The Cabin in the Woods (15) / Battleship (12A) (3/5, 2/5)

Starring: Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Chris Hemsworth / Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Rihanna, Taylor Kitsch, Liam Neeson

Would you like your head thoroughly messed with? Then check straight into The Cabin in the Woods, the sort of horror movie that knows all the rules, knows that you know, and knows that you know it knows. But you still don't know what's coming next, for while this fiendish meta-horror makes a joke of its own mechanics – so much "how", so little "why" – it also brings both victims and torturers into an unexpected alignment, one in which chaos is guaranteed and there's literally nowhere to run.

It begins, as it must, conventionally: you have to put down the base before fooling with the ingredients. Five college kids pack up a camper van and head for a backwoods cabin one of them knows. They are as archetypal as characters from Restoration Comedy: a jock, a blonde nymphet, a good girl, a sensitive guy, and a stoner (Fran Kranz, in a film-stealing performance). En route, they stop at a gas station where the obligatory inbred clerk spits brown phlegm and makes ominous remarks about their chances of returning from the trip. But wait, what's this? In a Big Brother-type control centre, two seen-it-all, short-sleeve operatives (Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford) are joking about their latest intake – the unsuspecting kids, we gather – and idly bragging that they "haven't had a glitch since '98".

When the college quintet arrive at the cabin, we see what's happening: every room has been wired Big Brother-style, and banks of screens are being monitored by a roomful of techies. Think Nasa recast as postmodern puppet-masters, only much worse: Jenkins, Whitford and co engage in tequila-fuelled betting frenzies over how their five subjects are going to die. Why? How can people behave this way? That's a question co-scriptwriters Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (who also directs) save for later. Their immediate goals are to show the inner workings, crank up the tension and scare the bejesus out of us. Horror aficionados will have a field day; the rest of us will be jolted by memories of The Evil Dead and, more recently, My Little Eye and David Fincher's most (only?) underrated film The Game, with its echoes of sinister prankishness.

So maybe it's not that frightening, given how often we've been through this game. And Fran Kranz's wisecracking commentary on their collective plight keeps the mood playful, even as the blood starts to spurt. "I'm a reality TV star," he cries in dismay. "My parents are going to think I'm such a dropout." I also loved the detail of his double-checking his parents' Volvo is locked while not noticing that the driver's window is still down. Whedon and Goddard are pretty good at making us chortle, less so at maintaining a narrative grip. In the last reel the film runs away with itself, throwing almost anything at the screen and not much caring if it sticks. Two cheers for it, and a strangled belly-laugh.

"Let's remember Pearl Harbor/ As we go to meet the foe..." Peter Berg does in Battleship – but unfortunately, he's recalling Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor rather than the historical event, which means frame-filling explosions and macho heroics as Hawaii comes under relentless attack. This time, the Japanese are fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Americans, for the entire planet is threatened by an inscrutably hostile force. No, not the North Koreans, but an extraterrestrial army that arrives in what appears to be a seaborne Aztec monument. They announce their unfriendly intent with fireballs that whizz about like an escaped balloon at a party.

According to the scientists, we are facing "an extinction-level event". I guess that means we should cancel the milk. The Pentagon is in a funk. Admiral Liam Neeson of the US Navy should be the man who sorts out these alien hordes, but instead the job goes to Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), who only a few months before was being Tasered by police for stealing a chicken burrito. Then he missed a last-minute penalty – skied it! – in the US vs Japan navy football match. Yet somehow this waster has ended up in the hot seat of a battleship, and he's bagged Neeson's hot daughter (Brooklyn Decker) for his girlfriend. With that sort of luck, maybe he is the right man to repel boarders...

Battleship is based on, er, Battleships, which has gone from the humble game you played on graph paper to a beefed-up Action Epic likely to blow the box-office out of the water. The producers are the same toy-making team behind Transformers and GI Joe, though the film also tips its hat to Independence Day both in the triumphalist mood and the funky casting: where Will Smith was the pop star turned alien-basher, now it's Rihanna. There's also a curly-mopped scientist (Hamish Linklater) to replay the Jeff Goldblum role. Interestingly, though, there's no Bill Pullman-figure as the American President. Obama is seen at the podium on TV, but he's very much a background presence. The film-makers have probably twigged that the public is less enamoured of politicians than they were in 1995.

They have definitely identified whom the public likes – that would be the Navy greybeards manning the last battleship afloat. The sight of these old salts (they looked like they hadn't seen action since Eisenhower) caused merriment in the London cinema where I watched it; in the US, one imagines their appearance might be greeted more reverently. That they were brought on for a last hurrah is one more remarkable thing in a film that consistently defies belief, logic, common sense. Battleships! Where to next – Noughts and Crosses?

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