Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Liam Neeson, Rihanna
Directed by: Peter Berg (“Hancock”)
Written by: Erich Hoeber (“RED”) and Jon Hoeber (“RED”)
I never actually played Battleship when I was a kid. By that I mean I played a game called Sea Battle, a wonky electronic knock-off sold by Radio Shack. My sister and I would play, entering the locations of our fleet into the game’s screwy memory. The idea was that you’d punch the coordinates into the game while announcing them out loud, and the game would reference its two kilobytes of memory and register a hit with the sound of a bomb whistling followed by an explosion; a miss would be the whistle followed by silence. As was the case with all the battery-powered garbage Radio Shack sold, it rarely worked correctly…a trait I had no idea would prepare me for a movie that wouldn’t be released until 25 years later.
Based on the Hasbro board game of the same name, “Battleship” begins with a block of text detailing The Beacon Project, an effort by scientists to contact a distant planet capable of sustaining life. High-powered satellites blast beams of energy into deep space and receive an answer in the form of a relatively small alien invasion. After one of their ships crashes into Pacific near Hawaii, the U.S. Navy is sent to investigate. The aliens react by attacking and erecting a force field around three ships, forcing the sailors on board to engage the enemy in combat without the benefit of reinforcements.
Perhaps recognizing that the movie’s source material is nothing but a plot-less guessing game that happens to feature naval vessels, Hasbro and director Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights”) have decided that the solution to that problem is to make “Battleship” look and sound as much like Michael Bay’s “Transformers” movies as possible. Berg apes Bay so relentlessly, from sweeping shots of military equipment to the incomprehensible close-ups of spinning and whirring alien technology to everything being SO GODDAMN LOUD, you’d swear that the invading aliens would turn out to be farting racial stereotypes.
Thankfully Berg avoids Bay’s penchant for terrible humor, but in the end he’s still managed to turn in just another brain-dead destruco-porn alien invasion movie. A paper-thin premise (that would be that battleships exist and shoot things) is gussied up with a metric ton of summer movie crap with no regard for how little sense it makes. Space-faring aliens versus a sea-faring battleship? Why the hell don’t the aliens just fly away?
On the bright side, Taylor Kitsch (of mega-bomb “John Carter” and Berg’s TV version of “Friday Night Lights”) scores a red peg, bringing moments of charm to the otherwise routine role of “impulsive hothead wasting his potential suddenly thrust into character-defining action,” and he earns real laughs breaking into a convenience store during an otherwise unnecessary prologue. The same can’t be said of the rest of the cast of white pegs, however. Liam Neeson is simply cashing a paycheck, with only about 10 minutes of screen time spread out over the entire movie. Singer Rihanna is stuck in drab fatigues for the entire movie, thus hiding her only real talent. Model Brooklyn Decker is at least given skimpy outfits to wear, but she’s also supposed to be playing a character that isn’t a model, so the whole thing falls apart. And real-life former soldier and double amputee Gregory D. Gadson stretches his limited acting ability and dignity to the breaking point when he ends up in a fistfight with a CGI alien.
Some clever touches warrant a smile or two, such as the aliens’ weapons or the impromptu grid system set up to track and attack them resembling aspects of the board game. But the empty stupidity ultimately is too powerful to overcome, sinking this “Battleship.”
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collings, Mark Strong
Directed by: Andrew Stanton (“WALL-E,” “Finding Nemo”)
Written by: Andrew Stanton (“WALL-E”) and Mark Andrews (debut) and Michael Chabon (“Spider-Man 2”)
Science fiction seems like such a modern art form, perhaps because it routinely deals with concepts we see as being on the horizon; things we see as staples of the future. It’s all about robots and spaceships and aliens, all things we hope to one day perfect or discover. Maybe that’s why it seems odd that Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan, was writing science fiction novels 100 years ago. He started with “A Princess of Mars,” featuring interplanetary hero John Carter.
Directed by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton (“WALL-E”), “John Carter” adapts several of Burroughs’ novels to tell the tale of Captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a Confederate Civil War veteran on the hunt for gold in Arizona. After dodging both a conscription effort at the hands of Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston) and an Apache attack, Carter finds himself transported to the planet Mars after clutching a strange amulet and uttering an even stranger word: Barsoom. Carter’s other-worldliness grants him fantastic abilities on the Red Planet, making him a sought-after warrior in the clashes between Mars’ warring races. After rescuing a princess (Lynn Collins), Carter chooses his allegiance, taking on villains Sab Than (Dominic West) and Matai Shang (Mark Strong), in a battle for the ultimate fate of Mars.
“John Carter” has several significant hurdles on its path toward blockbuster status, not the least of which is the century of blockbusters that have been influenced by its source material, causing “Carter” to come across as a faded copy of countless other science fiction stories. Outsider who acquires amazing powers after venturing to another planet? Sounds like “Superman.” Or how about the outsider who becomes part of a native tribe of really tall aliens? Looks and sounds an awful lot like “Avatar” to me. And that coliseum in the middle of a desert full of screaming aliens watching a human fight giant creatures to the death? It looks like a deleted scene from “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.” Add that to the dense mythology the film doles out, featuring goofy sci-fi names like Zodanga, Jasoom, and, uh, Helium, and casual audiences might think they’ve stumbled into a cheapo SyFy Channel knock-off that somehow made its way into a theater.
Thankfully, though, the spectacle ends up muscling away the pulpier elements of the story. Gorgeous steampunk airships glide through the air like gear-driven dragonflies en route to massive walking cities. Giant, green-skined Tharks seem as real as the human actors they stand next to. And Kitsch, best known for his role on NBC’s “Friday Night Lights,” doesn’t bother with nuance and instead just plays the tough guy when it comes to his portrayal of John Carter. Its probably no coincidence that Carter’s costuming and skill with a sword evoke images He-Man. He’s a sci fi/fantasy action figure punching and slicing his way through hordes or marauding Martians. It’s an epic nearly a century in the making, and Stanton has set the table for more grand adventures to come.