Film Review: 'Battleship' weighed down by cliches, idiocy

Tadanobu Asano (left) and Taylor Kitsch endure some of the digitally rendered carnage of Hasbro and Universal Pictures' 'Battleship.'

ILM/Universal Pict

Tadanobu Asano (left) and Taylor Kitsch endure some of the digitally rendered carnage of Hasbro and Universal Pictures' "Battleship."

A production of Hasbro (in collaboration with Universal Studios), "Battleship" is a $200 million military-hardware science-fiction action epic inspired by a board game played with tiny plastic pegs and miniature toy boats.

Can "Frisbee," in which flying discs from outer space vaporize Manhattan, and "Operation," a horror movie in which a mad scientist tortures his victim's "funny bone" and "bread basket," be far behind?

Let's hope so. Hasbro's follow-up to the similarly wacko (if not Wham-O) "Transformers" and "G.I. Joe" movies, "Battleship" is torpedoed by cliché, illogic and idiocy. A forgiving viewer, however, may wonder if there's method in its moronity: Creedence Clearwater Revival's classic 1969 anti-war song, "Fortunate Son," blares over the end credits, as if in veiled insult to the audience members who cheered the movie's Hollywoodized warmongering.

A fleet of battleships do battle with an armada of unknown origins to try and discover why they are here and what their ultimate goal ...

Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, action and destruction, and for language

Length: 131 minutes

Released: May 18, 2012 Nationwide

Cast: Liam Neeson, Taylor Kitsch, Rihanna, Alexander Skarsgård, Brooklyn Decker

Director: Peter Berg

Writer: Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber

More info and showtimes »

With its reference to "star-spangled eyes," "Fortunate Son" -- like Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." -- is frequently misunderstood, and is sometimes played at patriotic rallies by clueless event organizers. Could "Battleship" be similarly sly? Has director Peter Berg (whose "Hancock" tweaked and twisted the superhero genre) pulled a fast one on his employers, delivering a satirical critique of U.S. militarism disguised as a chest-thumping celebration of American firepower?

That might explain the incompetence of the nominal hero, longhaired ne'er-do-well turned buzz-cut sailor Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch, no more distinctive here than in "John Carter"), introduced during a numbing "comic" opening sequence that finds him being Tasered after breaking into a convenience store to steal a chicken burrito for a tight-shirted blond physical therapist (Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker), who happens to be the daughter of the admiral (Liam Neeson) "who runs the whole damn fleet."

Commanding a small excursion boat with a crew that includes the singer Rihanna (as a Navy petty officer), Hopper precipitates what threatens to become "an extinction- level event" for the Earth when he interferes with an alien spacecraft floating in the Pacific, not far from the site of a previous disaster, Pearl Harbor.

Part of an apparent invasion flotilla that arrived on our planet in response to a NASA signal hoping to make "first contact" with extraterrestrials, the spaceship is menacing but mysterious until Hopper boards its bobbing otherworldly surface and pushes what might be a literal panic button. Not that Earth has any reason to welcome the visitors: Part of the alien armada crashed on arrival, taking out a hunk of Hong Kong. (The "Transformers"-like special effects -- which bring to mechanical life such marvels as giant spinning robot "tires" with chainsaw treads that chew through steel and concrete -- are as accomplished and spectacular as one expects for a 2012 blockbuster.)

If "Battleship" is a joke, which seems unlikely, given its expense and the Cuisinart messiness of its visual and storytelling strategies, it's at the expense of the World War II veterans and the legless amputee (Gregory D. Gadson) in its cast. Playing a stubborn therapy patient, Gadson is this largely computer-generated movie's most impressive and cost-effective visual. Balancing his barrel-like torso on two springy prosthetic legs (at one point, a scaredy-cat geek scientist asks if he's a "cyborg"), Gadson is real-life Iraq War veteran who lost his legs in 2007, to a roadside bomb in Baghdad. A role in "Battleship" may be small recompense, but audiences are certain to howl with delight when the non-actor goes Joe Frazier on an armored alien, literally knocking the teeth from an extraterrestrial mouth situated between a spiny beard and a pair of vertical-slitted cat's eyes.

The hypocrisy of the enterprise is distressing, however. When Hopper derides the 70-year-old USS Missouri as "a dinosaur," you know he's going to have to pull the battleship turned museum from the mothballs so it can save the day and prove that even old-school Yankee know-how trumps extraterrestrial high-tech aggression; yet the movie itself utterly eschews the narrative and esthetic values of classic American cinema for computer- generated sensationalism. (The Pearl Harbor setting is no accident: To demonstrate that times have changed, the Japanese navy -- including an officer played by Tadanobu Asano -- joins the effort to KO the ET's.)

The theoretically comforting but cynical conceit of the movie's Defense Department triumphalism makes "Battleship" a perfect election-year movie; there's a whistling-in-the-graveyard desperation to its booming soundtrack, which echoes with explosions, gunfire and enough AC/DC for a season's worth of Grizzlies timeouts. Maybe we can't figure out how to fight terrorism or neighborhood crime or poverty, but -- onscreen, at least -- we sure know how to put the boot to alien butt.

-- John Beifuss: 529-2394

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