Before superheroes became the last surefire box-office draw, audiences were inundated with adaptations of relics from their childhood. The mighty performance of Transformers in 2007 opened the gates to virtually anything made of plastic getting the big-screen treatment. And in 2012, another Hasbro toy made its way to the screen, with the studio sparing no expense to score a direct hit.
Spoilers: It sunk instead. But close to ten years later, this failed board-game adaptation is still worth watching. Battleship is the movie you need to stream on HBO Max before it leaves on October 31. Here’s why, and what you need to know about this entertaining disaster.
Despite its stylistic similarities and even shared production DNA, Battleship has no connection to Michael Bay, not even a producer credit. At the helm is Peter Berg, whose main flavors as a filmmaker and producer have been either 1) sports dramas like Friday Night Lights and Ballers, or 1) patriotic nonsense starring Mark Wahlberg.
Battleship falls somewhere between the two. An adaptation of the classic board game (“You’ve sunk my battleship!”), Battleship is jingoist military propaganda that ignores all the ugly things about conflict through the use of a common, culturally non-offensive enemy: space aliens!
A sports competition movie disguised as an Independence Day-style action flick, Battleship is precisely the dumb, loud fun you can watch after you’ve surrendered any sense of self-respect and returned from a drunken midnight run to Taco Bell. Battleship isn’t good in many ways, but it is the perfect complement to a late-night Crunchwrap Supreme.
In Battleship, a powerful galactic species launches an attack on the Hawaiian islands, enclosing it within impenetrable force fields. Among the many American and Japanese sailors trapped inside is Lieutenant Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), a former burnout-turned-model soldier who, in the movie’s lengthy and useless prologue, wins the heart of Sam (Brooklyn Decker). A physical therapist, Sam is also the daughter of Admiral Terrance Shane (Liam Neeson). Despite his progress in the military and with the Shanes, a rivalry with Captain Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) threatens to derail Hopper’s life.
That’s all before the aliens arrive. When they finally land, Hopper finds himself in command of a dwindling number of sailors, who must figure out how to defeat a seemingly invincible enemy. Luckily, these soldiers still know how to shoot things.
I’ll be upfront: Battleship is not a good movie. It’s not even “so bad it’s good.” It’s a steaming piece of crap, a wildly overproduced film with an undercooked script. Again, Bay had nothing to do with Battleship, but it apes his style so much — and so poorly — that the movie is practically his fault, in a trendsetting sense.
Unmotivated camera movements and dull composition prove, just because you want to be Michael Bay, that doesn’t mean you can be Bay. It’s also weird that Berg was at the helm of this wreck, given that he’s a commercial filmmaker in his own right and not some random hand tasked with burning $200 million to the ground.
Battleship doesn’t even get its own premise right. With a script by John and Erich Hoeber, Battleship could have been an old-school, Tom Clancy-style thriller, two armadas locked in an oceanic grudge match between two spiteful commanders. Instead, Battleship drops in space aliens.
Though this provides an excuse for things to go boom in epic fashion, it also robs the movie of any genuine gravity. The enemy is anonymous, their advanced ships don’t behave like ships in a real game of Battleship would, and suspending one’s disbelief that human military warships could stand against cartoonish alien weaponry is a plot point extended so long it becomes laughable.
What makes Battleship the board game fun to play is that, at the very least, your arsenal is equal to your enemy’s arsenal. You won’t always “be” better at Battleship because it’s a game of luck as much as it is strategy. (Knowing not to cluster your ships too close together helps.) Battleship the movie forgets this but still goes overboard to adapt elements of the game, primarily the convoluted way the characters figure out how to “grid” the map.
For a movie that has almost nothing going on upstairs, there sure is a lot of overthinking going on in its script. Battleship also suffers from an overstuffed cast of so-so actors, some unintentional. (Blink and you’ll miss Oscar winner Rami Malek.)
Alongside another great box-office bomb, space epic John Carter, Battleship was one of the few early 2010s vehicles that got Taylor Kitsch nowhere. While I don’t think Kitsch is a terrible actor — his remarkable performance in the 2018 miniseries Waco has been criminally forgotten — he is unable to do much with what little Battleship gives him. In this film, he is the picture definition of “Channing Tatum was busy.”
Despite the presence of other notable actors, like Neeson, Alexander Skarsgård, Hamish Linklater, and a pre-Breaking Bad Jesse Plemons, Battleship is unable to stay afloat; that’s the fault of the incoherence of everything else on screen, not the performers. Even pop star Rihanna is functional in her role as Gunner’s Mate Second Class Cora Raikes, but the fact she’s Rihanna is so distracting that you’re unable to connect her to the world of Battleship. (Not that there’s much of a world worth exploring, anyway.) For the extra-nerdy, New Zealand actor John Tui — a veteran of several seasons of Power Rangers — also has a surprisingly meaty role.
Of special note is the casting of retired colonel Gregory Gadson, a U.S. Army veteran and double amputee who became an actor through his debut role in Battleship. Berg cast him after seeing his picture in a National Geographic article. While most of the other actors show up to, well, act, Gadson maintains a palpable raw magnetism that makes him easily one of the most interesting elements in the movie.
As in any sports drama, Battleship is all about how hearty underdogs lose, regroup, and then triumph against an unstoppable force. (It’s just too bad the underdogs here is the American military, a $778 billion defense force.)
This makes Battleship the quintessential American film: It’s big, it’s loud, and it looks like it spent its unbelievable budget on things it didn’t need to spend any money on. Battleship asks the viewer to feel things — and not think twice once the credits roll.
Battleship is streaming now on HBO Max until October 31.