"What's the difference between a battleship and a destroyer?" asks a starstruck boy upon meeting a U.S. Navy hero-to-be in Battleship. The smart answer would be "one peg hole" since everyone knows the board game inspiring this brawny action flick. The sailor says something else because Battleship isn't a smart movie.
It's a loud one, cacophonous enough to prevent nodding off during long stretches of character underdevelopment and gung-ho declarations. Director Peter Berg appears to spoof the genre by piling on alien invasion cliches and ballistic paths to human victory, but I think he's serious about them. A board game gets supersized to boredom.
Poor Taylor Kitsch, stuck in another mega-budget obstacle — after the John Carter debacle — to advancing his career beyond mere beefcake. Kitsch plays Alex Hopper, a chronic rebel against authority, so of course he'll make an outstanding naval officer who'll save the world. In a single jump cut Alex goes from being arrested trying to impress a woman, to lieutenant with the babe (Brooklyn Decker) on his arm and her father the admiral (Liam Neeson) on his back.
Ah, but Alex still has that hot-headed streak, witnessed during a soccer match with Japanese sailors in port for war game maneuvers. His uptight sibling and commander Stone (Alexander Skarsgard) makes it clear: These exercises at sea are Alex's last chance to shape up or ship out. Then Stone gets obliterated by aliens, so there's really no choice for a vengeful little brother, is there?
See, these scientists sent a radio signal to outer space and the wrong extraterrestrials answered, sending a submerged mothership, creatures without personalities and various Transformers spare parts to destroy Earth. It doesn't matter why, and Berg doesn't attempt explaining. He's just looking for something to go boom, and it does, relentlessly, numbingly.
Battleship does pay homage briefly to its board game roots; minor diversions from the incendiary sameness. These are fairly primitive alien warships. Rather than firing death rays they drop bombs shaped like the plastic pegs Battleship players plugged into tiny ships. The thunk-thunk-thunk of them planting in decks and hulls is a nice aural touch soon drowned out by explosions as usual.
Another sequence shows Alex's crew tracking alien coordinates underwater, on a computer grid similar to the game's plastic laptop origins. The scene is nostalgic only because it's as tedious as playing Battleship can be. When a tracker yells: "Give me an order! I don't know what to do, sir!" it was hard to keep from blurting: "E-6, already!"
Two flesh-and-blood performers stand out among the machinery. One is pop singer Rhianna, looking lovely as usual despite the military gear and quite comfortable with high-powered artillery. The other is Gregory D. Gadson, an Army veteran who lost his legs to a roadside bomb in Baghdad. Gadson admirably plays Mick, a vet who won't allow his disability to keep him out of the fight. When he's on screen, the gunpowder corn of Battleship is a bit sweeter.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.