Battleship is superficially based on an old board game, but really it's the latest in a long line of movies about alien forces coming to our planet and trashing the place. And this movie proves what we've suspected for a long time: the Hollywood alien invasion picture relies on a whole series of ridiculous contrivances and cliches to work.
This movie basically lays bare how nonsensical the whole enterprise is, and that's part of why it's actually pretty fun to watch.
First of all, a non-spoilery opinion: As "aliens blow shit up" movies go, Battleship is much, much better than The Darkest Hour or Skyline, but maybe not quite as good as Battle: Los Angeles. If you liked the first Transformers (as I did) then you'll probably like this film too. Battleship is a perfectly sturdy film that's about 30-45 minutes too long but manages to deliver a decent amount of human-alien combat and strategy. It's a perfectly adequate dose of summer movie crack.
Okay, now for the spoilers.
After an incredibly slow opening act where we get to know our human characters (more on them later), Battleship moves on to hit all of the notes you'd expect from this sort of movie, with a workmanlike precision. Big alien ships descending to Earth? Check. Fiery destruction trashing a city, with people running and screaming? Check. Stand-off between the U.S. military and the aliens, in which the aliens totally hand us our asses? Check. One seemingly insignificant human comes up with a brilliant plan to fight back? Check. And without giving too much away, the aliens who seem unbeatable at first suddenly turn out to have a basic weakness? Check.
At least this time, the aliens aren't allergic to water. That would be especially regrettable, since they're on the ocean.
Obviously, with a movie like Battleship, the key is to shut off your brain and enjoy the things going boom and the military combat — the movie's writers even said so when we talked to them a while back. That said, there are two kinds of "shut off your brain" movies: The ones where you can't help thinking of all the stuff that makes no sense when you're in the parking lot outside the movie theater, and the ones where you can't help noticing all the nonsense while you're in the middle of the movie. This is definitely the latter.
And Battleship, while being reasonably fun, does lay bare just how arbitrary the alien invasion film is, and how much it's like romantic comedies. Romantic comedies always feature a few standard tropes, from the "meet cute" to the "getting off on the wrong foot" to the random circumstances bringing the character, to the final crisis where someone learns the truth, to the "getting on a plane/getting married" conclusion. It's the same thing with alien invasion movies, from the first contact to the last ass-whuppin'.
What's really fascinating about Battleship, though, is how much the aliens' behavior doesn't make sense. (Although, having read Peter David's novelization, I know David comes up with plausible explanations for everything, which either were cut from the movie or were never there.) The aliens' behavior has very little logic, apart from the logic of the alien invasion story.
In a nutshell, the aliens arrive and suffer a setback, which is reasonably plausible and gives the aliens an immediate objective. And then they go to Hawaii and create a dome of solid water that nobody can go in or out of, trapping three Naval vessels inside with them. This sets up the whole conflict of the movie, because there are just three vessels on their own, against the alien scouting party. But the aliens, having sequestered the island and completely decimated all military resistance, then turn weirdly squeamish. We keep seeing through "alien-vision," in which threats are red and non-threats are green — and the aliens refuse to hurt anyone who isn't a threat. That in turn, means all you have to do is stand still and look harmless, and the aliens will walk right past you. There are a bunch of scenes where soldiers take advantage of this, standing and keeping their hands down, so the aliens will ignore them until they're ready to attack.
Let me just repeat that: The way to outsmart the aliens is to stand still and look friendly, and they'll leave you alone until you're ready to attack them. Even if you're a soldier, on board what they already know is a military vessel.
These are not particularly ruthless invaders, let's just say that.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with a movie being contrived. Some of the best movies ever made are hella contrived. The world would be a poorer place if we all surrendered to the tyranny of strict plausibility, especially when it comes to stories about aliens with crazy hipster beards coming down and shooting giant pegs at naval vessels. The thing that's kind of beautiful and baffling about Battleship, though, is how blatant it is — probably because you already know what kind of movie it is before you pony up your ten-spot, and thus a certain amount of good will is factored in.
We've already talked before about how if aliens really did invade, they'd eat us for breakfast — even if they were just a small scouting party, like the one in Battleship.
That said, the combat in Battleship is really fun. The ships are the stars of the film, both the human naval vessels and the alien ships, and there is a lot of clever strategy and to-and-fro about how to cope with these unstoppable new foes. The big thrill of this sort of movie is in the problem-solving, as much as it is in the explosions and scowling, and Battleship delivers on that score. To the extent that Battleship feels like it's based on a game, it's one of those combat strategy games where you have to roll lots of twenty-sided dice or monitor a ton of different little screens on your computer. Not so much with the calling out letters and numbers, although the movie does nod towards that.
And the emphasis on strategy and clever battle maneuverings is what saves Battleship from collapsing under the weight of all its contrivances. If witty banter and sexy eye candy are the glue that hold most romantic comedies together, then problem-solving and resourcefulness are what make alien invasion films feel like more than just a formula unspooling.
So in a film like Battleship, the aliens are meant to be ciphers, because they're main point in the story is to be unbeatable until they're beatable. The humans, meanwhile, are pretty familiar too, although we get a lot more development of them than we do of the aliens.
The main human character is Alex Hopper, who's played by Taylor "John Carter" Kitsch, and he has the same arc as Captain Kirk in the 2009 Star Trek: He's a guy who should be great, but he's an underachieving screw-up, until disaster strikes and he's the only one on the scene who can save the day. This storyline is levened somewhat by giving Hopper a more over-achieving brother, "Stone" Hopper, who's played by Vampire Eric from True Blood. Hopper is in love with Samantha (Brooklyn Decker), a sparky physical therapist — but he can't get the approval of her father the admiral (Liam Neeson, scowling.)
Honestly, the problems of the Hopper family are not that fascinating, for the most part. On the other hand, Rihanna is actually quite fun as a weapons officer who just really enjoys shooting things. That's her whole character: She likes to shoot big guns. And with that one characteristic, she feels more real and alive than the other characters, whom we get endless development of. Maybe because this is a movie about shooting things, so Rihanna's desires and the audience's are perfectly aligned. In any case, if they make the sequel, it should star Rihanna and the main character conflict should be over her wanting to shoot things, and other people perhaps not wanting her to shoot them.
Alex Hopper's arc, from fuck-up to fucking badass, moves like clockwork, at exactly the same pace as humanity's arc from being pwned to pwning. There's nothing much in Battleship that you haven't seen before, but it's delivered well, and once the actual fighting starts, the movie never really lets up. If Battleship does show us quite how contrived the alien invasion genre has gotten, it also provides us with plenty of evidence of why we still love it.