As premises go, it would be easy to look on this as final proof that Hollywood is creatively bankrupt: a movie based upon a children’s board game. Yet behind the camera is Peter Berg, a man with extensive experience as writer, actor and director, and here the cast is strong, led by Taylor Kitsch, most recently seen as John Carter, Alexander Skarsgård, True Blood’s Eric Northman, Liam Neeson, the Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn himself, and… Rihanna? Hope has not yet abandoned ship.
Indeed, all listed have done their best, and the film is technically excellent, with the scope of the ocean upon which the US Naval fleet confronts a hostile alien force well conveyed by Berg, and the whole ensemble are convincing in their handling of nautical equipment and weapons.
Water is a particularly difficult medium to digitally create, yet from the impact shockwave passing through the Hong Kong harbour to the cascade rippling down the walls of the monolithic mothership moored off Hawaii, there is never any telltale artefact to shatter the illusion.
So the blame must fall on screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber for creating the offensively idiotic and clichéd mess that has arrived on screen. Kitsch’s character, Alex Hopper, is introduced as directionless, arrogant and headstrong; fast forward six years later, and the Lieutenant Hopper who departs for wargames aboard the USS John Paul Jones has not changed, but why should he, when his shipmates are either scrapping with him or goading him on. Fortunately military discipline has not been entirely left at shore, and in the wake of his latest altercation only the arrival of the alien ships delays his dishonourable discharge.
The unnamed aliens themselves are ridiculous: they are able to cross vast interstellar distances, yet are unable to steer, crashing into a satellite upon arrival; they have come to Earth tracking a transmission into space, yet their unexplained goal is to send another transmission back where they came from; their technology is obviously superior, yet they are fascinated with our mechanics, ignoring humans to focus on engine components; they are touch telepaths, yet other than one accidental encounter, there is no attempt by either side at communication; the tinted windows on their spaceships are able to withstand the heat of atmospheric entry, yet are not bulletproof.
The most egregious scene is the recreation of the board game itself. In darkness and without radar, the crew of the John Paul Jones attempt to locate the enemy vessels by their water displacement, firing missiles into the dark, ignoring the platform radiating a luminous force field high into the night sky that would present an easier target. Apparently, despite their technology, the aliens are also without any forms of sensor: “The only reason we’re alive is they don’t know where we are,” which is nonsense, as only ships which directly attacked were targeted; the John Paul Jones was spared when it turned to assist survivors in broad daylight. When the film itself cannot be bothered to pay attention to earlier scenes, why should an audience be expected to care?
Unspooling over its cumbersome two hours and ten minutes, every development is telegraphed in advance; the only deviations from expectation are how early one of the lead characters, whom many of the audience will have come to see, goes to their watery grave, and that Alex, rather than assuming immediate command as ranking insubordinate officer on board as he inevitably will, spends the next scenes sulking in his quarters before remembering that he is a trained officer and the lead in a major action film.
There are moments reminiscent of other, better works: Neeson’s Admiral Shane berates Alex less effectively than Captain Pike’s barroom confidential with Jim Kirk in the most recent Star Trek, though this scene does at least contain an accurate self assessment of this film’s shameful persistent attempts at humour – “You both think this is a joke; you are very much mistaken” – and the archaic bulkheads and analogue equipment of the museum ship USS Missouri, commandeered into the fight when all other ships are lost, cannot help but recall the proud Battlestar Galactica whose own starboard hangar pod housed a museum.
The film is admirable in its dedication to those who have served with honour, with active and former servicemen and women as featured players and extras, but any good intention is undermined by its assertion that the asinine early behaviour of Alex Hopper would ever have allowed him to rise to become a naval officer. Furthermore, while the services may be lauded, the blanket portrayal of scientists as socially inept buffoons is stereotyping worthy of Michael Bay’s monstrosity Armageddon, and detracts from any minor goodwill that may have kept this ship afloat.
The greatest shame is for Berg, whose extensive directing credits include Virtuality, the overlooked pilot episode written by Ronald D Moore and Michael Taylor for a show that never was, has proven he can balance a diverse ensemble of characters in an original science fiction setting, but while that treasure sank without trace, this graceless tanker is set to barge onto screens worldwide.