You'd have to go back to 1998's Armageddon to find another film that so adeptly combines whopping apocalyptic action and corny save-the-planet heroics. Even if this feels like low-rent Michael Bay, it's a definitive popcorn blockbuster: a dumb movie that keeps us blissfully entertained.
Alex (Kitsch) is a smart guy who has wasted his life so, after getting in trouble while impressing a hot girl (Decker), his Naval-officer brother (Skarsgard) drafts him into service. Later on a Pacific Rim war-game exercise, Alex ends up in charge of the only ship nearby after aliens invade earth and put a force-field around Hawaii. Working with his plucky crew (including Rihanna, Asano, Tui and Plemons), Alex must figure out how to out-wit these Transformer-like killers. By the way, the hot girl turns out to be the daughter of the admiral (Neeson).
There's no actual wit on display; even references to the board-game source material are rather blunt. But the script is a cleverly assembled riot of cheesy comedy, macho action and contrivedemotion, and you could sail an aircraft carrier through the gaping holes in the premise. For example, if these aliens are so technologically awesome, why hadn't they discovered Earth before we sent them a friendly "hello"? But if you stop to contemplate these anomalies, you might miss something terribly cool on-screen.
As the action set pieces escalate noisily, the above-average effects work and propulsive narrative keep us smiling. Watching a massive battleship skid sideways to a stop is pretty ridiculous, but we can't help but cheer. And as handy discoveries about the aliens help push the plot conveniently forward, the way they look inside their armour weirdly shifts the film into heavy-metal mode.
Physically, the cast is put through their paces. Kitsch has the muscly-scruffy charm we saw in John Carter (but a better haircut), while Rihanna proves that she can play with the big boys. Neeson doesn't have much to do beyond scowling from outside the force-field and adding a gruff presence to the romantic subplot as the vacuous Decker's dad. And director Berg keeps things charging full-speed, pounding us into submission with whizzy visuals, ear-pounding action and undemanding comedy. In troubled times, this could be just what we need.