One of the knocks on Battleship is that it plays like a ripoff of a Michael Bay movie, but frankly, I wish any of Bay's recent films had been a fun as this very silly let's-kill-the-aliens action flick is. Directed by actor-turned-director Peter Berg (Hancock, the Friday Night Lights film), Battleship may be stoopid, but it's not dumb. Throughout this two-hour-plus orgy of action, you get the sense that the people involved understood what kind of summer blockbuster they were supposed to make—incredibly loud, with a jaw-droppingly obvious hero's journey at its center—but rather than mindlessly assault us, they decided to maintain a certain level of intelligence. On its surface, Battleship resembles a Bay movie with its massive explosions and dopey one-note characters, but Berg's film doesn't have the same bored tenor that Bay's always do. I'd give anything for him to take the reins of all future Transformers films—maybe then I wouldn't dread their arrival for months in advance.
The movie's plot is generic, endearingly so. Lieutenant Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) is a promising naval officer, but he's just too gosh-darn reckless. He's in love with Sam (Brooklyn Decker), who's the daughter of his commanding officer (Liam Neeson), a gruff guy who, shockingly, never tells him anything like, say, "Your ego is writing checks that your body can't cash." (It may be the only cliché that doesn't explode from the mouths of these characters.) Alex's latest bit of misconduct gets him kicked out of the Navy; he'll be gone just as soon as he and his crew complete a major training exercise they're doing in the Pacific Ocean. If only something would happen during this exercise that would allow Alex to test his mettle and prove that he's changed!
Thankfully for him and for us, that something turns out to be a fleet of alien ships that arrive on Earth after receiving a welcome beacon from us. But these aliens aren't friendly—they almost never are—and they set about destroying everything in their path as they plan to take over our planet. After several of his superior officers—including his loyal brother (Alexander Skarsgård)—are killed, it's up to Alex to lead the survivors against this interstellar menace.
Yep, that's the movie, just as you'd expect. Also as you might imagine, Battleship plays like a feature-length advertisement for the American military, although at least the filmmakers are so overt about their product placement that it doesn't feel sinister. Not unlike The Colbert Report or 30 Rock mocking the advertisers embedded in their shows, Battleship is self-aware enough to know that the audience knows that we all know how corporate these big summer blockbusters are nowadays. You feel Berg making concessions to the audience—"OK, fine, here's your silly line of bad-ass dialogue for a character to say when an alien gets killed at point-blank range"—but all the while there's also this grinning, uncynical enthusiasm pulsing through the film.
And it's actually pretty smartly plotted, and by that I mean it's really basic. The aliens want to use our satellites to radio for reinforcements, which will easily overwhelm us. That satellite will be perfectly positioned only once every 24 hours, so the humans have to stop the aliens from contacting their buddies. That's it: a nice, succinct beat-the-clock storyline that anyone can follow. Also, the aliens have no secret weakness that we learn about in the third act. Alex and his buddies figure out early on that the aliens are vulnerable to sunlight, which then becomes part of their strategy to defeat them. That keep-it-simple attitude runs throughout Battleship, including the action sequences, which are refreshingly easy to follow. For all its high-tech gadgetry, the film is actually a throwback to old ship-versus-ship submarine movies in which much of the drama came from trying to figure out how to outmaneuver an enemy you can't see. If this all seems like rather obvious stuff to compliment, anyone who sits through a lot of bad action movies will tell you that it's not. So many directors can't even manage these basic fundamentals that sitting through their films is a mind-numbing torture. Berg keeps things moving along with a blazing competence. It's shocking how novel that is.
As for Kitsch, since the Friday Night Lights series he's tried his hand at being an action star, and he's a uniquely odd choice for one. In John Carter and now in Battleship, he walks around with this slightly disheveled "Whoa, I'm in, like, a movie" air that I'm not sure is an act or just a permanent stoner state. Regardless, the dude perfectly fits the film's let's-do-this-thing spirit, and it's a testament to Battleship's generosity that he's as good as his costars, who range from respected Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano to pop star Rihanna. Literally, they're all in the same boat, and Berg makes the unlikely cast of characters somehow work. This movie even figures out how to capitalize on one of the selling points of the Battleship board game for a rather clever, low-key suspense sequence.
There is a lot of rah-rah nonsense and lame comic relief and familiar alien-invasion conventions in Battleship, but pretty early on it's obvious that Berg really, really loves the type of movie he's making. You'd think that most action directors would, but watching their films you rarely get the sense that they do. Berg digs his movie so much that even the clichés have a little sparkle to them. Most summer blockbusters are lumbering, exhausting exercises in endless payload delivery. Battleship is that rare $200 million movie with a twinkle in its eye.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.