May 17, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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BATTLESHIP:  Not Even For Free – Watch a Transformers DVD Instead


For about half an hour, BATTLESHIP could fool you into thinking it’s not the movie you were expecting it to be.  It begins as the story of Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), a good-looking, unmotivated screw-up who lives with his straight-arrow Navy brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgard) and spends most of his time drinking beer and hitting on women–most notably Sam (Brooklyn Decker).  The script by Erich and John Hoeber follows Alex as he unwillingly finds himself having to join his brother in the Navy, and since Alex is not unlike Tim Riggins, the iconic part Kitsch played in the TV version of Friday Night Lights, and Battleship is directed by FNL‘s Peter Berg (Jesse Plemons, FNL‘s Landry, turns up too), you could be excused for hoping that some measure of that show’s strong characterizations and realistic dialogue could make its way into a big-budget extravaganza.

Then things start blowing up, and from that point on, Battleship is exactly the movie you expected it to be, the one that emblazons the Hasbro name in every trailer and wants more than anything else in the world to make people think it’s part of the Transformers franchise.  (Consumer note:  most of the most spectacular, Transformerish shots in the trailers and promos, the ones showing highways and skyscrapers being ripped apart, come from a single sequence early in the movie–after that, the bulk of the action takes place at sea.

There’s little in the way of plot.  Alex and Stone are taking part in a naval war games operation (which happen to be staged against a Japanese opponent, the better to attract the lucrative Asian film market), under the command of  Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson)–who, wouldn’t you know it, happens to be Sam’s dad–when they find something in the middle of the ocean.  They go poking at the craft, which of course turns out not to be of this world, and the boom-boom starts.  To the surprise of no one who’s ever seen a movie before, communications with command are cut off, and who has to take charge of the war against the aliens?  Why, screw-up Alex, of course!  Who proves himself fully capable of grimly determined squinting and delivering guy-in-charge lines that all seem to be variations of “I know it’s crazy–but it’s all we’ve got!”

Even as a pseudo-Transformers, Battleship is lame and overly calculated.  Say what you will about Michael Bay, but the man has a gift for massive scale and dynamic action scenes.  Berg, an infinitely better director of actors, is just a routine technician, and there’s nothing here visually we haven’t seen before.  (The alien weapons come in 2 varieties: the ones that sink themselves into a target like a stubby hypodermic needle before blowing up, and the ones that roll around before blowing up.)  The only distinctive moment is one moderately clever scene where the sailors try to track the alien ship via a method that sort of resembles the Battleship board game.  Berg can claim one weird distinction, though:  in the third act of Battleship, there’s a plot development so utterly shameless, so flagrantly aimed at down-to-the-bone US patriotism (I won’t spoil it), that one can only imagine Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer mutely saluting.

Acting isn’t a hallmark of movies like this.  Kitsch does square-jawed heroism competently, but after John Carter and this, he’d better hope his upcoming role in Oliver Stone’s Savages reminds people he can act.  Neeson and Skarsgard have what amount to extended cameos.  Brooklyn Decker (who gets her own storyline, trying to shut down the aliens’ radio signal on the mainland, because why not) wasn’t cast because of her remarkable acting chops. Rihanna, in her acting debut as a Petty Officer on Alex’s ship, will have to make her acting debut somewhere else.

Battleship isn’t going to kill off any brain cells that other dumb summer movies haven’t executed already, and as the old line goes, there are bits where things blow up real good.  The movie is merely routine brainlessness, distinguished only by the level of talent that it wastes.  Those troubled by its blatant, cynical attempt to ape Transformers can take heart in the fact that it doesn’t seem to be working:  the first Transformers made $390M overseas (sequels made much more), and Battleship, already near the end of its international run because it opened there weeks ago, seems unlikely to make even three-quarters of that.  Sometimes audiences aren’t as dumb as studios expect them to be.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."