile human soldiers with their high-tech sensors, their response more often than not is to stand down, to not fire unless fired upon. Under their protective robot suits, the aliens appear to be very much like humans whose evolutionary processes took a few alternate turns, which is interesting (they’re not fanged lizards or amorphous blobs, nor do they bleed battery acid). But since they appear to be an entirely warlike race, a people who go about the galaxies plundering, it’s curious that they’ve missed an essential rule of warfare, which is that victory must be total if it is to be at all.
Nevertheless, when the aliens do show up, there is a glimmer of ingenuity to the remorselessly numbing proceedings. But when they turn out to be entirely one-dimensional dumbasses, there is nothing to do (you’re stuck in the theater) but turn your attention back to the lazy underacting of Liam Neeson (the Admiral), the spastic overacting of Taylor Kitsch (the Boy), and the staid non-acting of Rihanna (the pop star inexplicably cast in an action movie). Peter Berg, who’s moved from being an actor himself to directing would-be blockbusters (this, The Kingdom, Hancock), has an awful sense of narrative rhythm and a repulsive eye for framing shots. His over-the-shoulders, in particular, almost always feature more of the shoulder they’re looking over than the face we’re looking at.
So, you’ll end up focusing on the little things. The way the Boy and his girlfriend (Brooklyn Decker) tell each other, “I love you,” and how remarkably genuine it feels; the way missiles launched across the open water, their smoke trails pirouetting and giant flames roaring, momentarily lift the action to the less-than-infuriatingly boring; the intensity of the guy playing the Japanese Naval captain (Tadanobu Asano), whose presence is so gripping that you wince every time he has to deliver an awful line.
Here’s hoping the upcoming live-action Hasbro blockbusters Candyland and Lincoln Logs land a director who can do more than elicit a longing for the combination of tastelessness and talent you at least get with Michael Bay.