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Wednesday, March 13,2013

That sinking feeling

Brainless, offensive 'Battleship' should drive audiences to mutiny

by James Sanford
Ugh, those surplus brain cells! You try drinking them away, bashing your skull against a brick wall, but still your I.Q. remains in the triple digits. Can anything help reduce your mind to mush? Well, take heart: A screening of “Battleship” is practically a cinematic lobotomy.


Why should we expect anything less from a movie that comes to us courtesy of Hasbro (uh huh, the toy company is prominently credited, just like Marvel is in “The Avengers”)? Having run through old TV series, video games, computer software, Saturday morning cartoons, amusement park rides and even bubblegum cards — who remembers “The Garbage Pail Kids Movie"? — for inspiration, Hollywood has finally turned to the shelves of Toys R Us. If it was actually sold in stores, however, this “Battleship” would be a prime candidate for inclusion on the California Public Interest Research Group’s annual “Trouble in Toyland” list, right up there with those lead-painted trinkets from China and the infamous Jarts.


No one can accuse director Peter Berg of not giving his audience its money’s worth, though. To paraphrase an old Certs commercial, “Battleship” is three, three, three bad movies in one: a terrible sibling-rivalry tale, a lousy “Transformers” rip-off and an insipid imitation of “Predator,” too.

As an extra sour cherry on top of this toxic cake, the movie features some of the most atrocious acting in any film released by a major studio in recent years. No wonder Liam Neeson, who commands special billing here, generally keeps his head down, making only a few token appearances at the beginning and end. Alexander Skarsgard, who is initially built up as the leading man, wisely abandons ship early on. So the movie’s 131 brain-pulverizing minutes are devoted largely to Taylor Kitsch (who proves his charisma-free, cardboard performance in “John Carter” was no fluke), Brooklyn Decker, Tadanobu Asano and Rihanna, taking the role of a tough-talking weapons specialist in what may be the silliest pop-star stunt casting since Madonna attempted to play a prim missionary in “Shanghai Surprise.”


Rihanna is absurdly out of her league (she handles guns with all the confidence of a cat on a surfboard), but she’s still less embarrassing to watch than most of her co-stars, which include Hamish Linklater, doing a truly aggravating Woody Allen imitation as a namby-pamby scientist, and John Tui, the former Mighty Morphin Power Rangers star, who is given exactly one blank expression to sustain throughout the entire film. “Battleship” also features U.S. Army Colonel Gregory D. Gadson, a real-life double amputee, in a sizable role, a gesture that would have been easier to applaud if he hadn’t been handed so much appalling action-flick dialogue. Kitsch’s former “Friday Night Lights” teammate Jesse Plemons is among the few performers here who actually seem capable of, you know, performing.

The screenplay by Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber has little to do with the perennially popular game and even less to do with anything related to storytelling.

Instead, the Hoebers present the sad story of the Hopper brothers, Alex (Kitsch) and Stone (Skarsgard), one brunette, one blond, one a hero, the other a near-zero. After Alex runs afoul of the law while trying to get a chicken burrito for comely Sam (Decker), Stone orders him to give up his lazy lifestyle and join the Navy — because if there’s one thing the Navy needs it’s a few good men who can break into convenience stores, do thousands of dollars worth of damage and get Tasered on the way out. Miracle of miracles, Sam turns out to be the daughter of Admiral Shane, Stone and Alex’s commander; shock of shocks, Admiral Shane has a few reservations about Sam dating a ne’er-do-well who is on the verge of being dishonorably discharged.


But before “Battleship” can turn into an incisive study of military courtship rituals or a dumbed-down imitation of a Sam Shepard play, a fleet of extraterrestrials comes to call, setting the stage for Shane’s hasty exit from the story and allowing the visual effects department to go hog wild with some suspiciously shoddy-looking digital animation and pyrotechnics. With early-1980s AC/DC and Billy Squier anthems pounding in the background, Alex throws off the fleece of the black sheep and bravely takes on the invaders, who bear a shocking resemblance to in-bred hillbillies from outer space.


What might have passed as dumb fun becomes truly grating, as the movie vilifies scientists and researchers while kowtowing to the glory of the Defense Department. “Bombs, not brains” is the motto of “Battleship,” a sentiment that is depressingly common in too many would-be blockbusters. The shamelessly calculated pandering to the military comes across as the worst kind of flag-waving, drum-beating spectacle, more of a slap in the face than a salute to our veterans. The sight of octogenarian sailors trying to wipe out intergalactic aggressors is akin to witnessing a chorus line of senior-citizen strippers strutting their stuff: Just because they’re willing to give it a try doesn’t mean we should feel obligated to watch.


Those who thought “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and “2012” were a bit on the subtle side will be relieved to learn that after a somewhat sedate start “Battleship” is little more than one explosion after another, with an occasional brief break so that Kitsch, Rihanna, Plemons and Asano can scream generally unintelligible but urgent messages and orders at each other. Although the body count in “Battleship” must run into the low thousands, the wrong people keep getting terminated.

After a 90-minute vacation from the screen, Neeson reappears in time for the finale. He has the best of both worlds: Not only did he get paid, he managed to miss most of the movie. Those who were not as fortunate may experience the same awful, sinking feeling that everyone who’s ever lost a game of Battleship knows all too well.

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