- - Thursday, May 17, 2012

The only reasonable way to explain “Battleship” is that it is actually a deft and subtle satire of the big-budget Hollywood action blockbuster, an exaggerated reflection of the form’s worst tendencies and a sly test of its theoretical limits. How else to justify its lazy conceptual gimmickry, cynical deployment of meaningless cliches, spastic narrative, visual incoherence and indifferent boredom with itself?

I say that this is the only reasonable interpretation of the movie because the alternative — that director Peter Berg is not kidding, that this cannon blast of formulaic ineptitude is in fact meant to be enjoyed straightforwardly as entertainment — is simply too depressing to ponder.

Taken as satire, however, “Battleship” is a work of subversive sophistication that exposes the emptiness of the modern summer action film.

There’s the kitschy clunkiness of the dialogue, a brain-melting blend of substance-free sloganeering and impenetrable expository technobabble, and the hyperactive editing and camera work that might have future medical use as a migraine simulator. There’s also the story, which appears to have been duct-taped together from the unused leftovers of a slew of older blockbusters, and the drooling fetishization of military hardware, which makes “Transformers” and “Armaggedon” director Michael Bay’s oeuvre look positively anti-war.

And there’s the movie’s subtle, self-referencing symbolism. For example, after a few minutes of expository gibberish informing us that scientists have attempted contact with aliens on another world, “Battleship” shifts to an extended bit of not-so-funny business involving star Taylor Kitsch’s heroic attempt to get former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker a microwavable chicken burrito. The segment is essentially meaningless to the overall story, but the burrito quest does serve as a sort of symbol for the movie’s ambitions: Like Mr. Kitsch, “Battleship” goes to great effort to provide its audience with the cinematic equivalent of nutritionless, reheated junk food.

Later, after Mr. Kitsch’s young hero joins the Navy, he is informed by Liam Neeson, who plays both Miss Decker’s father and a top Navy officer, that he is wasting his potential. “You’ve got skills,” Mr. Neeson intones with gravelly seriousness, “but I have never, ever seen a man waste them like you.” Mr. Kitsch dutifully hangs his head. “I’m sorry I’ve let you down,” he says.

A life lesson that sets up the protagonist’s character development arc? Yes, but it’s also a metaphor for the movie — “Battleship” is apologizing for itself.

The best way to accept this apology might be to avoid the movie altogether. Otherwise, you might be tempted to conclude that this tidal wave of big-screen stupidity is not a satire at all, but a movie that’s exactly as dumb and grotesque as it appears to be. It won’t sink your battleship, but it might sink your hope in the world.

TITLE: “Battleship”

CREDITS: Directed by Peter Berg, screenplay by Erich Hoeber and Jon Hoeber

RATING: PG-13 for violent alien invasion nonsense

RUNNING TIME: 131 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS