“Battleship” is big, dumb fun that knows it’s big, dumb fun and enthusiastically embraces its big, dumb, fun nature.
Director Peter Berg has crafted an almost fetishistic homage to Michael Bay — like Bay’s “Transformers” series, this is yet another action extravaganza inspired by a Hasbro product — with its epic set pieces, swaggering bravado, panoramic skies and cheesy romance. It doesn’t lean all the way into parody, but rather feels more like a faithful and knowing approximation of a very specific, muscular genre: one of those the-world-is-ending-we’re-all-gonna-die movies. And because it’s a little cheeky and doesn’t seem to take itself totally seriously, it’s more enjoyable than one might expect from a movie based on a board game created in the 1960s.
Yes, it can be deafeningly noisy between the crunch and shriek of giant metal objects fighting each other and the blaring rock anthems meant to pump up the crowd even further. (The soundtrack includes AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” at one significant moment, a song that’s seemingly been played during the final two minutes of every NBA playoff game since the dawn of time. But it is effective.) No, it’s not subtle between the annihilation caused by alien invaders and the rousing sense of patriotism that’s the real weapon in this battle.
Then again, would you really expect (or want) subtlety from this type of big-budget summer escape? At least screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber showed enough restraint to avoid including the famous line from game’s TV commercials: “You sank my battleship!”
Speaking of blockbusters, Taylor Kitsch gets more to work with here than he did earlier this year in another behemoth, “John Carter,” as our hero, Alex Hopper. A slacker and troublemaker at the film’s start, he joins the Navy at the insistence of his straight-laced older brother, Stone (Alexander Skarsgard). A certain gorgeous blonde named Sam (Brooklyn Decker) also provides some inspiration.
Flash forward and Alex is a lieutenant on one Naval destroyer while Stone is the commanding officer of another. Both answer to Admiral Shane (a withering, well-cast Liam Neeson) who happens to be Sam’s father. They’re all taking part in some international war games off the Hawaiian coast when — oops! — a friendly satellite signal sent to a newly discovered planet that looks a lot like ours in a neighboring galaxy provokes some angry extra-terrestrials.
What could these beings possibly want, besides the usual world domination? It’s never really clear and theoretically it doesn’t really matter; gawking at the ensuing spectacle is the reason we’re all here. A cluster of spaceships hurtles toward Earth, shredding sections of Hong Kong before plunging into the Pacific Ocean. Alex and a couple other crew members — one of whom is a weapons expert played by a smart-alecky Rihanna in her film debut — hop in a smaller boat to have a little look-see at the strange, giant objects protruding from the water and trigger a massive, dome-like force field.
From there, “Battleship” consists of an increasingly intense but ultimately repetitive back-and-forth between our military might and the aliens’ more sophisticated ships. The action sequences are impressively glossy and detailed and not inscrutable like some of the protracted “Transformers” showdowns; the bad guys’ mean, circular doo-dads that resemble giant tires with vicious metal teeth are especially cool. What we lack comparatively in weaponry we make up for in heart and moxie, by golly. The aliens, meanwhile, are personality-free predators whose one weakness seems illogical given that they come from a planet whose atmosphere and climate are just like Earth’s, but whatever.
At the same time, Sam, a physical therapist, finds herself trapped while hiking on Oahu with one of her patients, an Army lieutenant who lost his legs in combat. (He’s played by Gregory D. Gadson, a decorated Iraq war veteran who had both legs amputated after suffering injuries from an improvised explosive device; it’s an inspiring film debut). Of all the mountains on all the islands in all the world, they just happen to be right near the remote satellite center that the aliens want to take over to … phone home, maybe? Again, the motives are a tad blurry. Suffice it to say, the script needed to put Alex’s girlfriend in danger. This also allows them to team up with the skittish Cal (Hamish Linklater), the scientist who ran the place that originated the transmissions, for a little nerdy comic relief.
And if nothing within this multitude of elements works for you, don’t worry. There’s surely a movie based on Connect Four in the works somewhere.
“Battleship,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, action and destruction, and for language. Running time: 131 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.