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Battleship (2012)

Originally published on in April 2012.

Like most pseudo-suburban American kids, I spent large parts of my summers in those formative years parked at a camp. The routine in my neck of the woods was pretty basic: show up, have an assembly, play, eat, swim, play, go home. And during all that playtime, you could bet that two kids somewhere were going to be halfheartedly engrossed in a game of “Battleship.” There were never any aliens or explosions involved but something about the game drew a steady stream of non-paying customers. Was it just the exquisite pleasure of sticking white pegs into round holes? The adventure of trying to figure out what you could use as a substitute for the missing Cruiser? Or the comfort of beating that one kid who always crammed all his ships into the same corner? Perhaps the thing that drew me and my fellow campers to that game every week was the fundamental realization that there were a finite number of things to do at a suburban summer camp, and since you were stuck there till 5:00 regardless, you might as well play along.

That pretty much sums up why I paid to see Battleship, the movie, in theaters in Korea. There are a finite number of English-language movies you can watch, and the Koreans don’t put English titles on their own theatrical releases. With non-existent emotional attachments to the childhood game and expectations way below sea level, I left myself open to be entertained. And so I was — for about 40 minutes. The opening of the movie genuinely surprised me. It took awhile to get to the ship (even longer to get to the battleship) and in that time, we get to meet Taylor Kitsch. I don’t watch football or TV shows about football, or movies that look like aliens playing football on Mars, so I hadn’t seen Mr. Kitsch since that dreadful Wolverine movie where he had a dreadful French accent. I figured he was basing his film choices on a desire to live up to his last name, and the jury’s still out. But the fact is that he’s given a funny, charming introductory scene after some obligatory exposition about contacting alien life on “Planet G.” (Yes, really — I guess “Planet X” was taken. But don’t worry; the filmmakers are embarrassed enough about that name to avoid letting anyone say it aloud for the rest of the movie.) If you ignore how hard Alexander Skarsgård is working, it’s quite possible to get a kick out of everything that happens up until the aliens land.

Once they do, however, it’s business as usual. Aliens make a mess, destroy some landmarks, some “international” survivors (meaning exactly one key actor from another country and a couple of black people help the white people) come together to save the day, uplifting trumps realistic and Bob’s your uncle. The only difference here is that the entire thing plays like an extended U.S. Navy recruitment ad. Obviously they couldn’t have made this movie without extensive cooperation from the U.S. Navy but I can’t help assuming that the assistance came with a caveat for every actor to say something heroic about the Navy at least three times before the credits rolled. Skarsgård in particular had trouble meeting this prerequisite in his allotted screen time, and his performance is the least believable. Kitsch, on the other hand, has plenty of time to dive right into his namesake and embraces both his role and the spine-goateed aliens with equal gusto. Liam Neeson growls, Brooklyn Decker shows off her gams and Rihanna pretends to be a badass. Each actor fits neatly into his designated round hole, and it’s up to you to determine whether they hit or miss. That’s just how the game is played.

For my part, I found the entire movie to be just as useful and entertaining as a game of Battleship, and equally as vital to my life. It says a lot that in a movie packed with expensive explosions and sinking warships that the part I liked best involved a wild-haired professor screaming, “They killed my grad student!” Aside from that, it really was just like being back at summer camp. When the last ship sank, it was on to the next activity.

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