BattleshipFrom the toymakers that brought you Transformers comes Battleship, the newest blockbuster to be based on a game that has somehow survived despite the fact that it can be played with just paper and a pencil.

Battleship stars Taylor Kitsch as Lt Hopper, a reckless burnout who follows in his older brother’s footsteps and transforms himself into a reckless naval officer. His super-hot girlfriend (Mrs Andy Roddick, Brooklyn Decker) also happens to be daughter of an admiral (Liam Neeson), which certainly complicates matters when it comes to asking for permission to marry her. There’s a decent amount of groundwork laid in the first act, but needless to say, the character relationships take a back-seat once the action kicks off.

Now, if this film was made in the 80s, the villains of the piece would naturally have been the Soviets, or perhaps militant hippies. But this being 2012, the studios can’t afford to annoy any particular country (especially one with as many potential cinema-goers as China or Russia) so naturally, our heroes are fighting to save the planet from extra-terrestrials. This feels a bit like a cop-out from the Michael Bay school of actioneering: in Transformers, the Decepticons are evil robots from space, Armageddon dealt with a killer rock from space, while in his upcoming Ninja Turtles reboot, the heroes in a half-shell will also be from outer space (no joke), but it does give director Peter Berg the chance to bury the historical hatchet by having the US military team up with the Japanese Navy (led by arthouse hero Tadanobu Asano) in order to fend off the alien invaders. All this, by the way, also takes place in PEARL HABOR — just in case you didn’t get the significance.

Peter Berg (The Kingdom, Friday Night Lights) has earned a reputation as a solid, workmanlike director and Battleship proves that he can be trusted with constructing a by-the-numbers modern blockbuster. The pretense for the action mostly makes sense and the aliens are interesting and don’t feel like the product of effects designers who have thrown everything at the wall to see what sticks. For a movie of this budget and pedigree, Battleship doesn’t suffer from the excesses of movies by Michael Bay or McG. In one central sequence however, Lt Hopper has to bomb his hidden enemy by calling grid co-ordinates. While this unconventional action sequence is reasonably tense and gives the second act a nice change of pace, it is obvious that this was studio-mandated decision to shoe-horn the board game into the film. The amount of screenwriting ju-jitsu required to fit this into the story is both logistically impressive and artistically bankrupt. Did they think that there was ever a chance that die-hard Battleship enthusiasts would cry foul for the lack of people shouting co-ordinates in this movie?

This movie marks Taylor Kitsch’s second starring role in the past month. The first, John Carter has been hailed as one of the biggest box office flops of all-time, losing Disney somewhere in the region of 200 million dollars. One can only imagine that he has a lot riding on this movie’s performance: if Battleship doesn’t reach number 1 in its first weekend, don’t be surprised to see a strikingly handsome man pick up a Starbucks job application on Monday morning.

There has been a lot of griping in this review, but there is much to be thankful for in Battleship. Kitsch (very good in TV’s Friday Night Lights) is a perfectly fine lead who can sell the sincere one-liners.  In her first acting role, recording superstar Rihanna appears third billed as a naval weapons chief. Admittedly, beyond barking orders and watching things explode, nothing much is asked of her but she is entirely decent in the part.

With all the military hardware on show, it becomes quickly obvious that the US Navy played key part in getting Battleship made. After all, movies like this and Top Gun have traditionally been very effective recruitment drivers and something like this could never get made without the support of Uncle Sam. While not overtly patriotic, Battleship makes a great effort to pay tribute to war veterans, casting Gregory Gadson –a double amputee war hero– in a key role. This reverence can either come across as very moving or unbearably saccharine. If you can suppress your cynical aversion to American sincerity and overlook the high-octane militarism, you’ll find a solid blockbuster that ticks all the boxes and makes very few mistakes.

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