Battleship is a special-effects-heavy movie invented to extend the brand of a commercial board game — suitable for ages 7 and up! — in which two players move imaginary boats around a simple grid. That part’s not newsworthy. The surprise, for this veteran of board games, is that Battleship is also the rousing, engaging, and emotionally complex action war picture the silly 2001 action war picture Pearl Harbor only wished it could be. It’s Pearl Harbor with greater intelligence, less hokum, and more aliens. For every line of howler dialogue that should have been sunk, there’s a nice little scene in which humans have to make a difficult decision. For every stretch of generic sci-fi-via-CGI moviemaking, there’s a welcome bit of wit. Under the direction of Peter Berg — the talented, ever-maturing filmmaker behind Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom — Battleship is a sound vessel floating in Hollywood’s oil-slick sea of Transformers sequels and vampire riffs.
The object of the original game is simple: Attack an opponent’s ”fleet” through a combination of mental strategy, deductive logic, and luck. The movie doesn’t forget these low-tech roots. There’s a nifty sequence in which sailors track incoming alien fighters using similar X-marks-the-spot skills. But before getting to the hardcore blow-’em-up portion of the humans-versus-aliens warfare entertainment, we are given time to invest in the relationship between Stone Hopper (True Blood‘s Alexander Skarsgård) and his younger brother, Alex (Taylor Kitsch from TV’s Friday Night Lights) — the former a courageous Navy officer of great character, the latter a corner-cutting showboater who is about to have his character entirely re-welded through the Navy challenges that await him. (Kitsch does an admirable, controlled job of steering his character from screwup to leader.) We understand that Alex loves a bombshell physical therapist named Sam (Brooklyn Decker), and that Sam happens to be the daughter of crusty U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson, barking but not biting). We see the emotional-zeitgeist logic in the special interest that Sam has taken in the physical rehabilitation of an Army veteran and amputee, authentically played by real-life Army vet and amputee Gregory D. Gadson. We appreciate the pop culture traffic jam that has musical glam girl Rihanna passing muster as a tough (yet cool!) fellow sailor. And we know to keep an eye on the conflict that rumbles at first between Alex and a Japanese officer (Tadanobu Asano) because Japanese-American hurts and fears left over from the real Pearl Harbor will be worked out before the movie is over for the benefit of boomers and assorted granddads in the audience.
It’s only once we know all these things — carbon-based touches not found in the Hasbro product — that Battleship gets down to the business of hotshot combat between brave U.S. Navy fighters and aggressive alien visitors. (The invaders, by the way, appear to have studied Transformers fashion magazines to design their space-metal wardrobes.) Amid this fracas, there’s a welcome mood lightener in the form of a gentle comic-neurotic turn by Hamish Linklater (The New Adventures of Old Christine) as a deep-space scientist who has reason to regret his search for extraterrestrial life. Battleship is gratifying that way. At the story’s center are all the clanging fireballs a kid could want to watch whizzing across a computerized sky — not to mention naval strategy and a fact-based demonstration of real destroyer-ship capabilities. And surrounding the alien rumpus, the filmmakers have built an unexpectedly sincere salute to the awesome responsibilities of today’s U.S. Navy as well as to the heroic work of veterans who came before. For all that, the captains of this movie deserve a medal. B+