Battleship is not a good film. It is, on the other hand, a ridiculously awesome one.
I realise this is something of a contradiction in terms. Bear with me.
It doesn’t open promisingly. To be honest, one could skip the first ten or twenty minutes of the film and lose very little by it. In the first scenes, we learn that our protagonist, Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), is a dudebro screwup with an ego who’ll do anything to impress a girl, whose brother (Alexander Skarsgård) inveigles him into joining the U.S. Navy — at which point, we learn that Mr. Hopper also has a temper and some impulse control issues. Meanwhile, scientists are sending out signals to a newly-discovered planet in the Goldilocks zone, far, far away. If someone chooses to stop by Earth in answer to such signals, says one scientist—who seems to have a greater sense of self-preservation than the others—it’ll be “like Columbus and the Indians. And we’re the Indians.”
Fast-forward a few years.
This is where the film really gets its feet under it, when Hopper’s ship is on manoeuvres with an international flotilla, under a cloud and about to be dismissed from the service because of a locker-room fight over a soccer match with a Japanese captain (Nagata, played by Tadanobu Asano) from the same flotilla. His physical-therapist fiancée, Sam, is the daughter of the admiral, and it looks like his wedding prospects are about as doomed as his career, because he has to ask Admiral Liam Neeson for permission to marry said daughter.*
*Does that make you slightly ill? It makes me slightly ill. Sam is rather awesome, when the camera is not framing her specifically to show off her womanly bits, and actually gets to do stuff relevant to the plot. Having her fiancé ask her father for her hand in marriage — and having it be a Big Thing — is retrograde in the extreme.
There also a battleship docked handily over the proverbial mantelpiece.
Now, finally, at last we get to the aliens.
This being Hollywood, interstellar signals travel faster than the speed of light. So whatever was hanging around out in the big black yonder can get its alien ass in gear tout de suite and arrive on planet Earth while are protagonists are all still young.
But none of us are here for the physics. We’re here for the explosions and the ridiculously entertaining amount of BOOM ALIENS EXPLODING SHIPS ALIENS BOOM.
Hong Kong is in ruins. Five alien ships are down in the Pacific. Three destroyers — Hopper’s, his brother’s, and Captain Nagata’s — are trapped inside a forcefield the aliens have thrown up around O’ahu, separated from the rest of the fleet. When the chips are down, when it’s do or die, can Alex Hopper save the world?
Spoiler! The answer is yes. With help.
This is basically space opera at sea level. There is character development (in small amounts) and a plot arc: solid tension, unprepossessing dialogue that occasionally breaks out into half-decent banter, and several CROWNING MOMENTS OF SPLODEY AWESOME.
Ahem. Sorry. Got carried away there.
Rihanna puts in a solid performance as Raikes, a supremely professional Navy PO who fires the big guns and is a dab hand with a rifle. She may be one of only three women in the Navy, judging by the film! But, still. It is pleasant to have a lady making things go BOOM.
There is a solid and entertaining subplot involving Sam, one of her patients, and the mountain from which the entirely-too-optimististic-scientists have been routing the signal to outer space. There are Moments Of Awesome. The battleship positioned so handily over the mantelpiece at the start of Act Two is taken up with a vengeance in the final act.
And it does homage to the boardgame very nicely without in any way making the callback seemed forced or unnatural.
Alas, the last five minutes of the film are terrible and saccharine and my god we are here for the SPLODEY BITS not the hackneyed sentiment people! MORE SPLODEY BITS!
In fact, tear out the “romantic” part with a spork and it would have fewer moments of utter cringe to go with the FANTASTIC SPLODEY SEA BATTLE parts.
It hit a bunch of my narrative kinks: do-or-die (do-and-die) bravery, last stands, nick-of-time reversals, splodey bits, a woman with a big gun. In conclusion: Bechdel test failure, Aliens vs. Really Big Ships, and REALLY GOOD SPLODEY BITS.
Battleship is a much better film than it has any right to be. It’ll never be deep. But sometimes you really do just want to watch the world explode.
Liz Bourke likes watching things explode. Find her @hawkwing_lb on Twitter.