It’s funny — somehow, in all the time we’ve been getting our classic-games fix playing Battleship, we missed the part where you’ll call out, say, B-5, and suddenly find a giant, techno-morphing alien spacecraft on the grid. But hey, if you’re Hasbro and Universal, and you’ve agreed to make a movie based on nothing more than brand recognition of a game, you’ve got to fill two hours with something.
So why not go the “Transformers” route? After all, Hasbro’s corporate dreams of duplicating its success with that unabashedly toyetic franchise are precisely what led to “Battleship” — along with a widely mocked Universal slate, reportedly now scrapped, that was to have included “Monopoly,” “Ouija,” and “Candy Land.” (Didn’t Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg cover that last one already?)
Directed by Peter Berg, “Battleship” stars Taylor Kitsch (“John Carter,” poor guy) as Hopper, a hunky ne’er-do-well hanging loose in Hawaii with his naval officer older brother (Alexander Skarsgard, “True Blood”). A brisk, promising opener alternates Hopper’s comically bungled flirtation with Sam (swimsuit model-turned-tank-top actress Brooklyn Decker) and tech-y glimpses at an initiative to establish deep space contact with a newly discovered planet. “If they come here, it’s gonna be like Columbus and the Indians,” grumbles one science wonk. “Only we’re the Indians.”
Sure enough, Hopper lands in trouble — Sam, while charmed, is the daughter of an admiral (an uninvested Liam Neeson) — and gets an ultimatum from his brother to sign up for duty. The aliens promptly show, in an armada that lands off Oahu just in time to mix it up with the USS John Paul Jones and other real fleet vessels.
Cut to some mildly interesting shot-across-the-bow stuff mashing up sci-fi first contact iconography and old Navy movies. It’s soon established that the new arrivals are bent on seizing communications and telling more invaders to come on down. (Their own communications rig broke away in the atmosphere and catastrophically smashed downtown Hong Kong.) Then the fireworks start.
If only there were more genuine rah-rah fun involved, instead of just endless, thudding, seen-it-all-before mayhem. The filmmakers avoid the occasional visual incoherence of “Transformers,” but deliver only a couple of bits of kid-pleasing spectacle and nominal stabs at referencing the board game. On the acting side, such as it is, you watch pop star Rihanna, glowering nonstop in her feature debut as one of Hopper’s crewmates, and you wonder: Is she having a good time?
Despite this project’s seemingly cynical genesis, Berg’s unlikely involvement raised expectations. The onetime “Chicago Hope” doc has done some assured work since shifting his focus to directing, including the feature version of “Friday Night Lights” and the kinetic, feds-in-Saudi Arabia procedural, “The Kingdom.” But here the storytelling is relentlessly generic, save for some clever light touches with Kitsch at the start, and some screwy opportunities for real-life US military vets to get in the action at the finish.
One of these final flourishes is spoiler material, but the other involves Decker’s intercut mission back on land: helping a disabled, embittered soldier (double amputee Gregory D. Gadson) to take heart, and take on “Halo”-suited alien ground forces. Gadson’s acting is hardly polished but he leaves an impression, which is more than the movie generally manages.