The great 18th-century lexicographer and sage Samuel Johnson once observed that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."
He was referring, of course, not to genuine love of country, but to the kind of frantic, chauvinistic flag-waving meant to divert attention from faults, scandals and hidden agendas.
Such jingoism can also serve to mask artistic weakness or even exhaustion, and to paper over innumerable improbabilities. Once the cavalry shows up on the horizon, after all, who really cares what's come before?
Though it summons the Navy—rather than men on horseback—to rescue the world from nothing less than a seemingly invincible alien invasion, the action adventure "Battleship" (Universal) amounts to little more than feel-good nonsense. Even as it pulls out every patriotic stop within reach, however, director Peter Berg's project does manage to offer a largely harmless, if quickly forgotten, diversion for mature viewers.
Also functioning as a (somewhat belated) coming-of-age tale, "Battleship" opens with the rowdy misadventures of directionless twentysomething Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch). Alex's adolescent-style high jinks draw the understandable ire of his steadier older brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgard), a straight-arrow naval officer.
Stone eventually browbeats his baby bro into joining him in the service. But even there, Alex's misbehavior continues, endangering both his nascent career and his romance with his gal Sam (Brooklyn Decker).
Sam's a physical therapist for wounded vets—most prominent among them, Lt. Col. Mick Canales played by real-life Purple Heart winner and screen newcomer Gregory D. Gadson, who lost both his legs in the conflict in Iraq. Not surprisingly, Sam's father, Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), takes a dim view of her relationship with our hero.
Cue the extraterrestrials whose arrival on earth could not be better timed to force Alex to grow up fast and prove his mettle. This being the 21st century and all, he does so shoulder to shoulder with Petty Officer 2nd Class Cora Raikes (music star Rihanna), who seems to have been thrown into the mix to represent the tough-as-nails distaff side of the duty roster. Sam, too, provides some shore-side assistance in the fight.
Thus we have the luxury of interspersing our lusty cries of "Hooray for America!" with the odd "You go, girl!"
As Hollywood continues to ransack the baby boomer generation's attic of collective memory, all this is supposed to have something to do with the titular Hasbro game, first marketed by the Milton Bradley Co. in board-game format in 1967. (Paper-and-pencil predecessors can, it seems, be traced back as far as the 1930s.)
One lengthy scene does recognizably reference the characteristic "Battleship" grid, together with the location-guessing that drives the game. But otherwise, this is really a special effects-heavy salute to the power—past and present—of seaborne artillery, unmoored from the ingenious simplicity that made the eponymous pastime a popular staple.
But, then again, who can oppose opening up the guns on malevolent space travelers who sport porcupine-stiff goatees and only four—or was it three—digits on each hand? Certainly not those grownups who go to a summer movie in search of air-conditioning, popcorn and mindless fun.
The film contains much action violence and some painful slapstick, at least one use of profanity and about a dozen crude as well as a handful of crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
John Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.
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