As a defender of the 1985 comedy “Clue,” I can’t automatically reject the idea of basing a feature film on a board game. But the game Clue comes with characters and a plot and a house. Battleship comes with a grid and boats and pegs.
All those things turn up in “Battleship,” a big, loud, stupid Hollywood movie that winds up looking all the better by virtue of not being as elephantine and deafening and moronic as a Michael Bay “Transformers” adventure. Peter Berg and writers Erich and John Hoeber aren’t interested in nuance or character or wit, but they imbue the movie with enough adrenaline and forward momentum that I was never bored. And that, sadly, makes it better than most of the other expensive and over-hyped films of its ilk.
Taylor Kitsch does his damnedest to channel Tom Cruise’s Maverick character from “Top Gun” — the “John Carter” star plays Alex Hopper, a troublemaker who nonetheless has lots of potential. (We know this because every three minutes or so, someone yells, “You have so much potential!” at him.) The younger brother of distinguished naval officer Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgård, whose first line of dialogue betrays his Scandinavian accent) and boyfriend of Sam (Brooklyn Decker), the nubile daughter of Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), Alex nonetheless finds himself on the verge of getting kicked out of the Navy.
But then the aliens come. Drawn to Earth by a high-powered signal sent to them — scientists are stupid, the movie seems to be saying — five vessels arrive, creating an impenetrable dome that covers both Hawaii (where the alien-contacting satellite dishes are located) and a naval exercise where U.S. ships are engaging in mock combat with fleets from various Asian countries.
Firing a series of peg-like missiles, the aliens take out several ships, and Alex finds himself having to command his own vessel. Can he get along with his Japanese rival long enough to defeat the lizardy humanoid E.T.s? Can Sam and her physical therapy patient and a techno-nerd (Hamish Linklater) stop the first wave of aliens from contacting their brethren?
You can probably guess. What you might not foresee is that Rihanna, playing a weapons expert, doesn’t embarrass herself as an actress; she neither hits the heights of Mariah Carey in “Precious,” nor the depths of Carey in “Glitter,” but her work is perfectly serviceable. It also won’t surprise that the script is full of holes — the aliens knock out radio and the internet in Hawaii, but Alex’s ship can still summon a grid of buoys on the computer? — or that the movie is loaded with shameless product placement for brands of soda and fast food that will not be mentioned here.
The studios seem hell-bent on making Kitsch happen as a leading man, but once again, he’s adequate at best. At times, his performance seems so blurry as to merely be a conduit through which teen boys can imagine themselves saving the day in his place. (Join the Navy, the movie seems to be saying. A lot.)
Nonetheless, this thing lasts 131 minutes but almost never drags, and there’s something to be said for keeping this much baloney aloft for that long. Like the bulky and unwieldy vessel for which it’s named, “Battleship” is both indefensible and unassailable.