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Battleship Review Full Attack

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NATO’s defence ministers are already talking of the ‘next stage’ in Afghanistan. Australia’s PM plans to pull Aussie troops out by the end of 2013, a year ahead of schedule. The West’s decade of wars of ‘liberation’ – launched in the aftermath of 9/11 – seems to be winding down, but Hollywood hasn’t quite got the message yet. Black Hawk Down, released three months after the Twin Towers toppled, was the first of the mindless war-as-videogame films – and they’re still going strong, blithely gung-ho and militaristic even as the world transforms around them.

Recently, the plague has spread to sci-fi: first in Battle: Los Angeles and now Battleship, aliens attack only to be rebuffed with soldierly shock-and-awe. Not just a ragtag band of plucky survivors, like in Independence Day (1996), but an organised military operation – or naval in the case of Battleship, ‘based’ on the eponymous board-game. ‘Stop behaving as if aliens were enemy soldiers!!!’ I scribbled in my notes while watching this bone-headed action flick – and it’s deeply annoying, not least because the film’s view of warfare is super-simplistic. This is not a war film per se. There’s no strategy. “Full attack!” is the first command our hero Alex (Taylor Kitsch) issues after becoming Captain – even though his fleet consists of about three destroyers, and what they’re attacking is a monstrously enormous alien spacecraft. Just as well he calls off the attack to rescue some wounded sailors, or the film might’ve ended right there.

Alex is supposedly smart (he knows his Homer, and has read The Art of War six times), yet doesn’t give much evidence of that in the fight against the aliens. Then again, he’s also supposedly stubborn – playing football, he wins a last-minute penalty and insists on taking it himself, costing his team the match – but stubbornness doesn’t really play a role either. The film builds up its hero for the first hour or so (he’s a cut-up, he’s a rebel, he wears shades, he’s in love), then forgets him once the special-effects onslaught starts. And let’s not even ask how a troublemaker with a brother already in the Navy – he only enlists to avoid going to jail – snags officer status and a starring role in the Navy’s war games in what looks like a matter of months. Nepotism much?

Thing is, Battleship is amusing. Men glower, snarl and walk around flexing their muscles. There’s a montage of US Navy warships (including the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan) backed with AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ that’s like the ultimate macho moment. (We also get a close-up of the Navy’s radar-related motto: “In God we trust, all others we track”.) Rihanna looks hilarious with her slight frame and cropped hair, like a small boy next to the big guns, yet struts around like she owns the place. The Navy-boosting is transparently obvious, the dialogue far from deathless. At one point, Rihanna clucks like a chicken and calls a fellow seaman (seaperson?) a “Kentucky Fried Chicken”, sparking the following exchange: “I love it! Two-piece meal!”; “You look a bit like Colonel Sanders, actually”; “He was a handsome man”. With banter like that, who needs banter?

It’s hard to hate something so completely dumbed-down; you might as well hate the Sahara for being too hot. Yet pleasures are sparse, especially over 132 minutes. The film doesn’t have the wild sense of humour of Transformers and its sequels (though its action scenes are a lot more coherent), and only Hamish Linklater – who was also great in The Future – really stands out, in the stock-but-amusing role of a geeky scientist. Dodgiest of all are perhaps its attempts to enlist the ghost of WW2 (the last ‘good war’) in support of its cause: the Hawaiian setting clearly echoes Pearl Harbour – the Yanks are abetted by Japanese warships, making the echoes even more pronounced – and the action finally shifts to the ‘Mighty Mo’, an ancient battleship crewed by elderly WW2 vets. It just feels wrong, mining such a rich vein to jazz up a simple-minded war against faceless aliens.

But the real point – again – is that war against aliens is a bad idea, at least in the sense of trying to blast them to kingdom-come. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” muses Alex (told you he was smart) after half an hour of mayhem and destruction – and Battleship seems similarly clueless, a film in denial. Sci-fi should be pushing new frontiers, not reducing them to military solutions. What’s the answer when the Navy’s guns don’t work? Bigger guns! “Prepare to fire,” says Admiral Liam Neeson with one of those clenched steadfast expressions. “Which weapons, sir?” asks a sailor. “All of them!” he replies incontrovertibly. Sorry, Admiral: a zillion times zero is still zero.

DIRECTED BY Peter Berg

STARRING Taylor Kitsch, Brooklyn Decker, Liam Neeson, Rihanna