North African despot Admiral General Aladeen is part Hussein, part Qaddafi, and part Kim (the film kicks off with a dedication to that notorious movie buff), all of them, of course, now dearly departed. Unlike, Borat, and Brüno, Aladeen is also from a fictional country, Wadiya, a nation with untapped oil reserves and a budding nuclear program. Early on in the film, Aladeen dispatches one of his top scientists (Aasif Mandvi) to the executioner after a disagreement about whether the top of a missile should be pointy or round.
It is as if Baron Cohen and Charles take aim at American foreign policy, and then decline to fire. Aladeen travels to New York to address the U.N., where his greedy brother (Ben Kingsley) manages to install a hayseed Aladeen double (also Baron Cohen) in his place. His beard shorn off by a mercenary U.S. black-ops agent (John C. Reilly), the real Aladeen is eventually taken in by vegan feminist Zoey (Anna Faris), the proprietor of a Brooklyn coop. (“Brooklyn” here mostly means rooftop gardens and Grizzly Bear, but we do glimpse the “Marcy Ave.—Little Wadiya” stop on the JMZ.) At the store, Aladeen ascends to “supreme grocer,” and realizes his love for Zoey as he delivers a shopper’s baby in the aisles—a scene that recalls both Freddy Got Fingered (an elastic umbilical) and Enter the Void (a couple shots from inside the vaginal canal). Soon thereafter Baron Cohen slams his own bare crotch into the window of a Midtown hotel in a bid to wrest back his high office.
There is a late-game speech that equates latter-day American democracy to a thoroughly repressive regime, but the sheer extremity of the radical feminist—torturer despot culture clash has long since rendered this film politically toothless. You suspect that by making Aladeen and Zoey fall in love, Baron Cohen and Charles are trying to back up their protagonist’s assertions that perhaps America is not so different from the dictatorships she makes such a show of opposing, but the movie delights too much in going off-topic for the against-all-odds romance to function as anything but a plot contrivance. All The Dictator’s most pointed jokes are about an ongoing exchange between Hollywood celebrities and tyrannical world leaders (jewels buy Aladeen a night with Megan Fox; a Chinese power player claims Tommy Lee Jones let him "roll it" in his fingers). Meanwhile, Aladeen grows more Dr. Evil—like with every passing minute, a snowballing stereotype headed nowhere in particular.
The most formidable spacecraft—an evil monolithic gizmo surrounded by some sort of force field—sets down not far from where model seaman Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgård), his handsome fuck-up brother (John Carter of Mars), and a stern Japanese captain (Tadanobu Asano) are participating in naval exercises overseen by a barely-there Liam Neeson. The object is flanked in the water by two platform-beacons that shoot bluish beams into the sky—surely this will remind any sentient resident of the state of New York, if not any citizen of the USA entire, of the annual Tribute in Light at Ground Zero. The ETs “want to phone home,” as Hamish Linklater’s Goldblum-lite scientist observes, but mostly they want to subliminally mock both our tragedies and our means of memorializing them. What better occasion for the American Navy, buoyed by Petty Officer Rihanna’s dead aim, to flex its muscle?
Berg, the director of special-agent thriller The Kingdom, and screenwriters Erich and Jon Hoeber have adapted most Americans’ earliest experience with the concept of naval warfare (properties don’t preexist in a vacuum…) into something not unlike one of those National Guard ads that used to stomp on sitcom featurettes during the so-called preshow entertainment. To a certain degree, this works, however queasily. The 131-minute Battleship moves along briskly, building out its loud-and-clear starboard-leaning message with the requisite digital razzle-dazzle, tacked-on “creative” choices (the aliens have saber-tooth beards), and mid-twentieth-century notions of American might and benevolence (while pardoning some key mid-twentieth-century enemies).
A ways into the movie, the decommissioned USS Missouri—now a floating museum—joins the fight, after old-timer war heroes apply a bit of elbow grease. So resourceful and well-equipped are the American armed forces that heavy artillery may be recovered even from the realm of tourist kitsch. One leaves Battleship wondering how these high-seas warriors might have weaponized something so seemingly benign as a movie-theater concession, or a projection booth.