As an actor with a face recognised by many but a name known by few, Peter Berg forged a career as bit part player in many a glossy Hollywood production. The kind of actor that you’d see in the role of a corrupt cop fifth or sixth down the cast list or a seedy character there to fill in some crucial exposition. He is not, it’s fair to say, on the A list of American actors. Behind the camera however is a different story. From his directorial debut with the dark-as-they-come comedy Very Bad Things to this $250m summer tent pole behemoth, Peter Berg has ascended with speed and ease to the directorial A list. Each entry in his filmography has screamed career progression, from the entertaining action chops of Welcome To The Jungle (aka The Rundown) to the polished drama of Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom. It was with the Will Smith superhero vehicle Hancock that Berg no doubt really caught Hollywood’s eye, proving himself adept at mixing humour with big budget effects and turning a tidy profit in the process. And so it is that Battleship, it being a gargantuan effects extravaganza, is the next logical step for a director that seems capable of combining the eye popping visuals of a Michael Bay with the emphasis on story and performance that his actorly background surely promotes.
Battleship sees rising star Taylor Kitsch (he of this years John Carter) as Alex Hopper, the proverbial ultimate f$%K-up, who after one too many brushes with the law is pushed into enrolling with the US Navy by his older brother Stone Hopper (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard). A few years later, with Alex on the verge of being kicked out of the Navy by Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), also the father of his long-suffering girlfriend Samantha (Brooklyn Decker), Alex is caught up in a full scale battle for the future of earth when invading alien ships are discovered in the ocean during a naval wargames exercise.
Berg’s films have always had a grain of dark humour running through them, but the surprise of the opening act of Battleship is just how light hearted the whole affair is. Not afraid to take its time in revealing its otherworldly antagonists, the film gives us a lengthy introduction to the characters and relationships at play. It’s an opening that’s cheesy as hell, much like the rest of the film, but in a time when every big franchise movie seems to be jumping on the Dark Knight bandwagon of edgy realism it makes for a frothy change of pace. Not every attempt at humour hits it’s target but Kitsch makes for a likeable leading man and there is at least some attempts made to endear the audience to characters that will soon be placed in peril.
When the action finally hits it is undeniably impressive if a little derivative of Transformers in its visuals and sound design. The visuals are given a certain amount of freshness thanks in no small part to Berg’s now-trademark style of shooting, all jittery handheld frames, quick zooms and documentary-like. It adds an urgency to the affair without resorting to the disorienting quick-cuts that many favour, an audacious one-take shot of an evacuation from a sinking ship a major highlight.
Unfortunately the film does fall foul of the style over substance hurdle that trips up so many of Battleship’s ilk. Despite the death of thousands occurring on-screen, including some characters’ loved ones, the film fails to capture any real sense of loss, the humour at times feeling at odds with the depicted events. The cast as a whole is engaging and diverse. In addition to Kitsch’s impressive turn Liam Neeson does exactly what you’d expect in a cameo of sorts and while Brooklyn Decker is obvious eye candy, she is at least eye candy that can act. The real standout here however, is pop songstress Rihanna, unexpectedly eschewing any glamorous girlfriend roles in favour of a funny, sassy debut as a tough, tomboy Naval officer.
The aforementioned cheese factor does hamper proceedings at times, a third act twist featuring Naval veterans particularly cringeworthy, and a subplot involving disabled war vets that was no doubt intended to be inspirational feels a little exploitative. But at the end of the day, if you’re paying your hard earned bucks to see a summer blockbuster based on a Hasbro board game you’re surely not going to be expecting high art. You will be expecting fast paced action, jaw dropping visuals and death-defying heroics, and in this sense Battleship succeeds with far more style and none of the racism or misogyny of Hasbro’s last attempt at toy to movie screen translation.
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