Battleship, the latest two-hour-plus movie based on a Hasbro toy, is predictably a movie assembled by creative committee. At the same time, based on the movie the committee delivered, the members of that imaginary brain trust are more thoughtfully eccentric than one might expect.
Imagine, if you will, a meeting of the minds headed by the world's biggest Michael Bay fan and chaired by a gawky scientist with a thing for Billy Bob Thornton. This confab gathers retirees from a veterans' home, fans of R&B and Tadanobu Asano (the Johnny Depp of Japan!), a toy-company executive who also happens to be the 12-year-old M. Night Shyamalan, and a guy who saw J.J. Abrams' last two movies and dug their extended use of lens flares.
If Battleship is any indication, the only pop culture mavens missing from this coalition of the willing were the Village People and Frankenberry. It isn't a personal, smart or especially clever popcorn movie: In fact, it's dumb as dirt and monumentally contrived. But somehow, the unsung dream team that put it together got the job done.
John Carter's Taylor Kitsch heads a freakishly eclectic cast as generically reckless Lt. Alex Hopper, a hotheaded dimwit with more guts than brains. Alex's brother, who has the Lego-ready name Stone Hopper (True Blood's Alexander Skarsgard), urges him to get his act together, but stubborn Alex remains his risk-taking, rule-breaking self — until aliens invade just off the coast of Honolulu.
Yes, it takes an alien invasion for Alex to realize his potential. Working side-by-side with his fiancée (Brooklyn Decker), a Japanese naval captain (Asano in his most prominent English-language role to date), some real-life veterans and a Sassy Black Subordinate (Rihanna, of course), Alex takes on killer space invaders that can't stand sunlight and have porcupine spines for facial hair.
Make no mistake, if you step back from Battleship's plot even for a second, its stupidity will plant a direct hit on your brain cells. Ponder, for example, what interplanetary Island of Lost Toys might have produced the film's catchall aliens, which arrive in monolithic ships that spit out all-terrain razorball vehicles yet wear low-rent Terminator-style visors (to help assess what is or isn't a threat to their global-conquest plans). As if that's not enough cosmic gizmology, when you touch an alien ship — as Alex predictably does — you will be tased and thrown back several feet in the air, for no other reason than it looks pretty cool.
These aliens don't make sense, but the beauty of this cheerfully infantile smashup is they don't really need to. The things that make Battleship a paradoxically marginal but considerable success is its ability to do all the things Bay has tried to do with his Transformers movies — but with sincerity and an endearingly weird eye for detail. The film's rah-rah go-Navy heroics are driven home with appealing conviction, thanks to Hancock/Friday Night Lights director Peter Berg's casting of real-life disabled actors and war vets to topple his creatures from a Mad Libs-spawned beyond. And while the aliens' ships may be incomprehensible from a design standpoint — H.R. Giger wept — you can at least see them clearly, as Berg's cinematographer doesn't jiggle the camera as if trying to burp it. The film's action scenes are paced well enough that they survive even Rihanna spitting out what passes for a catchphrase in this eloquence-averse universe: "Mahalo, motherfucker."
In other words, hurdling the high end of low expectations, Berg and the gang have delivered a better Battleship movie than most anyone could have hoped. It's as improbably entertaining as it is because the ad wizards who put it together actually thought for a few moments about what they wanted from it, before trying to sell you action figures, soft drinks and a brand-new car. "Surprisingly sturdy" is as good as it gets when it comes to this kind of multimillion-dollar marketing grab. Maybe it's not high praise to call Battleship a better waste of time than you'd expect from a movie based on a two-player board game. But that pretty much pegs it.
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