'Battleship' down

Friday, April 13, 2012
By Lin Yuting, The China Post

Inspired by Hasbro's classic board game, “Battleship” is essentially a lavish but inconsequential diversion. For the film, the fact that aliens do exist, have responded to our radio signals, and have landed on Earth for possibly colonizing it is mainly an excuse for thrilling battleship action, and for slacker Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) to go through his coming-of-age.

Right from the start, we are introduced to Alex and his older brother Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgård), a self-disciplined and dapper naval officer. As the brothers celebrate Alex's birthday in a bar, a beautiful girl walks in. Through his quest to acquire a chicken burrito for the girl, Sam, Alex not only wrecks havoc in the neighborhood but wins her heart and convinces the audience of his potential as a warrior.

Purely a coincidence, Sam (Brooklyn Decker) turns out to be the daughter of Admiral Shane, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and Stone's superior. When Stone gets fed up with Alex and orders him to join the Navy, Sam naturally becomes Alex's fiancée. The difficulty of this romance, however, lies in asking for Admiral Shane's permission on the marriage. In portraying Admiral Shane, Liam Neeson reprises his familiar niche role as a tough wise guy.

Meanwhile, scientists have enthusiastically commenced the Beacon Project, sending signals into outer space aimed at a Goldilocks planet (i.e. a planet with conditions comparable to those of Earth, where extraterrestrial life is likely found). Soon, a fleet of alien vessels zooms through space toward the Earth in response.

Blissfully ignorant of the aliens approaching, members of the American and Japanese Navy play a soccer tournament in Hawaii. This soccer game introduces a vibrant, albeit facile roster of supporting characters. Later on, while frantically fighting aliens, these characters still manage to each make a coherent impression.

Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) is the Japanese officer whose relationship with Alex changes from rivalry to camaraderie as they unite against a common enemy. Ordy (Jesse Plemons) is the clearheaded Marine who is long on insightful quips but short on adrenaline-driven courage. Cora Raikes, played by singer Rihanna, is a woman whom you know you can rely on. Noteworthy especially is real-life U.S. Army Colonel Gregory D. Gadson, who lost both legs in Iraq in 2007, and plays Lieutenant Colonel Mick Canales in the film.

Sam, a physical therapist specializing in veteran rehab, goes on a hike with Mick, but the aliens disrupt the day, forcing them to help save the world along with Cal (Hamish Linklater), the nonchalant, nerdy scientist who monitors the Beacon Project's satellite dishes.

Like many films that offer a sweeping snapshot of humankind in the face of global catastrophe, “Battleship” shows an interesting communal portrait. The scientist who leads the Beacon Project speaks in a British accent. The Japanese and the Americans change from rivals to allies. China and Russia are mentioned in passing while Hong Kong is the city worst damaged by alien debris. It is interesting to wonder, perhaps from a marketing point of view, why these plot choices were made.

Unlike “Independence Day” or “2012,” “Battleship” limits its scope mostly to naval battles taking place within the alien vessel's defense shield. Outside of Alex's personal growth and the Navy's success in battle, the film completely ignores the implication of the aliens' arrival to Earth — a claustrophobic tendency confirmed by the story's abrupt ending.

The aliens are characterized as humanoid in their social behavior, but biologically are more analogous to amphibians. In several scenes, when they scan their surroundings with mechanically enhanced vision, they choose to not kill humans but focus on destroying infrastructure and machinery. They also help their own wounded.

On the other hand, the human inhabitants of the film remain dumbfounded upon encountering extraterrestrial objects. With so many alien-themed films in our collective consciousness, surely individuals and institutions would catch on sooner in such a circumstance. Yet everyone in “Battleship” seems to have huge questions marks over their heads saying, “What are aliens? I've never entertained the idea!”

Alex, the supposed hero, also wears the audiences' patience thin as his main flaw of recklessness seems calculated to be one that is “acceptable for a man,” and his transformation upon Stone's death is incredibly contrived.

To one's relief, however, every once in while some funny dialogue pops up. Whether or not these moments are intentional is up for debate. In one scene, Stone yells at Alex in frustration: “Who do I call to teach you humility? I don't have that number!” In another Cal yells, “They killed my grad student!” Elsewhere someone asks rhetorically: “If you can't, who can?”

Many motifs in “Battleship” are reminiscent of other films. The aliens might have borrowed their super-armor from “Iron Man,” while themselves sharing kinship with creatures from “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The battleship sailing into the sunset recalls “Titanic,” as does the shot where it turns vertical upon sinking and shows its propellers. The dome-like defense shield projected by the alien vessel recalls “Independence Day,” and while viruses are lethal to the aliens in “War of the Worlds,” those in “Battleship” cannot stand sunlight. Shots of faux news reportage and emergency boardroom meetings are also tropes.

Halfway through the film it suddenly hit me that the aliens' missiles look a lot like pieces from “Battleship” the board game. In another scene of unabashed product display, a vending machine topples, its glass panels shatter and out pour boxes of “Battleship Missouri” souvenir toys. Despite being aware of the film's source material, these moments still catches one off guard.

Over its two-hour-plus runtime, “Battleship” tries to pep us up in a few ways. It cries the End of Days, kills Alex's handsome older brother, evokes war veterans, blasts obnoxious rock music, disparages scientists, hands out military awards and offers state-of-the-art special effects plus spot-on camera flourishes. Yet in the end, you feel like you have merely won a game rather than saved the world. ■

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